A Plug for Plug-Ins

According to R. James Woolsey, former director of the CIA and now a champion of energy independence, advanced battery technologies, plug-ins and hybrid cars represent the future of energy and transportation in the United States. If he’s right, the impact on our transportation and energy economies will be profound.

In an op-ed (subscribers only) in the Wall Street Journal today, here’s what he says:

The change is being driven by innovations in the batteries that now power modern electronics. If hybrid gasoline-electric cars are provided with advanced batteries having improved energy and power density — variants of the ones in our computers and cell phones — dozens of vehicle prototypes are now demonstrating that these “plug-in hybrids” can more than double hybrids’ overall (gasoline) mileage. With a plug-in, charging your car overnight from an ordinary 110-volt socket in your garage lets you drive 20 miles or more on the electricity stored in the topped-up battery before the car lapses into its normal hybrid mode. …

During those 20 all-electric miles you will be driving at a cost of between a penny and three cents a mile instead of the current 10-cent-a-mile cost of gasoline.

Not only would the economics of personal mobility be transformed, so would the electric power industry. Writes Woolsey:

Utilities are rapidly becoming quite interested inplug-ins because of the substantial benefit to them of being able to sell off-peak power at night. … Adopting plug-ins will not create a need for new base load electricity generation plants until plug-ins constitute over 84% of the country’s 220 million passenger vehicles. Further, those plug-ins that are left connected to an electrical socket after being fully charged (most U.S. cars are parked over 20 hours a day) can substitute for expensive natural gas by providing electricity from their batteries back to the grid: “spinning” reserves to help deal with power outages and regulation of the grid’s voltage and amperage.

Powering cars with electricity instead of gas has a number of advantages. It creates local economic activity for American utilities and fuel suppliers (whether coal, nuclear or green energy) in place of oil imported from overseas. Additionally, Woolsey notes, “there would be a national average reduction in carbon emissions by about 60% per vehicle when a plug-in hybrid with a 20-mile all-electric range replaces a conventional car.”

Virginia needs to prepare for the electric-hybrid future now. A couple of obvious questions:

  • What changes should we make to our electric regulatory apparatus to encourage and enable electric plug-ins?
  • If Woolsey’s scenario transpires, the gasoline tax is toast. What funding mechanisms should Virginia adopt in its place to build and maintain its roads?

We can see the future coming. We can either let it crash upon us, or we can embrace it to create a stronger, cleaner more vibrant Commonwealth.

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22 responses to “A Plug for Plug-Ins”

  1. Anonymous Avatar

    Jim, I suspect that we will all need meter on our vehicles that measure miles driven and, when coupled with surcharges for weight, will generate a quarterly bill that is paid to VDOT. We would also need to toll heavily traveled routes to catch the interstate traffic.


  2. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    I guess it takes an article in the Wall Street Journal before folks start believing it.

    I’ve related many times in this BLOG why many experts believe the gasoline tax is doomed and probably sooner rather than later.

    No it won’t go away overnight but it no longer can be relied upon to generate INCREASED revenues by raising the tax on gasoline.

    The higher you raise the tax – the faster the acceleration will be to cars that use less gasoline.

    Pro-tax advocates are blind to this apparently… either because of tunnel vision or… a refusal to accept reality.

    And it don’t take long if one accepts this premise that you have then must confront a reality where gas tax revenues will actually shrink – even lower than what is needed for just maintenance (we’re already THERE folks).

    So … flip back to those who are strident in their believe that “something must be done about roads” and their allied belief that only more roads will relieve congestion.

    I don’t know exactly where things will end up revenue-wise in the longer term but I do think the most obvious and easiest and QUICKEST method to implement is electronic tolling. Everyone gets a transponder and overhead gantry’s are installed and you pay every time you go under one of them. And if you don’t, you’ll get a picture taken and a substantial bill in the mail – that if unpaid will result in even stiffer fines.

    The decision-making with respect to where/when/how/etc of where exactly those gantries will be or not be, I’m sure will be tempestuous but the bottom line is that right now, a majority of the public, already feels that the most fair way to allocate road costs is on a per user/per use basis.

    So .. I’m flummoxed as usual as to why …we have an acceptable billing allocation for most drivers… and yet advocacy continues towards raising taxes – which more 3/4 of drivers/taxpayers oppose.

    Where am I not understanding?

    Can someone please, again, state the argument for higher taxes?

  3. I’ve said that the tax needs to be reallocated as a fuel tax regardless of the type of fuel, and that it needs to be reallocated to account for new efficiencies, which is pretty much what TMT suggests above.

    I don’t deny that as currenty run and rated the gas tax will eventually bring in less revenue, but that does not mean that a fuel tax is not still more efficient to collect, more egalitarian, and more related to weight of the vehicle. But, we might very well wind up with a situation like Britain, where the tax costs as much as the fuel. If we are using half as much fuel, it won’t make any difference in our total cost, but the state will get more and the fuel company less.

