Swatting the Hornet’s Nest

I told Jim when I sent him the draft copy for my latest column that it might generate some vigorous discussion. Good soul that he is, my editor replied that while the writing was good, the conclusions were off base. This pleased the contrarian in me no-end.

In part it’s because I take issue with the Conservative Transportation Alternative, which made a minor splash a few days ago. What a great idea — bold, daring, and with graphs, too! It can’t be bad, right?

But is this really a conservative document? Many of the folks (some of whom I know and respect) who signed on to it are conservatives, even libertarians. The title says it is conservative. And here and there are strains of conservative orthodoxy (Barnie Day’s “dog whistles”). But the conclusions they reach (or at least those the paper’s writer reaches) strike me as not conservative at all, but more along the lines of a central planner — one who seems to think that homes breed people and roads create cars…who thinks that controls are essential, because individuals simply cannot be trusted to make their own decisions…and who ultimately believes that these same people are an increasing inconvenience to both bureaucrats and their budgets.

Is that conservative? Eh…no.

Now bring on the brickbats.

Share this article


(comments below)


(comments below)


  1. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Norm, here’s how I would start the dialogue with you on this issue. I would ask you a question: How would you characterize the system of transportation and land use that we have in Virginia today?

    Would you describe transportation and land use in Virginia as a free market? Alternatively, is it shaped by government regulations and/or subsidies? Do you perceive the system as influenced in any way by rent-seekers — those who would manipulate the political process to their advantage?

    Once you’ve answered those questions, we can start to have a conversation about what is wrong (or right) with the system and how best to improve it.

  2. Anonymous Avatar

    Conservative? Hah. More like GOSPLAN.

  3. Norman Leahy Avatar
    Norman Leahy

    GOSPLAN…now that’s funny.

    Jim, I can appreciate your points, but I think you might be looking at this as a one way street.

    How would I characterize the land use system we have today? Much the same as it’s always been — driven by a mixture of market forces, regulation, hopes, fears and dreams. And a bit of honest graft, as well. The transportation system is a dinosaur — a relic of the post-Depression era that, for all its flaws, also serves the peculiar interests of those who know how to game it effectively.

    Are markets at all present? Yes and no. To its credit, Virginia has been a leader in public-private partnerships, but needs to think far more boldly about what it can and should do to encourage private investment in road construction (yes, build more capacity). Do subsidies and other distortions exist? Of course they do. Conversely, these same distortions also serves the needs of those who know how to game the system. And as for rent seeking — here, the action does work both ways. Builders may be on the prowl for special deals to plump their bottom lines. At the same time, though, bureaucrats seek rents of their own (you’ve got a nice subdivision planned there, Mr. Developer. I’ll approve it, if you build me a park across town. Or hire my brother-in-law’s contracting firm. Or how about a campaign contribution?).

    I bridle against the notion that all we need is more planning by the very people who’ve mucked things up right now.

  4. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    I don’t see much different in Virginia than other states, Dillon Rule or Home Rule.

    We seem to be facing many of the same issues as other States and unless someone else see’s something unique to Virginia .. we at least need to distinguish between what are Virginia-unique (lower hanging fruit) reforms that might be made verses wider-scope reforms – which would put Virginia in a leadership role.

    We can march up and down the East Coast in virtually all the urban areas and urban corridors and see very similar issues.

    VDOT is actually considered one of the more enlightened DOTs.

    One thing that is under the radar right now that is going to have a significant impact on future development in Virginia is major changes being made to Secondary Street Acceptance Requirements by VDOT.


    “Intended to ensure streets accepted into state system for perpetual public maintenance provide commensurate public benefit”

    and will require more internal and external (vehicle AND pedestrian) connectivity for subdivision roads as a condition of perpetual maintenance.

    The new rules will require developers to essentially decide if they are building a private road community or roads that can be used for connectivity between developments, schools, shopping, etc.

    Of course, the other alternative being offered is for the locality itself to take on the maintenance.

    Will this stop “SPRAWL”?

    not one wit.. but it might depend on how one defines what it is.

    Will it prevent folks from driving 50 miles between where they work and live? Nope.

    Will HOT lanes prevent folks “SPRAWLING” to single family homes with backyards? I’m pretty skeptical.

    Bonus Question:

    What IF – we make the price of a VRE commuter rail ticket exactly the same as a HOT lane toll?

  5. Amen for Mr. Leahy’s common sense.

    The current transportation orthodoxy is built around “let’s make it miserable to live here” so that people want to move away. As the column points out, the method of increasing misery is to divert cash from road expansion and blow it on billion dollar transit boondoggles.

