At 508 miles, Route 58 is the longest numbered road in Virginia. It stretches from Cumberland Gap to Virginia Beach, passing through Martinsville, Danville, Emporia, and Franklin along the way. When living in the New River Valley, I looked at taking it as a shortcut to the Outer Banks. That would have been a very long drive, indeed—460 is the way to go. It was built in 1931, using much of the 1918 State Routes 12 and 10. →
Sean Connaughton probably won’t sleep very well tonight.
A FOIA request reveals that he low-balled the estimate for building Charlottesville’s proposed Western Bypass, which might help explain why he pushed through approval of the thing, getting a four-person majority on the Albemarle Board of Supervisors to hold an unadvertised midnight vote to sign off on it in July. VDOT’s study just one month beforehand found that the road would cost $436M, but he told the BOS—and the Commonwealth Transportation Board—that it would be just $197M, less than half of the real price. He promised the BOS $197M in funding if they’d OK it, and then he got the CTB to allocate the money. Now it emerges that he knew that it would cost a great deal more than that. Folks in Albemarle are pretty pissed about how this has all gone down, just waiting for the other shoe to drop. Here it is.
The only possibility that Connaughton has for redemption is if somehow, mystically, the bids come in at less than half of VDOT’s estimates, and then the work actually gets done for that price. And if that’s the case, he’s got another problem—his engineers can’t even get in the ballpark of how much a road costs.
I’m wondering what to do with the news that the Federal Highway Administration has provided preliminary approval for Virginia to toll I-95. There’s so much that I don’t know about transportation funding. Here’s some of what I’d like to know:
- The funding from this can only go to 95, right?
- How much of the cost of construction and maintenance of 95 is current borne by Virginia, and how much is federally funded?
- Will the income from this toll be offset by a reduction in federal funding?
- Since Virginia traded the right to toll 81 (granted in 2003) for the right to toll 95, what’s the plan for 81?
To take a shot at answering one of those questions, I see that the DOT page about this program says that “[i]nterstate maintenance funds may not be used on a facility for which tolls are being collected under this program.” Are the interstate maintenance funds that are allocated to Virginia based on the number of miles of interstate that we have and, if so, does that mean that tolling 95 will result in a reduction in funding accordingly? Tolling 95 will bring in a surprisingly small amount of money: $50M annually. (VDOT’s budget for 2011 is $3,320M.) If we are going to lose some funding for our interstates, then what’s the net increase in funding?
I didn’t see any way that we were going to get approval for this, but it hadn’t occurred to me that the governor might sacrifice I-81 for I-95. Whether that’s a wise move, I have no idea, but I look forward to seeing the numbers.
Oh, and if you’re curious, there are a handful of places where 95 is tolled already, though none south of Maryland.
- Wikipedia: The National Road
One of the first highways in the country was the aptly named "National Road," running from Cumberland, Maryland to south-central Illinois, the road was to continue clear to Missouri, but the project ran out of cash. Construction of the 620-mile road ran from 1811–1838, having been authorized five years prior by President Thomas Jefferson. Today it's U.S. Highway 40. (Fun fact: U.S. highways with numbers that end in a zero run clear across the country, or at least did at one time.)
- The Washington Post: Ubiquitous ‘tiny belly’ online ad part of scheme, government says
Must we all pretend to be shocked that these awful ads are a scam? The surprising thing is that so many people didn't know—enough that losses to this fraud may exceed $1B.
- Gratiot County Herald Letters To The Editor
Ithaca, Michigan school superintendent Nathan Bootz wrote an open letter to the governor to ask that his school system be converted to a prison, noting that Michigan spends $30,000–$40,000/year on each prisoner, but only $7,000/year on each student.
- WVEC: Taxpayers foot the bill when the governor flies on state aircraft
I don't think it's inherently bad that Bob McDonnell is using state aircraft more than prior governors, but using a state plane to fly his family to the Shenandoah Apple Blossom Festival to have his daughter crowned as queen? Less good. More problematic is the governor's office's response to WVEC's FOIA request, trying to figure out how to avoid responding, and offering conceptual excuses—it's a long drive from Virginia Beach to Cumberland Gap, it's a money saver—for which there's no real-world scenarios that support those claims.
