Pushing the Envelope in the House

Members of the Axis of Taxes are not the only political players to display an evolution in their thinking. (See previous post, “The New Political Calculus on Transportation.”) Even more interesting to observe is the evolution of the contras — those who oppose tax increases. No longer in reactive, just-say-no mode, they are actively thinking about how to refashion Virginia’s transportation system according to market principles.

The latest case in point is a column published in the Daily Press by Del. Phillip A. Hamilton, R-Newport News. Here are some of the ideas he explores:

  • Public-private partnerships. “The commonwealth should aggressively pursue public-private partnerships and transportation concessions as strategies to involve the private sector in addressing the transportation congestion reduction goal.”
  • Congestion pricing. “Another concept, congestion pricing, is an example of utilizing existing technology to provide an incentive for people to make travel decisions that improve traffic congestion. Where implemented, congestion pricing has proven that people and businesses are willing to voluntarily pay for less-congested highways and more reliable travel time. Virginia should pursue a congestion pricing demonstration project in Northern Virginia and/or Hampton Roads with the U.S. Department of Transportation.”
  • Third Crossing. “Because the proposed third crossing primarily supports the necessary development and improvement of Virginia’s ports, it must be considered in a broader context. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine should develop a statewide, economic development strategy for the ports that includes access to them. The ports serve and benefit the entire state, therefore a new third crossing should be considered as an economic development project and not as a Hampton Roads traffic congestion reduction project.”

Sound thinking all around.

I still don’t see much sign that House leaders are digging deeply into land use issues, but they’re laying the groundwork. One prerequisite for land use reform is a transportation system based upon the user-pays principle, which is implicit in toll-driven public private partnerships and congestion pricing. The simple act of halting subsidies to sprawl-inducing transportation projects will create new cost-benefit equations for commuters. In turn, builders will respond by proposing more transportation-efficient projects, and applying pressure on local governments to reform their zoning codes and comprehensive plans.

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9 responses to “Pushing the Envelope in the House”

  1. Toomanytaxes Avatar

    Jim – Don’t toss the zoning ordinances so quickly. The WaPo today discusses a proposal for a new high-rise condo near the Dunn Loring Metro stop. It appears that one of the key issues is how many parking spaces should be permitted for the building’s residents. The developer wants many, while the neighbors want fewer. Parking is a key land use and zoning issue.

    After reading a local newspaper article, I perused the New York City zoning code. In many areas with FARs in the 2.5 to 3.5 range, many apartment and condo buildings have around one parking space for each two residential units. I’m not sure that Fairfax County’s developers see that type of situation as their goal.

    Take a look at the proposal for Tysons I. It would add more parking spaces for office buildings and condo owners than are at the Pentagon.

    I’ve also been informed that the county planning staff pushed to limit parking spaces for the Lerner properties near Tysons II before that rezoning was granted. The developer wanted lots of parking and persuaded the BoS.

    If TOD and density are to reduce traffic congestion, local officials need to use their zoning powers to limit parking significantly.

  2. Jim Bacon Avatar

    TTM, You’re right, restricting parking is a good way to reduce congestion. But you can’t just arbitrarily tell people, no more than one car per family. You have to provide them transportation options, whether van-pools, buses, heavy rail, flexcars, etc. And the urban design/land use must be able to support those kinds of uses.

    I tend not to like regulation. Local governments should set goals, or standards, and let developers figure out the best way to achieve them. One size does not fit all. Allow for flexibility, innovation and entrepreneurial creativity.

  3. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    and agree again. Offer options. Offer options that are not free but priced according to actual costs. remove the subsidies – and let people make choices like they do with other services and goods – and I’m confident that people will choose in ways that don’t rely on publically-subsidized infrastructure – which is what you do if you offer lots of “free” parking.

    Parking encourages automobile use – a secondary/cumulative cost not really calculated.

    Second.. as the article states.. much more reasonably priced apartments result from NOT having but one parking place. Those extra parking spaces do not come free… at all.