    I get around 50 mpg on my hybrid. At $2.5 a gallon that works out to $0.045 per mile, not $0.10. I don’t know what the efficiency of electricity is by the time it is delivered to your house and chemically converted to battery power. Then you have to carry around that much more battery, and recyle the batteries when they die. I’m not saying this isn’t a valid technology or it won’t come to pass, just that there are some details that have been overlooked. that 60% national average reduction in carbon seems like a pipe dream. You’d have to have EVERY vehicle with a 20 mile all electric range, and some vehicles aren’t suited. And it doesn’t appear that he allowed for the extra emmissions due to electricity generation for this purpose.

    What I do know from the Dominion Power line fiasco is that the people who deliver that power to your home are not going to pay anything like their real location variable costs for delivery. We will have a direct benefit in a local reduction in gasoline caused air pollution.

    Larry refuses to address the case of the OHIO graph I’ve posted. The reason we are where we are is that we have made no adjustments to cathc up with reality over the last thirty years. It is no wonder we are behind the power curve.

    The method Larry suggests is similar to what is used in London. In London the cost of collecting the tolls amounts to 65% of the take. Imagine what it would cost in Amaerca’s much larger spaces. All he is suggesting is another tax, collected on the fly. Somebody is going to have to maintain and operate all that stuff. Frankly, it is a lot cheaper just to mail the money in.

    It’s bad enough we have to pay taxes, there is no reason to be stupid about how we collect them.

    If churches collected oney the way government does, you would pay the greeter, the choir leader, the organist, the ushers, the rector and the maitenance man, then they would take waht they need and put all the rest in a basket. Then they would pass the basket up and down the aisle and you would take back your refund.

    Sure there is a place for user fees, but the way we are heading is just dumb and expensive.

  4. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    re: “the cost of collecting the tolls amounts to 65% of the take”

    Ray .. I DO support indexing the gas tax but even then.. there are questions about viability.

    You never have explained why Va. gas tax revenues declined in the first quarter.

    When you explain that and show that it was a fluke rather than a probable precursor your Ohio data doesn’t “work” for Virginia.

    What say you?

    Also the 65% is just plain foolish and you know it.

    Electronic Transponders are already in use by Private Entities for not only roads but other transactions. Do you really think that private industry would be utilizing a technology that was that inefficient? If it were.. then toll roads would still operate will toll booths and merchants would not accept credit cards.

    And you don’t acknowledge that you cannot just “transfer” a fuel tax from gasoline to electricity… without legislation and the debate that would accompany it.

    Finally, you don’t acknowledge another reality. Pollution from electricity is LESS than pollution from burning gasoline.

    Further, as the article points out – we build power plants for max load and that load sits idle at night – unused
    and then during the day .. it must run at max capacity at the SAME TIME that autos are generating pollution at max capacity.

    What plug-ins do is not only pollute LESS during their actual use as “fuel” but they pollute less by doing so at night when the plants must stay up but are not running at maximum efficiency.

    This is not a win-win. This is a win-win-win-win .. it hits on ALL cylinders EXCEPT the one where you don’t like the idea of tolls – not for practical reasons – but for your stated reasons that are demonstrably false.

    Nothing could be more egalitarian than walking to a “toll gate” in front of a movie theater or concert or football game and paying exactly for whether you want a ringside seat or a average seat or a far away seat and yet what you advocate is one price for everyone .. and then have everyone rush for the best seats.

    THAT is what CONGESTION is…. and in my view.. you’re essentially advocating continuing a system that will always result in rush hour congestion – no matter how many roads are built.

    .. and then you call electronic tolling – congestion pricing – “dumb” ???? come on Ray… fess up… 🙂

  5. E M Risse Avatar

    All the talk of alternative fuels and more effecient batteries for private vehicles obfuscates the need to achieve a sustainable path for civilization as we know it.

    The critical parameters are the distance vehicles travel, the use of shared vehicles and settlement patterns that require the use of private vehicles.

    The energy has to come from somewhere, no mater how it is stored.

    The problem is the distance between the origins and the destinations of the total trips needed to assemble as quality life for all citiens, one family (household) at a time.

    The system cannot just work for those at the top of the economic food chain. A democracy cannot function with a settlement pattern and a mobility and access system that only a small percentage can afford.


  6. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    re: “A democracy cannot function with a settlement pattern and a mobility and access system that only a small percentage can afford.”

    but isn’t the problem that a very large percentage of society can afford to use an automobile to travel great distances between work and home?

    I remember my very first job and it was 30 miles from where I lived. Moving closer to where my job was would be moving further away from where my wife worked.

    But yet.. even when gas was really-really cheap… solo driving every day just didn’t make sense not only economically but it was very boring… so in less than a month.. I was on the BUS… and within a year in a 4 person carpool.

    A friend of mine – who worked in Georgetown and lived in Stafford – drove to a commuter lot and took a bus almost every day of his career.

    Neither of us consider this to be weird or a hardship even though his wife had two kids during that time frame.

    To be perfectly honest. I have very little sympathy for folks who claim that they have no choice other than to drive SOLO every day – at rush hour – often in an SUV-type vehicle that gets 15mpg if they’re lucky.

    In fact, I cannot imagine .. driving in that congested traffic every day.

    And even now.. I choose to NOT drive in congested traffic conditions unless I have no choice at which point I reconcile myself to my fate.

    I’m still not convinced that a case has been made that we are headed for an energy meltdown if we don’t, in effect, dictate certain kinds of settlement patterns.

