Tag Archives: James A. Bacon

Saving the Potomac Aquifer

The SWIFT research center. Photo credit: Philip Shucet

by James A. Bacon

Broadly speaking, there are two approaches to dealing with increasingly stringent clean water regulations. One is to make incremental upgrades with the idea of deferring expensive capital outlays as long as possible, which is what most local governments do. The other is to go big and go bold — the option pursued by the Hampton Roads Sanitation District (HRSD) in its $1.2 billion Sustainable Water Initiative For Tomorrow (SWIFT) project.

As a regional sanitation district serving a population of 1.7 million, the HRSD has the size and resources to undertake projects of a magnitude that smaller municipal systems could only dream about. Under regulatory pressure to reduce algae bloom-causing nitrogen and phosphorus from wastewater released into the Chesapeake Bay, HRSD is implementing an ambitious scheme to treat the water and then pump it back into the Potomac aquifer. The hoped-for result is to slow the rate of land subsidence that contributes to increased flooding in the region.

HRSD’s ambitions are on display at a $25 million research center in Suffolk near the Monitor-Merrimac bridge tunnel. There, researchers are tweaking the process for cleaning about one million gallons daily — not only removing phosphorous, bacteria and viruses but breaking down organic chemicals found in medications tossed into sinks and toilets — to drinking water quality. By 2030, HRSD will apply the technology in five full-scale facilities capable of treating around 100 million gallons daily. Continue reading

Wonk Alert: Cool New Interactive Map

University of Virginia acceptance rate, 2017-18. Source: Virginia Public Access Project based on SCHEV data.

If you were a high school graduate from Dickenson County applying for admittance to the University of Virginia, the odds of getting accepted in 2017 and 2018 were 100%. If you were a high school graduate from Fairfax County, the odds were only a little better than one in three (37.7%). Sounds pretty unfair, huh?

But, then, you’ve got to consider that only three high school grads from Dickenson County even applied to UVa. Some 6,300 grads from Fairfax County applied.

Those data points and many, many more can be found in an informational graphic published on the Virginia Public Access Project. The interactive map is based on State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) data. Continue reading

Solar Developer Pulls Culpeper Application

Cricket Solar, developer of a proposed 1,600-acre solar farm in Culpeper County, has yanked its application in the face of extensive local opposition to the project, reports the Culpeper Star-Exponent.

“On behalf of Cricket Solar LLC, I am writing to formally withdraw Cricket’s Conditional Use Permit application,” wrote attorney Ann Neil Cosby in a letter to Culpeper County’s planning director. “Cricket has been working diligently over the last few months redesigning the project boundaries to protect wetlands, improve efficiencies, and respond to community concerns related to the project.”

A local group, Citizens for Responsible Solar (CSR), had called for the project to be delayed to address neighbors’ concerns about natural and historic resources in the area. Cricket gave no indication of if or when it might re-file.

Bacon’s bottom line: The delay-delay strategy has defeated a major solar farm project, at least for now. Now that CSR has scored a big victory, it is logical to ask whether the group will now rest on its laurels, content that it has protected its own back yard, or seek to build a crusade. Indications from its website are that the organization does plan to oppose other projects. Continue reading

Does Subsidized Blacksburg-to-D.C. Bus Service Make Economic Sense?

Virginia Breeze bus route. Map credit: Megabus

More than 19,300 people rode the Blacksburg-to-D.C. “Virginia Breeze” bus line launched by the Department of Rail and Public Transportation (DRPT) during its first year in operation. The $200,000 subsidy amounts to a subsidy of roughly $10 per ticket. Was that a good expenditure of public funds? Let’s dig into that question.

Partnering with Megabus, the inter-city bus company, DRPT rolled out the service in November 2017 with seven stops along Interstate 81 and in Northern Virginia. Greater Greater Washington describes the partnership this way:

Virginia has access to buses and logistical support without having to buy its own fleet or hire staff to maintain and drive them. For a ticket price ranging between $15 and $50, passengers on the 56-seat Breeze buses get a restroom, baggage storage, free Wi-Fi, and in-seat power outlets just like regular Megabus customers. Breeze riders can even buy interline tickets for Megabus destinations beyond the Union Station terminus, a first-of-its-kind feature in the US.

