Friday, November 26, 2010

DOT Rejects Tiger II Grant for U.S. 1 Transit Study

All significant improvements to U.S. 1 must be approved by the federal government. Before any significant widening of U.S. 1 can occur, a Centerline Study must be completed and because the future configuration of U.S. 1 includes transit (dedicated bus lanes, light rail and/or Metro), a transit study must be done before the Federal Highway Administration (FHA) will approve a centerline configuration.

This past fall, the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) issued the new U.S. Centerline Study for all of U.S. 1 from Fredericksburg to Washington, D.C. but excluded the section of U.S. 1 from Woodlawn to Old Town because no transit study was funded. I consider the funding of this transit study to be the number one transportation priority for the Mount Vernon community today. Until this is done, design work for U.S. 1 widening cannot even get funded, nor can U.S. 1 get on to VDOT's twelve-year plan.

This Spring, I contacted Congressmen Moran and Connolly regarding funding the transit study as part of the BRAC process and they suggested that we seek funding through the second round of Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grants - also called TIGER II - through the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT).

This summer, Fairfax County submitted a TIGER II application that included a request for $1 million for the U.S. 1 transit study. On October 20, 2010, the USDOT announced its grant awards and zero projects were funded in Virginia.

In the meantime, I have been lobbying VDOT and Virginia Transportation Secretary Connaughton to fund this transit study either through the $1 billion VDOT recently identified that was available for projects or through normal processes. The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors also requested that the U.S. 1 Transit Study be funded from the $1 billion as well. I also intend to introduce a Budget Amendment this session for an earmark. My letter to Secretary Connaughton is below along with his response.

Congestion on U.S. 1 is completely unacceptable and will only continue to get worse over the next 20 years.

Letter to Sec. Connaughton Regarding Funding of U.S. 1 Transit Study

Letter From Sec. Connaugton 11-19-10 Re: U.S. 1 Transit Study

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Costco & U.S. 1 Transportation

Change may be coming to the most congested part of U.S. 1 within the 44th District, but it is not in the form of traffic relief.

Costco is proposing a 143,000 SF store at the old Multiplex site on U.S. 1. According to the analysis, U.S. 1 currently handles about 60,000 vehicles per day. The store is expected to add about 4,500 trips per day to the intersections surrounding that property.

While having a Costco in the district will be much more convenient for the residents of the 44th District, will bring some jobs, and clean up a blighted property, there is going to be a trade off in the form of significantly increased traffic in an existing congested location.

I am concerned about the impact this will have on long-term traffic flow on U.S. 1, Sherwood Hall Lane, and Mount Vernon Highway. I am looking for feedback.

The U.S. Army's studies (See Figures D-8 & D-9) have predicted the BRAC improvements are predicted to add at least an additional 1,000 vehicle trips per day to U.S. 1 north of Fort Belvoir. Traffic volumes on U.S. 1 are also expected to grow over time.

There are no plans to fund any significant improvements or widening this stretch of U.S. 1 in the near decade. Costco is proposing the following improvements.
  • Modification of the signal timing splits at the Richmond Highway/Ladson Lane intersection to provide additional green time for heavier turn movements.
  • Modification of the signal timing splits at the Richmond Highway/Sherwood Hall Lane/Wal-Mart Driveway intersection.
  • Modification of the signal timing splits at the Richmond Highway/Buckman Road/Mount
    Vernon Highway intersection.
  • Construction of an exclusive southbound right-turn lane at the Richmond Highway/Ladson Lane intersection.
  • Construction of an exclusive westbound right-turn lane at the Ladson Lane/Site Entrance intersection.
  • Closure of the existing median break at the intersection of Richmond Highway and entrance to the Spring Garden Apartments.
  • Extension of the existing northbound leftturn lane at the intersection of Richmond Highway/Sherwood Hall Lane/Wal-Mart Driveway intersection to approximately 625

An in depth discussion and analysis of this proposal along with maps, including the 300+ pages of appendices and VDOT's response to the analysis is available on VDOT's website. The important documents are here:

Costco's Transportation Analysis Impact Study

VDOT Website: Costco Land Track Submission Details

Please provide me with your comments in the form below or CLICK HERE. All comments provided will be forwarded to Supervisor Hyland, McKay, Bulova and Costco.