    You can have incentives and disincentives but fundamentally in a Democracy we cannot deprive people of various shelter options that they can economically afford.

    Even when you add the full locational costs – there WILL be McMansions… by those who have the money and are immune to tacky and inappropriate/incompatible scope/scale housing.

    We can put tolls on roads – but we cannot put economically unjustifiable tolls on roads – tolls far in excess of what it actually costs to maintain and operate the roads.

    Now .. if someone figures out a way to have folks pay for the pollution they generate… then burning gasoline might well become very expensive and then have an effect on consumption.

    I think ..in the end – in a Democracy – people control what happens – with their vote.

    I am continually amazed that folks at both ends of the spectrum – anti-road and pro-road want to essentially bypass Democracy and enforce what they think is correct – by dictate ( sometimes disguised by a belief that if “your guy” gets into office.. he will in the best Star Trek tradition – “make it happen”.

  7. Sorry, Larry. 65% of the take is the actual reported cost for the London Experiment. It is probably one of the reasons the toll was raised: the scheme didn’t make enough money to pay the contractors, and leave anything left for the government.

    What they are doing is simple, all they need to know is if you are in London, and did you pre-pay the toll.

    The FAA has been trying to do what you say for 15 years, Knowing where every plane is, and they haven’t succeeded yet. The planes mostly already have transponders, although there are about 30,000 that don’t. What you suggest is orders of magnitude more complicated and expensive.

    Think about it. A transponder is picked up and the location of a vehicle is recorded. Later it is picked up again in another location. Now you have to look up in the database and find the previous record, then look up in the map database and find the probable route between those two locations, then you have to look up in the owners database and figure out how to send him a bill. And do that tens of millions of times a day.

    I’m sorry, but the whole idea is as dumb as toast.

    But, I already know how many miles I drive a year, and it is already recorded when I go in for my annual safety inspection. They could record the number and give me a bill to be paid in monthly installments until my next inspection.

    Just because gee whiz technology is available, doesn’t mean it is the right answer, and it is always expensive. I’ve raced on plenty of ultralight, high tech racing sailboats with every go-fast gimcrack available, but most of them I would never consider actually putting to sea in.

    As for open seating, that is what Southwest Airline does, and they are one of the most profitable airlines.

  8. http://www.csmonitor.com/2006/1114/p01s02-usec.html

    Check out this article on home based cogeneration. It is estimated that Combined Heat and Power, just for industrial applications could reduce industrial greenhouse gas emissions by 20%. Modern CHP plants are up to 90% efficient.

    Here are the facts, and you can look them up yourself if you care to. Modern IC engines are almost 50% efficient, diesels, even higher.

    The delivered efficiency of the electric grid is only 30%. If the DOE sponsored ATS (Advanced Turbine System is ever commercialized it promises an onsite electrical generation efficiency of 42%.

    If you’ve got data that shows electricity is less polluting than gas, I’d like to see it. For one thing, we seldom use gas unless we are going somewhere, but we outright waste electricity everywhere. Then there is the fact that something like 20% of our electricity comes from burning natural gas, a high quality fuel you hate to waste on electricity. The reason that is so is because of misguided NIMBY environmental fights against coal powered plants. Then there is the problem of nuclear waste.

    Last I knew F still equals MA. EMR is right, the power has to come from some where, and electricity is pretty close to the botom of the list as far as efficiency goes. The only reason it works for hybrids is that electricity is used to recycle power that was already generated by the engine, and would otherwise be wasted in the brakes. In other words, it is a mobile CHP unit, which is inherently more efficient than delivered elctricity.

    Look, I drive a hybrid, I’m thrilled with it. When plug ins are available, I may be an early adopter, but I’m also likely to use a home CHP unit to generate my own electricity. I’ll have to look at it closely because a 20 mile range will barely get me to Marshall and back, let alone to a real town.

    I’m glad there are people who use transit and car pool. But I have NEVER had a job where I could count on leaving at the end of the day. Sometimes I don’t even know where I will be working for the day. And I’ve only had two where mass transit was at least partially available. Sometimes I get called back in during the night. When I’m not at work and I’m working on the farm, I STILL drive long distances, without ever leaving the farm. Private transit is the only thing that works for me.

    I think EMR is wrong when he says the problem is distance. For most people it is time, convenience, and money. Most of his proposed solutions focus on distance, at the expense of the other three. for most people it isn’t a viable trade-off, (yet).

    And no, the problem isn’t that a great percentage of people drive long distances to work. The average is only what, 23 minutes? That’s 15 miles. You can spend 23 minutes at the bus stop.

    The problem is that too many people want to go to the same place at the same time: where the jobs are. Gradually, we are seeing that this is not acceptable and the jobs are moving closer to the people.

    Larry hit on part of the problem EMR never addresses. He could have moved closer to work, but it would have been farther for his wife. The destinations are always changing faster than our home is changing.

    More distance does increase the energy consumed for travel, but it isn’t clear to me that more compact settlements would result in less energy use over all. Out here on the farm, it is dark, but at my house in Alexandria you can stand in the back yard at midnight and read the paper, using only all the wasted energy from around the neighborhood.

    I think if I lived in Stafford and worked in Georgetown for 15 years, I’d eventually get the idea and something would have to change, but maybe the bus isn’t so bad if you can snooze or read. And if it is available.