Continue reading

What Is the Ideal Percentage of White Kids in a School?

Fox Elementary

Many well-to-do white families in the Fan District of Richmond send their children to the neighborhood elementary school, William Fox Elementary. By many peoples’ standards, the student body would be considered “diverse.” The student body is 64% white, 18% black, eight percent Hispanic, and ten percent Asian, multiracial and other, according to SchoolDigger.com. Roughly a quarter of the students are considered economically disadvantaged.

But that’s not diverse enough for Superintendent Jason Kamras, who has thrown his support behind a school rezoning proposal that would combine the student bodies of white-majority Fox and Mary Munford elementary schools with black-majority George W. Carver Elementary and/or John B. Cary Elementary, depending on which of three options is selected.

“It’s a creative way to increase diversity and bring communities together,” Kamras told the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “It’s not perfect and there are significant implementation issues to be worked out, but I continue to believe it’s worth pursuing, as it will provide academic and social benefits to all children of all backgrounds.” Continue reading

The New Childcare Crisis: Affordability

Virginia Child Care Costs as a Percentage of Women’s Median Earnings, 2009-2017. Gray line: Infant center costs. Blue: line: four-year-old center costs. Source: National Women’s Law Center

by James A. Bacon

The cost of full-time infant care in Virginia has increased by 37% in inflation-adjusted dollars between 2008 and 2017, while women’s wages in the state have grown by only 5%, finds a new report by the National Women’s Law Center, “From Shortchanged to Empowered: A Pathway to Improving Women’s Well-Being in Virginia.” As a percentage of income, the cost of infant-center care has surged from 24% of women’s median earnings to 31%.

The study suffers from the usual victimhood rhetoric regarding women’s income — asserting that Virginia women earn only 80.9% of what men earn without adjusting for occupations, education and length of time in the workforce — which makes me wonder if the child-care data is similarly subject to tendentious analysis. With that caveat in mind, there does appear to be a problem, and it’s one that is especially devastating for poor women who see an ever large share of their income consumed by child care.

What the study doesn’t do is inquire into why the cost of child care has risen so precipitously in the past decade. For that information, we must turn to Adele Uphaus-Conner with the Free Lance-Star who, while dutifully and uncritically reporting the study’s findings, actually went out and interviewed someone in the community who knew something about the topic! Continue reading

Community Colleges and the Opportunity Society

Increase in undergraduate, in-state tuition & fees between 2015-16 academic year and 2019-20 academic year. Data source: SCHEV

by James A. Bacon

What does it take to create an Opportunity Society? One critical element is providing Virginians with the skills they need to be employable in the occupations of the future. Nearly three out of five jobs created between now and 2026 will be “middle skill” jobs requiring community- or career-college training, not a four-year college degree. A majority of Virginians, therefore, will look to the Virginia Community College System (VCCS) for their ticket to the middle class.

Virginia’s community college system doesn’t get its due. The VCCS board is acutely aware of the affordability issue, and it has made it a priority to limit increases in tuition and fees. I thought it would be interesting to contrast the VCCS’s success in that regard to the runaway tuition-and-fees increases at Virginia’s public four-year residential colleges. I took the latest data from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) Tuition and Fees database to compare increases between the 2015-16 academic year and the current 2019-20 academic year.

You can see from the chart above that the community colleges have done a far superior job of keeping charges under control. Community colleges on average increased T&F only 8.1% over the four-year period compared to a range for the four-years of 10.1% for Virginia State University to 22% for the College of William & Mary. (Richard Bland, a two-year residential college is an extreme outlier.)

What accounts for the difference? Continue reading

The New African Migration

Image source: Pew Research Center

by James A. Bacon

While the United States indulges in an orgy of introspection over the 400th anniversary of enslaved Africans arriving on the shores of Virginia, it might be worthwhile reminding ourselves that that was then, and this is now. It may have escaped the notice of the New York Times, but the country has changed.