    You will always have well-heeled folks willing to pay extra for parking.. but the focus should be not on the wealthy but instead of those needing more affordable housing options.

  4. “The simple act of halting subsidies to sprawl-inducing transportation projects will create new cost-benefit equations for commuters.”

    What if the new cost benefit equations turn out to be more costly and less beneficial?

    We can’t eliminate one transportation subsidy without reducing them all, or else your argument turns on itself. Suppose we eliminated sprawl tomorrow and everyone was living in TOD nirvana. How long can everyone pay one third of the operating cost of their transportation, which is what transit riders do? As it stands now, transit riders are subsidized by all those other people that don’t use transit. Considering what transit costs, we may actually be saving money by subsidizing sprawl. As Larry says, the other options have to be priced at actual costs, and in addition, they have to be offered with a realistic view as to their comparative benefits.

    Halting what you call subsidies to sprawl inducing transportation projects is in itself a subsidy to inner area landowners, close in residents, and other transportation systems. The situations you describe appear to be subsidies only because we have deliberately chosen funding systems that spread the costs around. They are not directly tied to road use, but that doesn’t mean that roads users are not paying the full costs for what they get: obviously the road bills are getting paid. Same argument goes for residential housing. We don’t have a funding mechanism whereby each house pays its own individual full costs, but that doesn’t mean that the costs of housing are not being borne by the residents.

    So, what we have is a matter of degree, fairness, and efficiency. If the new cost benefit equations turn out to be less beneficial than the old ones, what then? All you are doing is trading one bad market influence for a worse one, and the net result to the payer is higher costs and it is equivalent to a tax increase.

    We should insist on subsidy neutral policies to the extent possible. Maybe it makes sense to restrict parking spaces and then give them away free to Zip-Car: I don’t know. But if I have to pay more for parking spaces that are artificially restricted in order to make Zip-Car more profitable, then something is wrong unless you can clearly demonstrate that the cost is less, not just socially desirable.

    It seems to me that you are particularly one-sided when you talk about market driven plans. Reducing parking and invoking congestion pricing can only make the inner areas less attractive and more expensive, which will tend to drive people and businesses elsewhere. If you do that in conjunction with eliminating what you call sprawl inducing projects, then you truly have a set of policies that is schizophrenic. We are going to eliminate sprawl and force you to pay the higher costs associated with living closer in.

    It is fine with me to promote a policy of pay as you go for auto drivers, but you need to do the same for everyone else. Try putting transit in private hands and see what happens.

    What you are proposing here can only result in more windfalls for inner area developers and residence owners. And then, as TMT notes, who is going to pay for all the new and equally higher priced infrastructure required when these policies uproot the population? As it stands now, Fairfax is exporting the problems associated with residences and keeping to itself the revenue associated with business revenue. What happened to the user pays principle there? Fairfax is using all the resiences provided by other areas, and foisting the transportation and education costs off on others.
    Finally, even if the cost benefit ratios are initially beneficial and people start availing themselves of these hypothetically transit efficient developments, then what will happen next? The price of more rural places will fall and the cost benefit equations will reset themselves.

    It’s a nice pipe dream, Jim, but it can’t possibly work.

  5. Jim Bacon Avatar

    Ray, How long have you been reading this blog? How can you possibly say that I favor one system of transportation over another? I have consistently said that all forms of transportation should be held to the same standard — they should stand or fall in a free marketplace (with appropriate consideration for externalities such as air/water pollution and energy dependence).

    I have consistently said that all public transportation investments should be judged on a Return on Investment basis — roads, mass transit, operational improvements, telework, what have you. YOU ARE NOT PAYING ATTENTION!

  6. Yes, Jim I know, but only if I keep prodding you. Like this time, the only reference was to sprawl inducing projects and transportation friendly development, and the only people involved are commuters, as if the existing residents that increased growth will be foisted on don’t count.