    There’s nothing conservative about using the power of government to transfer wealth from drivers to bus riders. There’s nothing conservative about boosting government revenue simply by pretending that there’s a difference between taxes and “user fees.”

  6. D.J. McGuire Avatar
    D.J. McGuire

    OK, Norm, I’m confused.

    Are you telling me you would prefer subdivision roads, which benefit no one but the residents, to remain on the public grid and be subsidized by taxpayers at large?

    Are you telling me that it would be better for VDOT to build and maintain secondary roads than the various localities?

    The CTA remomves state government involvement from the parts of the road network in which it does not belong, and enables counties to ensure the people who actually value the roads will pay for it. More to the point, it leaves open the possibility of removing government altogether from parts of the road network where it doesn’t belong (i.e., subdivision roads).

    We on the right have been living under the fallacy the the government should be the preferred road builder 24/7 for too long.

    Oh, and Bob, I would submit that it is the essence of limited government to promote a plan under which you, Norm, Jim, and everyone else no longer need pay for my street.

  7. Norman Leahy Avatar
    Norman Leahy


    VDOT does not build the secondary roads you mention — developers do. While that’s a quibble, I think it’s incredibly silly for VDOT to be paving cul-de-sacs in Fairfax. Busting up the Byrd-era VDOT system is a good thing. But this plan really doesn’t make much of a case for it.

    Instead, it veers off into central planning by advocating that decisions on where and whether to build those roads (and the homes and businesses to which they lead) should be vested in the same government entities. I always thought conservatives were leery of concentrating authority and decision-making in any government body — particularly when some of those bodies are decidedly anti- or “smart” growth. Perhaps the definitions have changed.

    Should government be the default road builder? No, it should not. However, this plan comes down against the idea of anyone — public or private — building additional capacity to ease congestion. That’s a monumental fallacy in itself.

    If you wanted an anti-growth plan, this is it.

  8. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Norm, It sounds like we agree on some fundamentals.

    (1) We agree that land use in Virginia is heavily regulations through zoning codes, comprehensive plans, subdivision ordinances, environmental regulations and a lot of other stuff. Insofar as there is a “market” for real estate, it operates within parameters drawn by government.

    (2) We agree (I think) that the system is influenced by subsidies. When the state taxes the general population and decides where and when to build roads (and other transportation assets), it increases the value of land located in proximity to those roads. Thus, the system we have in place is the product not only of regulation but subsidies. (We could talk about other subsidies implicit in location-variable costs, not to mention the homeowner’s mortgage deduction, or the massive subsidies for mass transit, but I want to keep this simple.)

    (3) We agree that with government exercising so much control over land use and transportation outlays, there is a tremendous incentive for special interests to work the system. Developers, home builders and road contractors are among the more visible and powerful of these groups, but they are not the only ones. NIMBYs game the system. So do environmentalists. The system of transportation and land use we have reflects the political pulling and tugging of all these groups.

    Bottom line: I think we can safely say that we do not now have anything resembling a “free market” in land use and transportation. We already have a system that is subject to considerable government control.

    Now, let me ask you another question. What verbiage in the Conservative Alternative suggests to you that the authors are calling for more government control?

    Here’s what I see in the proposal. Don’t increase taxes. Don’t borrow. Don’t divert transportation dollars to other uses. Encourage greater investment and innovation by the private sector. Use performance- based criteria to guide the investment of construction dollars.
    These all strike me as being fully consistent with a free-market approach to transportation.

    Your biggest objection, as I understand it, is the idea to transfer responsibility for *secondary roads* to cities and counties, along with the revenue to build and maintain them. Somehow, that represents a scary “concentration of power.”

    That concentration of power already exists in all Virginia cities and two counties (Arlington and Henrico). Have you observed that it has led to greater abuses in those jurisdictions than in those jurisdictions where the powers are separated? Is the transportation infrastructure noticeably worse in Arlington and Henrico…. or better?

    Who would you say has done a better job planning for and executing transportation strategy?

    Arlington or Fairfax?

    Henrico or Chesterfield?

  9. The Logician Avatar
    The Logician

    Eureka! I think I finally figured it out…

    Sprawl (increasing population while decreasing population density, as I define it), causes the traffic problems, right? And sprawl, too many homes and too many roads, is, at its root, caused by people. People with the monetary resources to build/buy new homes and patronize new strip malls.

    So really all we need to do is sabotage the local economy. We’ll call it the “Detroit Theory.” Discourage innovation. Tax the heck out of business. Repeal “Right to Work” legislation so Unions can make enterprising unprofitable.