Thursday, November 18, 2010

Plastic Bags & Mt. Vernon's Watersheds **UPDATED**

Quander Brook runs from Beacon Hill and parallel's U.S. 1 near Belle Haven where it empties into Great Hunting Creek near the Woodrow Wilson Bridge. During my campaign and during a trash cleanup I sponsored last Spring (See, The Dixie Pig, Cleaning Up Quander Brook), I was astonished by the number of plastic bags that were in Quander Creek.

They get caught on fallen limbs and tree roots and creating "trash dams" in the creeks themselves. Plastic bags make up much of the trash in Paul Spring, Little Hunting Creek, and Dogue Creek all of which run through the 44th District which has U.S. 1's and its retail outlets running through nearly all of its watersheds. This picture to the left is a plastic bag in the culvert next to 7-11 behind Hollin Hall Shopping Center that feeds into Paul Spring Branch.

In 2009, the District of Columbia enacted a $.05 per bag tax on plastic bags to help clean up the Anacostia & Potomac Rivers. Plastic bag consumption dropped from 22.5 million bags to 3 million bags per month and generated $150,000 to help clean up the Anacostia River.

These bags were banned in China in 2009 saving that country 40 billion bags or 37 million barels of crude oil. Last month, Los Angeles County adopted a plastic bag ban and required retailers to sell paper bags for $0.10 each.

Aside from creating trash, plastic bags harm aquatic turtles and sea turtles that mistake them for jellyfish. They take up landfill waste. They are incredibly expensive to recycle.

Last session, Delegate Adam Ebbin introduced legislation mandating a $0.05 per plastic and paper bag tax on plastic bags in Virginia to raised funds for the Virginia Water Quality Improvement Fund. The legislation failed in committee.

I am curious what Mount Vernon's residents think about solutions to this problem and I have included a survey below.

The Roanoke Times ran an editorial regarding movement in the City of Roanoke to request local authority to tax plastic shopping bags. The editorial can be read here.


Saturday, November 6, 2010

VRS Sounds the Alarm

Last session, the State Budget was balanced in-part by the State deferring about $690 million of retirement contributions and promising to pay them back over the next 10 years. At the time, we were told that stock market gains had filled the Virginia Retirement Systems' coffers and that we could afford to do this.

Localities were also given the same option and many local governments who use VRS - such as Fairfax County Public Schools - did the same thing. It balanced the budget, but it mortgaged the future.

I voted against the Budget for many reasons, including this strategy and I wrote about it extensively at the time we passed the budget.

This move would be the same as deciding not to contribute to your 401K for one year and making your contribution in the future. This kind of move is not fiscally conservative or prudent. It is risky. I also did not think that the writers of the Constitution of Virginia would think that a budget was balanced if you used a gimmick like this - from my point of view, this was de facto borrowing which is prohibited in Virginia.

The Pew Center on the States has also estimated that state pension funds across the United States are underfunded by $1 Trillion. They list Virginia as underfunded by $10.4 billion (before this year's actions). For some perspective, $10.5 billion is one-third of Virginia's two-year General Fund Budget.

Two weeks ago, the Trustees of VRS sounded the alarm:

The retirement system's board of trustees vented its frustration yesterday over the state's repeated failure to pay the full contribution needed to fund long-term obligations fully for future retirees.

In the budget year that ended June 30, the system paid $1.5 billion more in benefits to retirees than it received in contributions, and the gap is expected to grow to $2 billion this year.

Investment income has more than compensated for the difference, but VRS officials say the failure to pay recommended payroll rates for pensions raises concerns about the system's viability.

"It's incumbent on this board to make clear the funded status of this fund is in serious jeopardy," said Edward T. Burton III, a University of Virginia economics professor who has served on the board since 1994.

This is not a year when the board recommends contribution rates to the General Assembly for state employee and teacher pensions. However, rates would have to increase by more than 60 percent over last year's rates to fund long-term retirement obligations fully, according to an actuarial analysis presented to the board yesterday.

The rates would have to increase by more than 150 percent from those adopted by the General Assembly for this fiscal year.
The Richmond Times-Dispatch penned an editorial today seconding this problem.

