Midtown Tunnel Meeting – A Review

23 04 2009
Mayor Fraim Speaks to the IRP

Mayor Fraim Speaks to the IRP

Yesterday, I attended and spoke at the Midtown Tunnel Public Meeting at Norfolk’s City Hall. Overall, I was more impressed with the speaking members of the public than I was with the board. Unlike other public meetings, which are designed to address the public’s concerns, this one was intended to be a one-way meeting. In other words, people got up to speak. After ever member of the public had spoken, the board thanked everyone for showing up and dismissed the meeting. There was a fairly good turnout amongst the public, however, only twelve spoke. Of those twelve, eight (66%) spoke against the high proposed tolls. Six of the eight said that they were not completely against all tolls, just outrageous tolls. Mayor Fraim, the first to speak, said that the residents of Hampton Roads “should not be billed twice,” referring to the method of taxing the region and then charging them, in full, for the cost of a State highway. The mayor also called for the State to contribute. The third speaker (I failed to catch his name), called the practice of “Congestion Pricing*” another word for price gouging and stated that in any other situation, it would be illegal. The fourth speaker, a Mr. Henry Schreiber, called for the state to contribute and called the high toll a “disservice to [Hampton Roads] and the State of Virginia.” There were a couple of residents from “Raleigh Row**,” who wanted to make sure that there would be no disruption to their century old homes. A good quarter of the speakers called for the Midtown Project to include room for a future Light Rail extension. There were no speakers that were against a Light Rail capacity for the tunnel project. Towards the end, a Mr. Edward Ellis spoke, asking the board to question the company’s profit margin for the project. He also called for a cap on tolls, to prevent the company from raising them once it received approval.

There will be two additional meetings in the coming months. The first is at the Norfolk City Hall on May 13th from 6-9 PM. This will be the Financial Presentation. The second and final meeting will take place on June 10th, from 6-9 PM at Portsmouth City Hall. There will be no more public comment sessions.

Notes:
* Congestion Pricing = Tolls increase in relation to the traffic on the highway. In other words, the toll is cheap in off hours and high in rush hours.
**Raleigh Row = The Last row of houses left over from the old Atlantic City, a section of Norfolk torn down to make room for the Hospital Complex.

^^For those interested: Raleigh Row^^

^^For those interested: Raleigh Row^^





Midtown Tunnel Meetings

21 04 2009

For anybody interested (and you should be), the Midtown Tunnel Project’s Independent Review Panel (IRP) will hold their two public comment meetings today (Tuesday) and tomorrow (Wednesday). These will be the only two meetings where public comments will be accepted. If you have absolutely any concerns, you should attend one of the two meetings. Information is as follows:

Date: Tuesday, April 21, 2009
Time:
5 – 9 PM
Location: City of Portsmouth Council Chambers, 801 Crawford Street, 6th Floor City of Portsmouth, VA 23704

Date: Wednesday: April 22, 2009
Time:
6 – 9 PM
Location: City of Norfolk Council Chambers, 810 Union Street, 11th Floor Norfolk, VA 23510

REMEMBER! These are THE ONLY TWO MEETINGS where you can submit you comments.

For more information, visit http://www.midtowntunnel.org/





VA Beach Traffic Cams

20 04 2009

Watch out! Virginia Beach is slowly installing more and more traffic cams. They currently have 4 up and running:

  • Kempsville Rd & Indian River Rd.
  • Independence Blvd. & Virginia Beach Blvd.
  • Indian River Rd. & Military Hwy. – Grace period ends April 30th
  • Holland Rd. & Rosemont Rd. – Grace period ends May 21st

I’m not sure where I stand on the actual use of traffic cameras. Right now I lead to the ‘opposed’ side of the fence. I am definitely opposed to Virginia Beach’s new installations, however. They should be spending more wisely but apparently they think otherwise.

VA Beach Traffic Cams

VA Beach Traffic Cams

View VA Beach Traffic Cams in a larger map





Feds Say ‘No’ To Southeastern Parkway

19 04 2009

The Federal Highway Administration has once again nixed the Southeastern Parkway plans due to environmental concerns. This is the fourth time the FHA has denied approval for the $95.2 million per mile toll road. According to the FHA, the 170 acres of wetlands that would be destroyed would be too much damage to the environment for the traffic benefits that we would realize. AGREED. These wetlands that the Southeastern Parkway would cut through are linked to nearly every tributary that we have in Hampton Roads. The Linkhorn Bay, Broad Bay, Lynnhaven Bay, Lynnhaven River, North Landing River, Back Bay, Albemarle Sound, Southern Branch Elizabeth River, Hampton Roads Harbor/Bay, and the Chesapeake Bay ALL would be affected by this new highway.