    Businesses move out of state, payrolls shrink, and population shrinks with it. Home values plummet, making decent homes closer to the urban core more affordable to the average American.

    Fewer jobs = a cessation of sprawl. Worked for Michigan, didn’t it?

    Oh, what’s that? My sarcasm isn’t helping? Sorry ’bout that.

  10. “Don’t increase taxes. Don’t borrow. Don’t divert transportation dollars to other uses. Encourage greater investment and innovation by the private sector.”

    The word “innovation” gets tossed around quite a bit with respect to using public private partnerships to build toll roads. In the UK, the first private road leasing deal using tolls was signed in 1665. So, uh, where’s the innovation? The gas tax is more properly innovative (newer and more efficient).

    Tolls are taxes, and leasing public property to private companies is borrowing. Let’s take the innovative HOT lane deal for 95/395/495. VDOT gets up-front lump sum from Transurban for the right to take over existing lanes based on the toll taxes that the public will be stuck paying for 30 years or more. The bottom line is that Tim Kaine can spend away money in 2008 that we’ll be paying for into the year 2038 and beyond. How is that not borrowing?

    “Don’t divert transportation dollars to other uses?” Amen!

    There seems to be a fantasy that it’s possible to build entirely private sector roads without using the power of government. Maybe some minor secondary roads, but if you’re talking about anything more than that, good luck getting land in NOVA without using eminent domain. Good luck building an entirely private road without a non-compete contract to ensure a steady level of traffic (by creating artificial congestion on alternate routes). Without those kinds of government-enforced clauses, the cost of borrowing money skyrockets. In the real world, two toll tunnels in Australia (Cross City and Lane Cove) went bankrupt when non-compete clauses went unenforced due to pesky public outrage.

    I wonder if some on here would endorse having regional armies instead of a state national guard. Why should I pay for the US Army base at Fort AP Hill? It’s not defending me in NOVA. I should only pay for the northern Virginia soldiers at Fort Belvoir. While I’d like to see the size of the federal government reduced at least 90%, there’s still a need for the feds and there’s still a need for the states. Under this “conservative” plan, why not just break everything up into autonomous counties and call it a day?

  11. Norman Leahy Avatar
    Norman Leahy


    Again, you and I can agree on many points. However, the portion that you place in scare quotes — planning – is indeed a reason conservatives — of all people — ought to look askance at concentrating planning decisions into a few hands. Why? Here’s one reason…their incentives.

    I would also suggest that the litany of don’t you list includes another — don’t build, roads or houses. Again, that’s not exactly a recipe for prosperity.

  12. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Logician, sarcasm has its place. But you would use it to greater effect if you engaged the ideas that people are actually advocating, as opposed to ssetting up straw-man arguments that no one recognizes. Go back, actually read (don’t skim… read) the “Conservative Transportation Alternative” and critique what it says, as opposed to what you think it says.

    I would offer the same advice to others whose comments suggest that they have not actually read the piece.

  13. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Bob, As a point of fact, the developers of the Dulles Toll Road Extension built the limited access highway without the use of eminent domain. Landowners along the route contributed the right of way. It took a long time and a lot of negotiation, but it was done. And it could be done more frequently if we could get away from the idea that it’s the states’ responsibility to build all roads.

    Let me also take a philosophical issue to something you said: Tolls are *not* taxes. Well, some tolls are, like the toll on the Dulles Toll Road which was maintained, even jacked up, after the construction bonds were paid off. That represents a transfer of wealth from toll payers to train riders and landowners benefiting from the Rail-to-Dulles rail project.

    I define a tax as a levy that is taken from one person and then redistributed to someone else. By contrast, with a toll on a newly constructed facility, the person paying the toll is getting something in return — access to a transportation facility that did not exist before. That is not a tax. Wealth is not being arbitrarily redistributed. Likewise, with a congestion toll, the person paying the toll is getting something for his payment — access to scarce highway capacity during periods of peak demand. That is not a tax.

    Those distinctions are fundamental, not trivial. By obscuring them, you rule out a number of transportation -funding options.

  14. Anonymous Avatar

    Tax: A fee charged (“levied”) by a government on a product, income, or activity.

    Tax: Charge levied by a governmental unit on income, consumption, wealth, or other basis.

    Sorry Jim, a toll is a tax.

    Any time government gets money out of my pocket, it’s a tax.

    Call it something else, rename it, justify it,rationalize it, redefine it any way you want. If it goes from my pocket to the government, it’s a tax.

    If it isn’t a tax, it still comes under the general heading of tax.

    And these tolls ARE going to be redistributed to someone else, so they are definitely a tax.