    I don’t know, Jim, but the article says people and businesses are willing to voluntarily pay for less-congested highways and more reliable travel time. Sounds like a tax increase to me, whatever you call it. The only difference is the “where implemented” clause, as if the only people who benefit are the ones who pay.

    I think there are levels of benefit, a local one and a diffuse one, just as with Metro. And just as with Metro we shouldn’t expect local contributions to pay all the costs, although the user pays feature should be dominant.

    When I start seeing balanced and fair proposals that are designed to improve the system as a whole rather thnan to change it subjectively, then I’ll stop complaining.

    I don’t see it in this entry.

  7. Toomanytaxes Avatar

    Jim – re parking restrictions. As I understand it, this apartment complex in Merrifield is right near the Dunn Loring Metro stop. If density is supposed to reduce traffic, what better place to reduce the number of automobiles in the area?

    We in Fairfax County hear the glories of density from the Chamber of Commerce, the BoS, etc. It’s time for supporters to put their money where their mouths are. If we have urban density, we need urban vehicle limits. This can be done either by regulation or by tax. Otherwise, we have nothing but painted pigs.

  8. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    I think “sprawl” is a word that’s been co-opted by both sides… and it’s usefulness in describing something is lost.

    In fact, to a certain extent.. when I see the word used in growth discussions… I consider it to divert attention away from whatever else is being espoused…

    To date – as far as I know – no one has come up with definitive information with respect to transit and highways in terms of which is more/less cost-effective in what circumstances.

    It’s clear to me that you’re NOT going to put interstates in downtown Chicago or NYC or even Washington DC and it’s crystal clear that the costs of doing so would easily exceed the costs of transit in the same location.

    That tells me that transit IS more cost effective than roads in dense urban environments but if someone can come up with a study that demonstrates that highways in downtown DC would be cheaper than Metro.. have at it.

    Why does transit not recover it’s full operational costs?

    I think the answer to that question is important and should be pursued but I strongly suspect that roads do not recover their costs either and that if the choice for commuters was paying TOLLS for roads or paying TOLLS (farebox) for transit.. that then the actual costs could be recovered for BOTH and they could compete on more equal footings.

    Moving further out from an urban core – to decide for growing/expanding urbanizing areas…. and trying to decide whether to invest in future transit or future roads.. is much more difficult – I would admit but it is quite clear that a whole bunch of transportation experts, elected officials, and the general public think transit is a viable choice in some circumstances usually where higher densities exist or will exist or are planned to exist.

    I think that is what has happened in essence.

    Many, even those who favor roads, will agree that higher densities point to transit solutions and where the argument is right now.. is whether you actually plan to have higher densities – and opposed to reacting to such density – after the fact.

    In other words.. there are more and more folks who think you should explicitly plan for density .. and transit…and I think that is where there is very heavy skepticism by those living in areas that have been designated for higher densities. (and perhaps rightly so).

  9. Anonymous Avatar

    I lived in Arlington very near a Metro. I got one parking space. I had two cars. It cost me big bucks to rent a second space.

    Bottom line – I got rid of the second car. That encourages transit use. That discourages putting more cars on roads that are overcrowded due to the unfunded mandates that localities put on the state when they approve overly-dense developments.

    What is Fairfax’s approach? Build the density, AND bow to developers’ wishes for plenty of parking. But that defeats the very purpose of the religion of Density that we all must practice in this new Theocracy (question not Holy Density).

    It puts more burdens on the state to improve roads. It takes more time out of my life as I must take more time to conduct daily business; what I consider a tax on my life span as I spend greater and greater amounts of time in the car.

    Ray and TMT are right. There is no balance, no assessment of what my rights as a small landowner are, no concern for the ability for me to enjoy my property by not having to rely on a totally overburdened road network.

    The Religion of Density worships a false god, at least as canon is taught in Fairfax county, and more are waking up to this fact. Density has its place and can offer benefits, but even near transit it must be balanced with the rights of ordinary taxpayers.

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