Africans are coming voluntarily to the United States by the tens of thousands every year. And, in an irony of ironies according to a 2017 Pew Research Center report, African immigrants are most likely to live in the South — 39% reside in the former center of slavery compared to 25% in the Northeast, and much smaller percentages in the Midwest and West. Virginia, by the way is one of seven states with African-born populations of more than 100,000.

Historians estimate that 400,000 enslaved Africans came to North America during the 200-year period in which the trans-Atlantic slave trade was practiced in the English colonies and the newly independent United States. Pew estimates that 2 million Africans (the vast majority of whom are from sub-Saharan countries) have emigrated to the U.S. since 1990. Americans need to be honest about the nation’s past of slavery, Jim Crow segregation, and discrimination. But we also need to be honest about the nation that we have become. America is a land of opportunity for all people of all races and ethnicities.

Do “White People” Suppress Black History?

Christy Coleman

by James A. Bacon

Christy Coleman, CEO of the American Civil War Museum in Richmond and an African-American, professes to know how white people think. Here’s what she said yesterday at a Richmond forum that, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, was organized “to dispel racism against African Americans.”

White people want to feel good about their history, and that means everyone else has to forget about theirs. Well, I’m not in that business.

Wow.

First point: I’m such a dinosaur I can remember what it was like growing up in the 1960s when I was taught that it was wrong to make sweeping generalities about the people of other races and cultures. That was called “stereotyping.” When applied to blacks and minorities, stereotyping was considered a form of racism. Now, apparently, it is deemed acceptable to make sweeping derogatory generalities about “white people.” Continue reading

Crash and Burn: How Misguided Policies Ruin Lives

by James A. Bacon

Give Richmond educators credit for brutal honesty. A presentation of the school system’s five-year plan surfaced some devastating data: Only one in ten Richmond high school students is ready for college and a career, according to College Board criteria. If it’s any comfort, that number is up from 9% in the 2017-18 school year.

“Finally we can demonstrate with empirical evidence that RPS has failed our students and our families and our city,” said Board member Jonathan Young, as quoted by the Richmond Times-Dispatch. That sentiment was echoed by Superintendent Jason Kamras. “It’s devastating. We, the adults, have failed our kids for years.”

Indeed, the educational system has not only failed Richmond’s predominantly African-American students, it has shepherded many young people into college programs from which they subsequently dropped out. Left unsaid in the analysis is that college drop-outs are typically saddled with thousands of dollars in student debt, which many cannot repay. In other words, the coupling of high expectations (every student has a right to attend college) with abysmal performance is ruining thousands of lives. Continue reading

Slow and Steady Wins the Budget Race

by James A. Bacon

Thanks in part to a $797 million surplus in last year’s budget, Virginia will build up its budget reserves to $1.6 billion by the end of the 2020 fiscal year, and Governor Ralph Northam is promising to take a “cautious and strategic” approach to the next biennial budget.

“During the next budget cycle we will continue laying a strong foundation for Virginia — preparing for a rainy day while investing responsibility in our long-term growth,” the governor said in an address to General Assembly budget committees.

Northam highlighted the $20 billion in economic development announcements made since he has taken office, more than any previous administration in a full four-year term. But looking ahead, he took note of increasing economic uncertainty heightened by the trade war with China. Speaking personally, he described how retaliatory tariffs could keep the soy beans grown on his family farm in the Eastern Shore “in the fields if we can’t sell them.” Continue reading

Educators Focus on Critical 3rd-Grade English Pass Rates

Virginia educators are honing in on a key metric, the Standards of Learning pass rate for 3rd-grade English, that needs focused attention. One in four Virginia 3rd graders aren’t reading at grade level by the 3rd grade, and SOL test scores fell for the third straight year, from a 76% pass rate to a 71% pass rate in the 2018-19 school year, reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Third-grade English reading skills are deemed especially critical in childhood educational development. Third grade represents the transition point between learning to read and reading to learn. Studies suggest that half of what students are taught later in school will be incomprehensible if they are not reading proficiently by the end of third grade.