- New York Times: Steady Decline in Major Crime Baffles Experts
Violent crime is at at forty-year low. Combine this with the recent news that divorce is at a thirty-year low, and you can see how the pervasive claims of alarmists are just foolishness. Those who would have you believe that our country is more dangerous and marriages more disposable than ever are either ignorant or trying to sell you something.
- Public Policy Polling: Barbour, Bryant lead in Mississippi
Forget the point of this poll—the real news is that half of Mississippi Republicans think that interracial marriage should be illegal. Oh, and Sarah Palin is leading that bunch by a wide margin. Small government what now?
- New York Times: Rush to Use Crops as Fuel Raises Food Prices and Hunger Fears
Don't use food as fuel for cars. This isn't a hard concept.
- Entertainment Weekly: Glenn Beck’s Fox departure—Where will his audience go?
The New York Times reported a month ago that Fox was giving Glenn Beck the boot. Now it's official. Beck's audience has collapsed, a peril of the sky's continuous failure to fall, and he's got to find a new home.
- Washington Post: Hampton Roads lawyer David McCormick to seek 2012 GOP Senate nomination
Some random guy is running for the Republican nomination for Webb's seat. In his announcement, he compared himself to George Washington.
- New York Times: The Threatening Scent of Fertile Women
Men in stable, long-term relationships rank women as less attractive when they're ovulating than when they're not. It's part of "relationship maintenance," a defensive mechanism to prevent themselves (ourselves) from straying.
- PolitiFact Virginia: Gov. Bob McDonnell says Virginia road bids are the lowest in a generation
They're not. In fact, they cost twice as much as they did a generation ago, meaning that McDonnell's claim is the opposite of the truth.
- Richmond Times-Dispatch: Senate panel refuses to hear illegal immigration bills
I'm just making a note of this for future reference: Del. Lingamfelter says that when a subcommittee recommends killing a bill, and the committee subsequently strikes that bill from the docket, then they are "hiding, shirking their duty, when they should actually vote on the bills." So noted, Delegate.
This is a very clever simulation of what it's like to be a member of the working poor. It's worth spending at least a few minutes with this. It's like "Jones in the Fast Lane," that great old Sierra game, only you have no realistic chance of improving your lot in life.
- The Oregonian: Rep. David Wu’s staff confronted him over concerns about his mental health
This is the story how Congressman David Wu (D-OR) lost his mind. Shortly before last November's election, his entire campaign staff quit, convinced that he was mentally ill. He was reelected anyway. It's pretty clear that his staff was right. Now Portlanders are represented by this guy.
- DFW NBC: Armed Agent Slips Past DFW Body Scanner
An undercover TSA agent was able to get through a full-body scanner with a handgun not once, not twice, but as many times as she wanted.
Bob Lewis has a story today about the state’s slide into a fiscal morass of transportation funding that provides a peek at the stories to come in the years ahead. This is the sort of article that we’ll all look back at in five to ten years and wonder how we didn’t see it coming. You know the drill: We fund road construction and maintenance with car and gas sales, but revenue is down, while the ultimate cost of infrastructure maintenance is infinite—the more roads we build, the bigger our annual maintenance budget. A third of secondary roads are rated “deficient,” we’ve shut down half of our rest stops, VDOT is laying off essential employees, and every year it gets worse. We’ve got less than a decade to go until every penny of the transportation budget goes to maintenance, and none is left for construction; immediately thereafter, there will cease to be enough for even to cover that core maintenance. In plain English: Things are about to get really bad.
The solution is a tax hike. Now we can collect those however we can want. We can call them “fees” and collect tolls, we can privatize roads and charge people by the mile, we can allow localities to decide to tax themselves by referendum to fund local transit authorities, we can increase income taxes, we can reach gas taxes, and we can do any of a dozen different things. Call it whatever you want, but with a shortfall of this size, no amount of “cutting the fat” or fiscal sleight-of-hand will allow us to avert the necessity to have more of our money going to fund roads.
In his campaign for governor, Bob McDonnell talked a lot about about how he planned to fund transportation, but his transportation plan was a fiscal mirage. 2+2 != 1000, no matter how many times you run the numbers. It was a disingenuous, dishonest transportation plan on an issue in which he was over his head. But nobody reads position papers, and McDonnell knew that. So he could put together his “plan,” campaign on his plan, and get elected on that plan.