    I could work the farm full time and go almost nowhere, and make a living (sort-of). I could find a local job installing burglar alarms or repairing AC, or something. But the fact is that a couple of gallons of gas every day more than doubles my income. Maybe if you succeed in slapping on a big eneough toll, I would have to reconsider. In that case you wouldn’t collect the toll, and my community wouldn’t get the money I bring home. That sounds like a lose, lose, lose deal to me. My gues is that even if some others who do work in the community have to pay part of “my” road costs, they are still better off than if they didn’t have the money I bring.

    I guess one reason I have a problem with this locational cost nonsense is that my location was established long before any of the major locations and resulting infrastructure around me developed to incur those costs. Yet EMR would have you believe that just because the place I wound up with is not where they decided to later build a town, that I should pay 10x in costs: even more than the 3x in costs I pay now.

    Sure, at some level we all have choices. Larry could have asked his wife’s employer for job and moved there.

    Peak load is a problem forGenerating capacity, Metro and Highways, too. People sleep, machines don’t. It is a capital problem, not an efficiency problem. Using your generator more doesn’t make it any more efficient, it just lets you recover your capital sooner. You are going to make the same amount of greenhouse gas per kilowatt generated at night as you are in the daytime.

    What makes you think I am opposed to tolls? I am in favor of tolls for certain limited situations, I just don’t think it is workable as a general road revenue device, and I think it ignores all the other road related revenue streams that don’t depend on actual road use. Cul-de-Sacs make homes more valuable precisely because they are NOT used, so I don’t see any reason real estate taxes shouldn’t be part of the road equation. If the state shifts local road responsiblity to the localities, that is exactly what will happen.

    I doubt you will institute universal tolls without legislation and lawsuits either.

    The Ohio data doesn’t work for Virginia because Virginia hasn’t indexed the fuel tax for thirty years. Let’s see what happens to the fuel tax revenues for the next three quarters and then talk.

  9. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    Ray- pretty neat URL about micro CHP but methinks you further prove my point. If/when that technology is widely available – wouldn’t you think some folks are going to think.. “gee” if I had a micro CHP .. AND a plug-in ….

    re: Va gas revenues. The next 3/4s are not as important as the first quarter – IF .. the reason why there was a decline in gas tax revenue was … BECAUSE .. of it topping $3.00 a gallon. If THAT was the reason – then you know what is going to happen the next time it is 3.00 a gallon – and that adding more gas tax will accelerate the process. People will buy more efficient cars and figure out other ways to reduce their gasoline costs no matter whether plug-ins come online or not. If plug-ins come online – the whole dynamic quickens even more in tempo.

    So – what I’ve been asking you is – WHEN gas tax revenue actually starts to go down (I assume you agree that this will happen and that the issue is how fast that might happen)…. what would you replace it with

    … and then a bonus question – would you wait until it actually starts to bring in less before you thought about what to do about it?

    re: TOLLS

    Ray – EZ-PASS is a reality and in use by private entities who are in business to make a profit – and they do. Why do you pick an example that is NOT representative of the vast majority of electronic toll operations?

    Is your point REALLY about the inherent inefficiency of government operated facilities which would include not only TOLLs but a litany of other things – most of which private industry can make a profit at.

    If a private company utilizes the current best technology (transponders) and they can do so – AND make a profit then why do you prefer to NOT refer to those companies that do just fine with transponders but rather London?

    You act like this technology – because it is ubiquitous cannot be efficient. Ray… go to your pantry and pick up any item – and observe – a BAR CODE on it then go to your supermarket and see if you can actually find a printed price on a product.

    The products you buy are scanned (with all those (in your mind) “inefficient” point of sale devices).

    Not only do they read the price – the same time they’re doing that they’re talking to a remote database that is keeping track of the inventory for that store.

    The same thing when you whip out your credit card and “swipe” it – not only does that card reader – “read” your card, it “talks” to your Credit Card Company’s computers to check to see if you’re no in arrears and then it levies the charge in your account.

    Ray – these technologies not only already exist – they ARE ubiquitous AND efficient.

    Electronic Tolling is already over 15 years old.

    Do you really think that if it were so inefficient that private companies would adopt it?

    Do you know WHY the Business Model for Private operation of toll roads “works”? It’s because of electronic tolling.

    Until electronic tolling appeared on the scene – private companies had little interest in operating toll roads precisely because collecting tolls required toll plazas (vice gantries) and people with salaries.

    finally you cite “open seating” on Southwest. Let me ask you Ray. Does Southwest charge the same amount for a trip no matter whether it is their busiest part of the day or not?

    Does everyone pay the same price no matter when they want to fly?

    Fess up Ray… you have 3 questions:

    1. – what do we replace the gas tax with
    2. – why is electronic tolling already in use and adopted by private industry?
    3. – do we charge “one” price for air travelers no matter when they fly?

  10. Jim Bacon Avatar

    Larry, You made this comment: “You can have incentives and disincentives but fundamentally in a Democracy we cannot deprive people of various shelter options that they can economically afford.”

    And this: “I am continually amazed that folks at both ends of the spectrum – anti-road and pro-road want to essentially bypass Democracy and enforce what they think is correct – by dictate.”