Chesapeake and Virginia Beach want this highway to fix their traffic created by years of failing to plan. This project has been in the works since the 1980s and has continually failed approval. The project price tag keeps ballooning. A few years ago, the price was estimated at $1 billion (VDOT’s website still states $1 billion on its project page). Today, the Virginian-Pilot reported a $2 billion price tag (if built right now). According to the Final Environmental Impact Study, the estimate is between $2.2 billion and $2.7 billion when we consider inflation for a 2014 construction midpoint. So lets get this right, if built today, this highway would cost $95 million/mile. If we wait for a more reasonable deadline, and assume that construction would be half-completed by 2014, it would cost between $102.8 million and $126.2 million per mile. Remind me again why this is a better option than light rail… Even if we assume the 35% inflation ($2 billion in 2009 to $2.7 billion in 2014), if you use Norfolk’s cost-per-mile for light rail, you could build over 51 miles of light rail. That would be more than sufficient to build the LR to the Beach with enough southward spurs to pick up Oceana, Lynnhaven, Princess Anne, and Greenbrier.Why are we wasting money on building yet another highway? This highway will become congested just like every other highway in Hampton Roads.  In fact, in the “Transportation Capacity” section under “Preferred vs. No Build Comparison,” the paragraph reads:

As with the freeway segments themselves, SEPG will benefit the congestion forecasted on the local street approaches to freeway
interchanges. SEPG will substantially reduce traffic volumes at all approaches, but the reductions will not always result in improvements in service levels, given the thresholds for
the various service level categories. For example, at the Battlefield Boulevard, Greenbrier Parkway and Indian River Road approaches to I-64, the SEPG causes daily volume reductions of 11,500, 7,100 and 13,800 vehicles, respectively. These reductions are not sufficient for improved service levels; the forecasted service levels remain at F on all three roadways. However, some volume reductions do improve the service level. For example, Rosemont Road is reduced by 3,100 vehicles (6.0%), which will improve the service level to from F to E.

Read that again. If you are paying attention, it says that at the Greenbrier, Battlefield, and Indian River Rd. interchanges, the Southeastern Parkway  will not result in a Level-of-Service (LOS)  improvement. Additionally, the best example that they could put for a LOS improvement was Rosemont Road, which would improve from an ‘F’ to an ‘E.’ Is that similar to moving from an ‘F-‘ to an ‘F+’ on a school report card? Are we prepared to spend over $2 billion on a highway whose success is measured by how many fewer hours it will be congested? For the record, the FEIS states that the Southeastern Parkway will be congested 12.9% less and move 11.7% faster during congestion than if we did nothing. In other words, instead of sitting in traffic for an hour at 24 mph, you’d only sit in traffic for 53 minutes at 27 mph.

Is Hampton Roads ready to pay over $2 billion to save 7 minutes on our rush hour commute? I don’t think so. I think we should look at diverting this money to things such as LRT, which can be expanded MUCH easier, quicker, and cheaper than a highway.





Another Point for Light Rail in HR

15 04 2009

I once read a comment on an article about our new light rail that said something to the effect that we shouldn’t compare ourselves to Charlotte, NC because it is not the same situation. I finally found the right statistic to refute that and to show why Hampton Roads is already doing better than Charlotte.

Population:

  • Hampton Roads = 1.65
  • Charlotte MSA = 1.70

Population Density:

  • Hampton Roads = 425 persons/sq. mile
  • Charlotte MSA = 500 person/sq. mile

Now, you might be tempted to think that their higher population and density contributed to their having 181% of their first year projected ridership. I’m sure that has contributed to the large ridership, but consider this:

Total Commuters:

  • Hampton Roads = 795,343
  • Charlotte MSA = 801,778

Percent of Commuters using Public Transportation excluding Taxis:

  • Hampton Roads = 1.86
  • Charlotte MSA = 1.75

In other words, despite their larger population and larger number of commuters, Hampton Roads has a larger percentage of commuters using public transit. Charlotte also faced a large number of cost-overruns and delays and even a referendum to reject the half-cent transportation sales tax (tax funds mass transit in the region). The referendum would have essentially killed all future Charlotte Light Rail. Fortunately, despite a large amount of public outcry against the project, the referendum failed by 70%.

Hampton Roads can do this. Even more-so if the Beach gets on board. I do think that Norfolk needs to look at a larger parking deck for the Newtown Road Station. Charlotte’s end-of-the-line 1,120 space deck fills up by 8:15 AM.





Interesting Points in Regional Survey

15 04 2009

I have a few interesting things to point out in The Hampton Roads Center for Civic Engagement’s Batten Surveys. These surveys aimed to find out where our region’s leadership stood on regional issues. The first somewhat alarming result was from the youth leader category. This category was made up of young people ages 17-22 who were considered youth leaders; most have started, organized, or were in charge of organization in their communities or schools. This is what I find rather frightening:

Does your local government invite citizen input?

Does your local government invite citizen input?

To me, this is frightening. We are in a time when there are a large number of issues that need to be resolved. Many of these issues have been caused by our current or former government officials. Young people are the ones that will have to solve these problems. Many young people already have solutions or suggestions in mind. If only they could find somebody that would listen. A large majority of older people almost immediately write off the comments of young people almost entirely on their age. For some reason there is a large misconception that young people cannot possibly have an idea that has not been heard already because older people have more experience. Older people need to give young people a chance. Most of us have excellent ideas. Now would be a great time for older people to listen to young people and guide them instead of putting them down.