Opponent Creigh Deeds’ position, on the other hand, was incredibly ballsy one. Deeds said that the solution is higher taxes, that there’s no getting around it, and that he’d start with that as a premise for fixing the problem. When he said that, there was a sharp, collective inhalation from Democrats across the state. Did he just say that? Like Sen. Jim Webb supporting prison reform—only Webb is years away from reelection—Deeds was perfectly correct, but he was relying on the public acting like grown-ups, to remember how badly Gilmore fucked things up by offering everybody a free lunch (the memory of which got Warner and Kaine elected), and on McDonnell not to use that against him.
Obviously, that didn’t work out. Calling for a tax increase—even one years in the future, even ones passed only in localities, only by referendum—was a Hail Mary that failed, as they often do.
The good news for McDonnell is that his faux transportation plan got him elected. The bad news is that he’s got to deal with the transportation problem. Or not. He can do nothing about it, and while things will get bad, they won’t get truly Mad Max until the next governor takes office.
If Bill Bolling has any sense, he’s already gotten to work.
Further to Bob McDonnell’s plan to fund transportation, given the Post’s discovery of some deeply misleading math, see if you can follow this logical jujitsu in McDonnell’s plan. Tracing back this bit of the plan to its origins, the Wilder Commission report concluded:
We estimate that the dollar amount that could accrue from these streamlinings, outsourcings and eliminations, including the privatization of ABC, could total more than $500 million.
So that’s a result of a top-to-bottom reconsideration of how state government works—the ABC is just a sliver of that, small enough that the report doesn’t specify how much it would come to. So McDonnell’s plan says of that:
The Wilder Commission estimated that proposals to streamline and eliminate state agencies, including the privatization of ABC, could total more than $500 million.
Well, OK, that makes sense. But the next sentence is where things go off the rails:
Looking at other states’ experience in privatizing the distribution and retail aspect of alcohol sales and ABC’s annual profits, we estimate that Virginia could receive at least $500 million in the near term.
Whoa. What just happened there? A fraction of $500M just got turned into $500M in a passage so weak that that it would result in a quick  on Wikipedia, followed by a deletion a short time later. The only other evidence provided is in the final sentence on the topic:
A study conducted by the Reason Foundation for divesting Pennsylvania’s Liquor Control Board found that privatizing could result in approximately $1.7 billion dollars from the initial divestiture proceeds.
That’s nice for Pennsylvania. But what it has to do with Virginia, I don’t know, and McDonnell doesn’t say.
What McDonnell has done here is taken a study about a top-to-botom government overhaul, taken a lump number of $500M, claimed it applies to just one change in government, and then claimed that money could be used to pay for a big chunk of the state’s transportation bill that’s coming due. It’s some fancy footwork that’s rhetorically interesting, I’ll grant him that. But the financial equivalent of that is check kiting, and I’m pretty sure Virginia’s not going to get real far funding our roads like that.
Much of the plan relies on wildly optimistic assumptions, brazen exaggerations, gauzy projections and far-off scenarios: budget surpluses and revenue growth that may not materialize; interstate tolls that the federal government may not approve; royalties from offshore oil and gas wells that may not be drilled; borrowing that the state may not be able to afford anytime soon. Lump all that in a file called “Don’t Hold Your Breath.” Insert some of his other proposals — such as diverting some sales tax revenue from schools, public safety and human services statewide to pay for Northern Virginia road improvements — into a file called “Politically Dead on Arrival.” Quite simply, much of what Mr. McDonnell has in mind would almost certainly not come to pass during his four-year term as governor, if ever.
There is one aspect of McDonnell’s plan that I found appealing, and that’s the $500M that he proposes raising by privatizing the ABC. I think it’s bizarre that the state is in the liquor business, and I think we ought to sell them off before a court forces the state to, at which time they’ll go for fire-sale prices (because the state really won’t be in a position to negotiate). It turns out that the $500M number is totally invented. The editorial board asked the campaign where the number came from, and they had a couple of citations, one of which was a wildly optimistic theory for how Pennsylvania could benefit from selling off their stores, the other was Virginia’s Wilder plan, which provided no dollar value.
That’s the theme of McDonnell’s plan—there’s all of these “then a miracle occurs” steps. That’s not a plan. That’s a daydream.