There are many folks on the other side of the aisle from me who are also concerned about this and believe we need to repay the "borrowed" money as soon as possible. This entire exercise is symptomatic of our present collective failure to deal with difficult political problems head on. We have responsibilities whether they are pensions, transit, roads, school facilities, higher education, or secondary education that we are not meeting. The Federal Government is likewise spending money it doesn't have.

We can only put off reality so long. It will be interesting to see if anything happens or whether our VRS deficiency ends up consuming the budget.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Election Day: November 2, 2010

Tomorrow is Election Day and you need to make you get out to vote. If you do not know where to vote, you can find your polling place here.

I live in Hollin Hall Precinct and I intend to vote for my current Congressman, Congressman Jim Moran. I have personally known Jim since he was first elected in 1990. Since then he has worked tirelessly to represent the interest of our district. He has helped secure millions of dollars for transportation improvements including:
  • The Woodrow Wilson Bridge reconstruction;
  • Stimulus dollars to complete the Fairfax County Parkway;
  • Millions to fund the Richmond Highway Express (REX) Bus on U.S. 1;
  • Millions to recondition the George Washington Memorial Bike Trial; and
  • He is currently on the cusp of securing $150 million to widen U.S. 1 south of Woodlawn which I have blogged about extensively on this blog.
He has fought the Army to appropriately help us deal with the consequences of the Base Realignment and Closure Commission (BRAC), and has been an effective voice on dozens of other issues.

My district also includes six precincts in the Eleventh Congressional District. If I lived there I would vote for Congressman Gerry Connolly. He keenly understands Northern Virginia's people and its economy and has been one of the most effective members of the freshman class of which he was elected president. Both Jim and Gerry are true partners for Mount Vernon who understand the importance of working together to obtain real results for Mount Vernon's residents.

There are also three Constitutional Amendments on the ballot. I will be voting yes on all three.

Question #1
Shall Section 6 of Article X of the Constitution of Virginia be amended to authorize legislation that will permit localities to establish their own income or financial worth limitations for purposes of granting property tax relief for homeowners not less than 65 years of age or permanently and totally disabled?

Localities throughout Virginia can currently be allowed by the General Assembly to grant full or partial exemptions from real estate taxes to persons 65 years of age or older or for persons permanently and totally disabled if those persons "are deemed by the General Assembly to be bearing an extraordinary tax burden." The proposed amendment would instead allow cities, counties and towns to make the determination of who qualifies for such exemptions.

I supported this legislation and I will also be voting in favor of this amendment. Virginia is a diverse place, high property taxes are significant concern for many Mount Vernon seniors and I support measures to provide relief to seniors with limited income and assets from higher taxes who never anticpated having to spend $7,000+ in taxes per year to live in a house in Mt. Vernon that originally cost $30,000.

Question #2
Shall the Constitution be amended to require the General Assembly to provide a real property tax exemption for the principal residence of a veteran, or his or her surviving spouse, if the veteran has a 100 percent service-connected, permanent, and total disability?

This amendment was introduced by Senator Toddy Puller. Virginia has a large population of military veterans- many in Mt. Vernon and Northern Virginia. In the past 9 years, we've seen many service men and women returning home with lifelong injuries and disabilities suffered in the line of duty. Out of respect and gratitude for their service, it seems only fair that accommodations be made for them. Senator Puller introduced this amendment to require the General Assembly to pass a law exempting disabled veterans from real property taxes. I support this amendment.

Question #3
Shall Section 8 of Article X of the Constitution of Virginia be amended to increase the permissible size of the Revenue Stabilization Fund (also known as the "rainy day fund") from 10 percent to 15 percent of the Commonwealth's average annual tax revenues derived from income and retail sales taxes for the preceding three fiscal years?

After seeing how the budget process works in the worst budget cycle in 70 years and the consequences of having an inadequate Rainy Day Fund, I was more convinced than ever that we needed to take steps to improve our Rainy Day Fund. I was the only cosponsor of this Constitutional Amendment in the House of Delegates in addition to its sponsor, Delegate John O'Bannon. On the Senate side, the legislation was sponsored by Senator George Barker.

Just as it is important to keep a "rainy day fund" at home, I strongly believe that we need to pass this amendment so that the Commonwealth can accumulate proper cash reserves in event of a significant economic downturn.