    I’m wondering who you are referring to. Who are these folks who would “deprive people of shelter options” and/or “essentially bypass Democracy” to enforce their views by dictate.

  11. Anonymous Avatar

    Another piece of low-hanging fruit. Have the State contract for truck weigh station services. The private sector would have these operations open 24/7 and in more locations than we have now. My understanding, which might be incorrect, is that there are a huge number of overweight trucks on our roads that, when weighed, receive considerable fines. My engineer friends tell me that the damage caused by heavy trucks to roads is huge. But where is tax-happy Tim Kaine on this one? Trying to raise taxes, of course.

    I’m not arguing that this step would fix our problems or that VDOT does not need more money. It’s just that in the real world, people look for low-hanging fruit.

  12. Jim Wamsley Avatar
    Jim Wamsley

    I think I should reprise my Fare Roads comment which I posted on November 30th.

    With “Fare Roads” anyone can get a “Fair Dollar” “Fare Account.” Each account gets a credit of 40 rollover “Fare Dollars” monthly when they register their E-Z Pass or Smart Pass and use their account. “Fare Dollars” can be used anytime. Drivers put transponders in their cars linked to the “Fare Account” to track use. Drivers who wish to make many trips during peak demand periods and following incidents can buy more “Fare Dollars” through their “Fare Account.”

    “Fare Roads” provide all the advantages of demand managed roads. They raise prices to prevent volume delays. They raise prices to control congestion after incidents and breakdowns. “Fare Roads” eliminate incidents caused by congestion. They can also be used to provide London style pricing zones for congested centers like Tysons corner.

    Another advantage, road side transponder readers eliminate the problem of tracking everyone all the time while providing real time data. Tracking systems are used for wildlife studies, and in an automotive pricing system travel data could be read during State inspection if demand management is ignored and mileage pricing was the only goal.

  13. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    Jim – these are two dynamics that I perceive – ongoing.

    I’ll give an example for the shelter issue. Say you have someone who wants to build a 3000 square foot home with well and septic in a rural area that lacks adequate schools and roads and is 65 miles from their job

    Government, in a free, society, cannot determine that because these choices are not in the best interests of society that they will not allow that kind of shelter.

    You can charge them for the costs that they incur rather than have it subsidized by other taxpayers but you cannot deny them from using their money to build what they want.

    One step further – if you have a guy who is in the business of building homes for these folks – you, again, cannot deny him from building those housing options for sale to folks who can afford to buy those homes.

    The second part – I see over and over and you hear it on the street… “just wait until the Dems get control – they’ll pass legislation making it harder to build sprawl roads or they’ll pass legislation forcing the electric company to provide Green Power… and shut down their mercury-polluting plants….”

    Then on the pro-road side – advocates who believe that if the “right” folks are in charge – they’ll build the needed roads no matter what the anti-road folks think. The ICC and Western Transportation Corridor are examples of how some folks fervently believe that if you get “their guy” in office.. he’ll direct the completion of a controversial road no matter who or what the opposition is.

    Folks like Gov Elhrich… tapped into this with his unvarnished support of the ICC.

    The WTC folks believe that VDOT should be able to build the WTC – no matter what the opposition believes – that “someone” has to make the “right” decision in the public’s best interest and ignore those who (in their minds) are “ignorant and don’t understand”.

    This whole dynamic is in my mind responsible for the partisan divide that has become so entrenched that “compromise” is seen not as a practical necessity of moving forward – but instead as a future weapon to use on the other side at the next election.

    In other words – political gridlock is a good thing to some folks – because it justifies a “winner take all” approach to government.

  14. E M Risse Avatar

    Our last post in this string was done in haste.

    For those trained in the hard sciences, the following formulation may be of help illuminate our intent:

    In an environment with finite resources and a culture of relative equality (aka, democracy) survival of the species requires minimizing the summation of the time / distance / resources consumed to link the origins and destinations of the trips required to directly and indirectly assemble a quality existence for individuals, families, enterprises, institutions and agencies.

    There are many variables in this equation. The degree of “equality” achieved and the quantification of “quality” are the most important parameters.

    In contemporary civilization minimizing the summation of time / distance / resources requires maximizing the no vehicle trips and making the maximum use of shared-vehicle (as opposed to private-vehicle) trips.

    At S/PI we call the settlement pattern that meets these criteria “Balanced (Alpha) Communities in a sustainable New Urban Region.


  15. E M Risse Avatar

    Having cleared up my inarticulate post, I would like to complement Jim W, Larry G and others for making a real contribution to the discussion.

    One of the best strings in a long while.

    Happy News Years Eve.


  16. Anonymous Avatar

    EMR – I need some assistance understanding the balanced community concept. In what you would believe to be a sucessful (Alpha?) community within Metro D.C. or Fairfax County, for that matter, how far, on average, would people commute (drive or take public transit) to and from work? I’m not looking for absolute precision, just a “stake in the ground.”

    Assuming that many people would not like to live in apartments/condos/townhouses, what size (width) of single family lots would we need? I grew up in a house on a 40 foot lot. It was too small and too close to my neighbors. I’m not arguing for five acre lots, but if you/we want “smart growth,” we need a plan that addresses customer demand for single family housing.