There seems to be no consensus among experts quoted in the article about what to do. Ideas range from hiring more reading specialists to adopting phonics-oriented curricula, to confronting food insecurity. Superintendent of Public Instruction James Lane said Virginia Department of Education staff will take a close look at schools that did not see drops in SOL scores to see what they might be doing right and whether their practices can be replicated.

That’s a dandy idea. I have some suggestions… Continue reading

Bacon Bits: Whistling Past the Graveyard

Feel-good story of the day. Northern Virginia boy scouts have cleaned up the neglected Alexandria cemetery named for abolitionist Frederick Douglass. They raked leaves, trimmed trees, and installed a new sign, according to the Washington Post. The black cemetery fell into disrepair over the years because no Alexandria church or other nonprofit cares for it; the city of Alexandria allocates only a nominal sum for upkeep, mostly mowing.

Boomerang watch. The Mountain Valley Pipeline has suspended all construction activities that could negatively impact four endangered or threatened species: the Indiana bat, the northern long-eared bat, the Roanoke logperch, and the candy darter, reports Virginia Mercury. For the time being, the pipeline company will refrain from tree-clearing, non-maintenance-related road building, grading and trenching, and stream-disturbing activities. Inquiring minds want to know: If such activities are permanently banned in and around habitat of threatened species, will it be possible to build wind turbines anywhere in the Blue Ridge or Allegheny Mountains?

The real structural racism. John Butcher delves into the latest SOL scores for Richmond’s Carver Elementary school, where cheating by teachers and administrators had artificially elevated SOL test scores last year. Now that the testing issues have been resolved, the tragic dimensions of students’ educational under-performance have been laid bare. Students rated as “economically disadvantaged” passed reading, writing, math, history and science at rates in the 20% to 32% range — far lower than the rate for economically disadvantaged children in most other schools. Richmond school officials blame racial bias and under-funding. But the real racism is that poor kids are trapped in a failing because Virginia’s educational establishment does everything in its power to block escape hatches in the form of charter schools or tax-favored scholarships. Continue reading

Can VT Thrive If It Alienates Half the Population?

Virginia Tech is hot right now — very hot. The university is building a high-tech campus in Alexandria, its fund-raising efforts are collecting unprecedented sums of money, its faculty members are snaring serious venture capital funding. And in a new Money magazine survey ranking U.S. universities by “value,” it logged a very respectable position at No. 34.

The big question is whether Tech can sustain this momentum while transforming its campus culture into such an in-your-face caricature of political correctness that it risks offending large swaths of its customer base — middle-class parents who hew to more conservative values. The indoctrination of leftist values on issues of gender, sexuality, and race in this fall’s orientation was offensive to some.

Writes Penny Nance in the Federalist, “I was shocked to experience what I can only describe as extreme and overtly leftist propaganda. … The school constantly defined and showcased identity group politics. … As a mom, part of me wanted to load my son in the car and head up the road to Liberty University.” Continue reading

Delay-and-Block for Pipelines… and Solar?

Last December the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond found that the 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail is part of the National Park System, which blocks federal agencies from authorizing a pipeline crossing. Depending upon U.S. Supreme Court action, the ruling in the Cowpasture River Preservation Association v. U.S. Forest Service case could well doom the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which crosses the trail in order to connect Midwest shale gas with Southeastern markets.

Noah Sachs, an environmental law professor at the University of Richmond, asks a provocative question: “Did the Fourth Circuit really turn the Appalachian Trail into a ‘Great Wall’ that blocks all energy transport from the Midwest to the East Coast, as many energy industry analysts have suggested?”

In an essay in The American Prospect, Sachs argues that Cowpasture doesn’t preclude all crossings of the Appalachian Trail, so the “great wall” analogy may not be apt. But here’s a passage that I found profoundly disturbing:

The real significance of the Cowpasture case is that it uses the Appalachian Trail crossing as a legal hook to delay and block the pipeline and raise its costs. There’s nothing wrong with delay-and-block tactics. It’s a strategy that environmentalists have been using since the 1960s. And as the climate crisis heats up, it’s a virtuous one.

Continue reading