Regardless, I’ll move on to the next issue I have with the Regional Survey. There was one particular question of great interest: What are the most important regional issues in Hampton Roads? The result? The top three issues across all groups are Transportation, Regionalism, and the economy, in that order.

Most Important Hampton Roads Regional Issues

Most Important Hampton Roads Regional Issues

While this in-and-of-itself is very interesting, showing that a very large group of people in Hampton Roads have Regionalism on their mind, there is an even more interesting result. This is the breakdown of people that responded to this question:

Top 3 Issues Borken Down by Interviewee Groups

Top 3 Issues Broken Down by Interviewee Groups

Note that among government officials, Transportation and the economy is put before regionalism. Appointed officials recognize that, while taking a back seat to transportation and the economy, regionalism is important to Hampton Roads’ future. Elected officials, on the other hand, did not mention regionalism. In my opinion, the ‘others’ group, made up of other various community leaders, was a closer representation to the majority of Hampton Roads residents.

We need to find these elected officials and vote them out of office. Our officials need to recognize that regionalism is important to the future of Hampton Roads. A Regional Hampton Roads would have more power to compete nationally and internationally for outside investment, both public and private. You think New York City would look like it does today if each borough competed against the other for everything?





Norfolk Consolidated Courthouse

15 04 2009

I attended my civic league meeting last night. Aside from listening to our Civic League President spout off ReEnergy propaganda, we got to hear a presentation by Mr George Schaefer, Norfolk’s Circuit Court Clerk. He gave his presentation on the proposed Norfolk Consolidated Courthouse Complex. Not only was he very informative, I think that anybody listening to him would support the new Complex.

First, he addressed the need for a new Courthouse. The main reasons are:

  1. The current structures are out-dated: When they were constructed, the closest thing to a computer took up the same room as a courtroom. Each building has been retrofit with semi-modern computer systems, but they are nowhere near what should be in there. Then you have things like elevators, which are required for accessibility by disabled persons. Mr. Schaefer’s building has two elevators which were put in at different times. The newer one broke down last year. Well, it actually burned up, requiring fire department assistance. When they looked for repairs, they found that only one company in the state could fix it and they had a six-month backlog. While waiting for their elevator to be fixed, they had to accommodate every disabled person that needed help. Recently, their second elevator broke down. Come to find out, they do not make the parts anymore. Being as thrifty as possible, city maintenance realized that the elevator is the same model as is located in the now-defunct Kirn Memorial Library. In order to fix the Circuit Court elevator, they will cannibalize the Kirn elevators.
  2. Lack of Space: The Courts currently store files in filing cabinets in the public hallways. Recently, Juvenile/Domestic Relations Court got an additional judge and another courtroom. Without actually expanding, their only option was to turn the waiting room into a courtroom. Nearly every Court has rented space outside of the current court buildings, costing the city thousands of dollars a month.
  3. Security: Every new courthouse has a direct connection from the jail to the court. This connection is secure and isolated, eliminating the chance of an escape and minimizing defendant contact with prosecutors, judges, and victims. In Norfolk, however, defendants are brought right through the main hallway into General District Court, allowing them to get close to prosecutors, judges and victims. For Circuit Court, defendants must be transported via Sheriff’s Office vans from the jail to the Circuit Court building. There have been multiple escape attempts since the van does not have a secure entrance into the building, but rather pull right up to the door. Also, once again, everybody shares the same hallway inside. Please click on the image below for a larger version, showing how prisoners are taken into the Circuit Court building.
Circuit Court

Circuit Court

Both the General District Court and the Circuit Court buildings were built with a 30-year lifespan in mind. The General District Court is now nearly 45 years old and the Circuit Court is nearly 40 years old. When a building gets to be this old, the maintenance costs increase exponentially. People wonder why age really matters on a building as long as they take care of it. I have heard people say that their houses are older but do not need replacement. I understand. My house was built in 1920 and is 89 years old. My house also does not get 200,000 visitors a year. The General District Court Building does. That many people are going to wear out whatever they visit.

Now, since we hopefully have establish need, we move to cost and funding. Mr. Schaefer reported that the cost has risen approximately $8 million a year since it was first proposed. In other words, for every year we wait, we might as well burn $8 million. There is also a new law in Virginia that was passed last session at the request of Norfolk. It allows any city whose court did not meet requirements as of January 1st of 2009, to charge a $4 fee to every person the comes before the court. Basically this law applies only to Norfolk and Portsmouth and would raise over $1 million a year. This doesn’t sound like much , but when you consider the new courthouse would have a 50-year lifespan, this would raise $50 million over the lifetime of the court complex. Then factor in the rent the city will save by moving outside offices back into the complex. Right now the Courts and the Sheriff’s office rents quite a but of office space in adjacent buildings downtown. They have offices on Main St. and Plume St. as well as in Dominion Tower. Norfolk has a Public Law Library in Dominion Tower, which would also be moved to complex.

A Consolidated Court Complex is desperately needed Downtown. It is needed now.