    How do we address Larry’s problem of two spouses working in vastly different locations and mine, people switching jobs much more often?

    Finally, and this one may be a bit rhetorical, we need to address the major problem that, as local governments/communities become larger, government becomes more inefficient and, even, corrupt. Placating unions becomes more important than delivering services efficiently and effectively. For examplem, as NoVA MM correctly stated, what would it take to fix the public schools such that people of all races and background would want their children enrolled there? Does Smart Growth also require school vouchers or, at least, charter schools? Just as one can make a strong case that the GOP is too close to big business, the Democrats are owned and operated by public sector unions, most especially the NEA. Unless and until parents feel confident that the local schools will produce results, their local schools of choice will be far from the central cities. Moreover, this is not a “white” issue. In our diverse community, I’ve never heard a single parent of any race, creed, or color indicate a willingness to live by choice where the public schools are unacceptably poor in quality.

  17. what do we replace the gas tax with
    2. – why is electronic tolling already in use and adopted by private industry?
    3. – do we charge “one” price for air travelers no matter when they fly?

    You should not replace the gas tax, instead reform it, radically if necessary. What we cannot do is let it languish 30 years in the past and then claim it doesn’t work. When you look at the English or Portugueses situation, where gas taxes are much higher than ours, one salutary effect is that people drive much smaller cars, and drive them less.

    The gas tax effectively charges for both the distance you drive and the weight you carry, which tolls cannot do: I would be charged the same for my truck, empty or full. The gas tax is a better option for charging by distance than setting up an extensive and expensive system of tolls tolls: it is however hopelessly out of date. The gas tax also charges you more for running an untuned or dirty old clunker.

    Electronic tolling and GPS tracking work for some locations and some industries. There may come a time when it is sufficiently inexpensive to use generally, but at present it is not fully implementable, as the FAA experience shows.

    However, the gas tax should be only one part of a system of taxes used to support roads. As frequently noted here, roads benefit developers, and landowners, just as Metro does. Therefore property taxes should be one componenet of the fees charged.

    Roads are part and parcel of our economic system. Some people benefit from it far more than others so income tax should be part of the eqution, too. Tolls will charge the same for the janitor in his Kia as they will for the executive in his Lexus, and clearly these two have a different utility function for the value of their trip.]

    Finally, tolls have a place in specific high value instances, like the Bay bridge. But tolls should be allowed only so long as the tolling process does not disrupt the flow unduly: the gates should be thrwon open once you have a five mile backup, or some such.

    The gas tax is not the only part of the system, and it shoudn’t be expected to carry the full weight, but after thirty years of neglect, it needs maintenance as much as the roads do.

    I’ll say it again, it isn’t distance that counts, it is time and money. I could live 80% closer to my (present) work site, and save only one third the time the trip takes, and it would cost me a fortune to make the move. It isn’t the first thirty miles, it is the last ten.

  18. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    Ray –

    Electronic TOLLS are .. .FULLY IMPLEMENTED … on dozens of roads….and have been since the 1990s.

    You don’t need GPS if you can toll electronically… all you need is one simple and cheap RFID transponder.

    re: Lexus – LOOK at this number -> 3% <- keep that number in mind. When you buy a $20K car … you pay $600 .. when you buy a $50 car, it’s $1500 dollars. Now keep THAT number in mind – Both of those drivers – under “average” conditions will pay on the order of $130 a year in Va gas tax. but the kicker is that the Lexus driver pays the same amount of gas tax no matter WHEN he drives even if he chooses to drive every day at rush hour… If he and his fellow drivers could fly to Cleveland anytime they wished for .. say $50 bucks .. what would happen to Southwestern Airlines? Well.. first they’d max out every plane they had – then they’d go broke because they wouldn’t be charging enough to maintain and replace their airliners when they wore out. Do you think the solution would be to .. say charge every $1500 – no matter when they flew? This appears to be what you’re proposing with regard to the gas tax. Am I wrong?

  19. “Government, in a free, society, cannot determine that because these choices are not in the best interests of society that they will not allow that kind of shelter.

    You can charge them for the costs that they incur rather than have it subsidized by other taxpayers but you cannot deny them from using their money to build what they want.”

    At present government can and does make that kind of determination, the proposed urban growth areas will amount to more of the same.

    I’m fine with charging costs as they incur, but I have a problem with the unproven assumption that it applies only to those far from town. You can and will have people living inside of one urban growth boundary driving long distances to work inside of another. But the only people charged extra, or denied opportunities will be those who happen to have the urban growth boundary drawn someplace else.

    The mere fact that urban areas are so expensive suggests that this thinking is upside down. “As government grows larger it becomes more inneficient.” What is driving the flight from urban areas is that they are more expensive and people don’t want to pay their full costs there, any more than they do anyplace else. Especially whn they are not getting what they pay for: good schools, percieved safety, and efficient government.

    This isn’t just settlement patterns and locations, it is people lives you are screwing around with. I might like to build a house, and someone might like to live in it, but we can’t because the democracy that is the county has decided they want the use of my land for their purposes without recompense to me. Not only that, but they charge me extra for the privilege.

    OK, I drive a long distance (at present). I could work here on the farm, but I would wind up driving more and larger vehicles even more distance, to make a lesser living. I would buy less from my local community.