    There is only one funding option for transportation – more money. We can argue about who it comes from, but for whoever it is, it’s a tax.


    The other option is less travel. Or as EMR put it, fewer people using fewer resources. Logician has reached the correct conclusion as to where that leads.

    It might actually be the best answer, but we should be clear about the results – and they won’t be cost free. Somebody is going to have to decide who are the first people that become fewer. Of the ones that are left, someone will have to decide how much fewer resources are enough for them.

    In other words, its a tax.


  15. I stand corrected re: eminent domain with the Dulles Greenway example. I still wonder, though, whether what was done from 1986-1994 would be possible in the area today. I’m thinking more in the 95/395/495 corridor which desperately needs more capacity.

    To get back to fundamentals, regardless of whether a toll is a tax, I rule out “a number of transportation funding options” because they make no economic sense at all from the perspective of the guy in the car who has to pay twice as much to get less with tolls.

    RH addressed the fee/tax question.

  16. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    the anti-toll folks in this blog and the R’s in the GA .. ARE … BUSH league in their approach to this problem:


    “Hanna supports bill for tax-free, toll-free plan to fix roads and bridges and bridges”

    HARRISBURG — Rep. Mike Hanna, D-Lock Haven, says he supports newly introduced legislation that would end a plan to toll Interstate 80 while cutting state police funding from the Motor License fund.

    Reps. Keith McCall, D-Lansford, and David G. Argall, R-Tamaqua, announced new legislation Monday, which they say would provide $2.75 billion over the next 10 years and $500 million each year after to pay for road and bridge repairs across Pennsylvania.

    Their legislation would include no new taxes and no new tolls on Pennsylvania highways

    The lawmakers’ plan — House Bill 2309 — would phase out over a period of 10 years the practice of providing funding for the state police out of the Motor License Fund.

    Currently, the state uses nearly $500 million from the Motor License Fund to pay for state police services. Under the lawmakers’ plan, this money would go toward road and bridge repairs and the state police funding would be supplied through the state’s general operating budget.


    geeze.. the least youse guys could do would be to use a little better creativity in your arguments…

  17. Anonymous Avatar

    I’ll just chime in and say I agree with the proposal. It’s a fundamental shift from the status quo however.

    Local roads
    Can’t have tolls realistically so I am assuming the counties will pick up the costs.

    Regional roads
    Assume we toll these problem solved

    Federal government pays and maintains

    This seems pretty fair and straight forward to me

    Some outlying questions

    what is the role of proffers in all of this (how should costs be divided up between new and existing residents)

    how will transportation networks be coordinated across county lines
    For example in Loudoun County Route 50 was proposed to add an additional lane. Fairfax County did not want to add a lane. Loudoun County would setup a toll to pay for the new lane and then in Fairfax you would have a traffic nightmare but you would not pay a toll :-p.

    How would megaprojects be funded. For example the Springfield interchange still used 10% of state funds. Where would this new money come from? Its not practical to toll the interstate. Would Fairfax now be expected to pick up the tab?


  18. D.J. McGuire Avatar
    D.J. McGuire


    You’re right, developers build the roads, but that just makes my point all the more.

    The CTA specifically calls for downloading secondary roads down to localities; if that’s not breaking up the VDOT system, nothing is.

    Moreover, this hardly concentrates local power as you state. Rather, it puts subdivision roads on the roughly same plane as sewer and electricity: as an expected utility cost to the homeowner. If one county wants to subsidize road maintenance, that’s its call.

    Again, your main assumption seems to eb that if government won’t pay for a road, it won’t be built. That fallacy must go, and it must go now.

    Does the CTA get rid of it? Not as much as I’d like, but it’s moves much closer to that reality than the status quo.

    As for power concentration, I would very much prefer government power more “concentrated” in local government (which is far more accountable to voters) than diffused within the branches of government to the point where accountability disappears.

  19. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    “As for power concentration, I would very much prefer government power more “concentrated” in local government (which is far more accountable to voters)”


    and to this point – local BOS has made land-use decisions while telling their citizens that VDOT would take care of the roads.

    and VDOT would oblige them by putting those roads on it’s 6 yr plan list.

    When it became clear that VDOT had a much bigger list of roads to build than they ever had money for…

    … the local Pols started blaming the “State” for not “adequately” funding transportation… (as if the State would not raise the taxes on folks in their own county).

    If this change takes place, and all Virginia counties have to do what Alexandria and Henrico (and all Va cities) have been doing all along, voters in those counties will figure out that the local BOS is responsible for the transportation consequences of their land-use decisions).

Leave a Reply