    The idea that “minimizing the summation of time / distance / resources requires maximizing the no vehicle trips” is utterly wrong, completely unsupported, and contrary to observation and experience. Every thing I need to do on the farm is within a half mile of my house and shop, but, if I worked under the concept of maximising my “no vehicle” trips, virtually nothing of value would be accomplished. I can’t see that it is any different in another environment unless the only thing you produce is information, which needs very little transport.

    In the first place, time, distance, and resources are not linearly related, so there is no single solution. In the second place, even if you find a local (and temporal) minimum for time distance and resources, you then have to consider the value of what it produces.

    I may have a local minimum in time distance and resources, right here on the farm, but the net value of what it produces is far less than other solutions, even if they are more expensive. However, what the farm produces is apparently so valuable to the democracy we call the county, that they are willing to enslave me to provide what they want. The most efficient way for me to pay them the 3x they demand is to drive to the city and bring the money back.

    I don’t think there is any way to drive a stake in the ground as to what is most efficient, other than to let people work it out themselves: free market. The equation is simply too complex. The market isn’t perfectly efficient, and whatever it results in changes over time, But it allows each individual to make the best of his situation, based on what others near him will offer. That is precisely why it will always result in a better net overall benefit than any government “plan”. EMR thinks we need to plan for balanced areas. I think balance is a dynamic condition and therefore any static plan is instantly out of date.

    In Oregon, people’s entire lives were worked over by the plan for decades, until there was finally enough of a stink to cause some changes in the procedure. Majority rule is fine only so long as there is a fair consideration for the minority: what applies to civil rights applies to property rights, and many other issues as well.

  20. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    First .. want to than James W for his updated thoughts in his post on “Fare Roads”. Thanks Jim! 🙂

    Ray’s attitude towards government dictate of land-use, I think, is not way off base of a lot of folks and my own thoughts about .. in plain language .. how far the government can “push” land owners before they’ve crossed the line.

    But I do want to point out two things:

    1. – even folks that own a 3 bedroom home on 1/4 acre have a “bundle of rights” as Ray says.
    2. – I view very differently those who own a home to live in and those that own homes to resell for a profit.
    DITTO with land and the subdividing of land.

    Every landowner is entitled to the reasonable enjoyment of their property as long as:

    1. – they do not adversely impact their neighbors use of their own land
    2. – they don’t require other landowners to provide infrastructure for them to develop/subdivide their land

    Now I’m not saying that there are not many, many examples of exactly where this actually happens… what I’m saying is that it’s similiar to a cop that looks the other way sometimes.. and other times he nails you.

    The harsh truth is that people who actually do this professionally as a primary means of making a living are much more adept at sucking off of public infrastructure for land development than folks who “only want to” [insert your favorite wish here] on their one piece of property.

    But to believe Ray, property rights are being so seriously trampled that it’s akin to a crime but look around Fairfax (or wherever you live) … do you think .. on balance.. that Virginia has totally shut out landowners and shut down growth and development? 🙂

    back to the issue… can we/should we set up Regional Balanced Communities where – as part of the deal – we outlaw certain kinds of land-use in certain areas?

    I think not. I can’t put my exact finger on it but my gut tells me it crosses the line.

    Va law REQUIRES that counties designate land that can be developed – and that allows them to use restrictions – but it also states that you cannot prevent someone from building a home on land that they own – even if it is a McMansion on well and septic… 65 miles from where they work – and every morning promptly at 6:00 a.m. they add their solo-driven vehicle to thousands of others … clawing their way .. slowly to NoVA.. all of them bitterly blaming their elected officials for not controlling growth ( ironies ABOUND here folks).

    Spotsylvania County has not approved a major rezone in years – yet it’s base growth rate is more than 4% because land in the rural areas is being converted at a tremendous rate into large homes on well and septic.. far from many services. (referred to by more than a few folks as “sprawl” and what I perceive to be Public Enemy #1 in terms of New Urban Regions and Balanced Communities.

    So .. if I understand the Concept .. we take Fredericksburg, Stafford, Spotsy and a few other counties and get together and decide where we will permit development .. and (this is the part where I’m asking) … NOT permit by-right home building?

    If that’s the plan – methinks it goes nowhere fast… and yet.. by-right development is a potent component of the type of growth and development that many a thread in this BLOG ponders as THE PROBLEM.

    EMR talks about massive change in governance to achieve the goal.

    GAWD … we can’t agree on how to do highways… I simply cannot conceive of those guys in Richmond… voting for a change in governance but we DO have one attempt.. Delegate Cole has put in a bill to combine the Senate and House into one body…. anyone want to take bets on where that bills meets it demise? 🙂

  21. Ray Hyde Avatar

    It seems to me that most everyone hopes to sell their home for a profit, someday. It is one reason homeowners want to prevent growth: it helps their bottom line by restricting compettion. I don’t see that profit can possibly be an acceptable reason to prevent growth. If anything, the mere fact that all those homes have sold is an indication they are needed.

    Even in Fairfax, if there was not such gross concentration of jobs in a few areas there would be less traffic congestion. It does seem that at some point you reach a concentration of jobs and homes compared to street availability that the streets are overwhelmed. We ought to be able to reach a consensus on what that is, but I have never seen any analysis that tries to tie land use to road use in this way. It doesn’t seem to be too hard to look at areas that have less congestion and those that have more and start making a list of features that contribute to excess traffic.

    As it is, we just figure that every home contributes ten trips a day, when in fact, the destinations are equally a cause of the trips as the homes. Yet, antidevelopment sentiment seems to be pointed mostly at homes. Could it be that selfish, anticompetitive instincts are a play here (profit)?

    The people who develop professionally have a huge advantage, because the rules make it impossible for anyone else to play. They have turned the anti-development sentiment to their advantage. To be fair, they also have the skills to intensely develop properties in a way that cannot be done by amateurs.

    I agree with what you say about the ironies, but I have to say that ALL of my McMansion neighbors that I am acquaited with, and many of my other acquaintances view their long commutes as temporary. Having reached McMansion Nirvana, they are retired or ready to retire soon. There are others that drive 40 miles, but they are going to Winchester, Quantico, or Reston, not DC or Arlington. All in all, it isn’t the long distance drivers that cause most of the congestion: it is the fact that once you get inside of R-10 nothing is moving.

    Don’t get me wrong, I would be perfectly happy to preserve my land and use it as it is. But I KNOW that there will come a time when I simply can’t afford to, and not because of anything I have done, but merely because of changes around me. Maybe someone who pays more in state taxes than I earn can afford to keep it a while longer, but eventually something has to give: it is uneconomical to grow crops and trees on ground worth $50,000 an acre.

    At some point, my neighbors HAVE adversely impacted the use of my land. As you point out, they have done that “democratically”, and, for now, it is legal for them to do so.

    My neighbors ARE requiring me to provide infrastructure. In this case it is green infrastructure and financial infrastructure. Green infrastructure costs EXACTLY as much as the development that might replace it: it isn’t free. The financial infrastructure I provide comes in the form of the “savings” they claim they make by preventing growth. Not to mention the profit I provide to them while my situation is restricted.

    In other words, my argument is exactly the same as yours, but from the other side of the fence.

    The difference is that I am much more accommodating. If they will EITHER come out and put a price on infrastructure required to allow development, and send me a bill, OR admit that they are causing me to provide infrastructure of a different sort and allow me to send them a bill, then I’m happy.

    I’m even more accomodating than that. If they came out and said they only want to slow growth, that they only want to attenuate the imediate costs of growth, that residential eventually pays its way, if they put time-based restrictions on me, I could live with that.

    Instead, the current answer is nothing, ever, no matter what I pay. As a result my only option is to sell out to someone willing and able to accept the restrictions, someone who doesn’t care about money, or to sell out to a developer willing to seek an (unlikely) rezoning. Or I can stay here and pay the price of subsidizing the developed areas through excess taxes and environmental services. That takes money.

    The current atmosphere here is not only anti-housing, but anti-jobs, because jobs bring housing. The current situation, then, effectively REQUIRES people here to travel long distances to work.

    I’m not opposed to open space, it is important, and I’m willing to pay my share to support it. I am willing to pay for my share of current operating costs of government, my share of the costs of new infrastructure required as time goes by. I am unwilling to pay for excessive new infrastructure caused by over-rapid growth (here I agree with you), and on top of that, pay additional taxes on open space which are diverted to support/subsidize the developed areas, and provide what amounts to free loans to the rest of the county, and valuable environmental services.

    If you want to prevent growth or slow it down, then the answer is simple. Figure out how to cut a fair deal with those who are excluded. Let those who are winners share the winnings with the losers. Recognize that at least one reason rural land is being converted at a rapid rate is because those landowners are scared to death that one day what few rights they have left are confiscated. They are afraid they will wind up like me: no real options. We have put them in a use it or lose it mentality.

    I support the goals behind your ideas, but I think you are going about it all wrong. More governance and more restrictions is NOT the answer.

    If you think that people should pay for what they get with respect to roads, that developers should pay for what they get with respect to infrastructure, then you have to believe that we should also pay for what we get in land use.

  22. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    I’m not for more governance and restrictions but I think it is inevitable.

    When people believe that their quality of life is being harmed by having more growth than the infrastructure will support – that they will sign on to stricter governance and restrictions as a way to prevent further harm to their quality of life.

    Many folks don’t really care how many people live around them in a neighborhood, a locality or even a region – as long as it is (in their minds) a good place to live, work and play.

    But we keep trying to accommodate growth “on the cheap”.

    We treat open land in terms of how many houses can be put on that land verses how much traffic those houses will generate.

    The classic example is that when the beltway was built – it opened up so much land for development – that – that land generated far more traffic than the beltway and connecting roads was capable of supporting.

    We planned the road – but we did not plan the consequences of the land-use.

    People don’t care about this so they attack the other end of the equation which is “how many houses can be built on a parcel of land”. They see the problem as approving more homes than there are roads for.

    It’s a reaction to a failure to plan.

    I don’t support it but I argue that as long as we fail to acknowledge the failures – AND ACTUALLY CHANGE – that this is an inevitable consequence.

    Folks who own land, being affected by such restrictions who believe that the infrastructure conundrum is a separate issue that does not concern them – .. I argue that they should if they really want to see changes that would benefit them.

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