Cities Without Suburbs – A Book Review

14 01 2010

Cities Without Suburbs - By: David Rusk

I recently finished reading a book by David Rusk called “Cities without Suburbs.” I highly recommend this book to everyone. The book argues in support of regional cooperation and/or consolidation of suburbs with their historically central cities. Going beyond your typical benefits of regional cooperation, this book explains, with evidence, that there are many benefits for regional consolidation of services. He thoroughly identifies the problems facing inner cities today including, increasing poverty rates, decreasing tax revenues, and the inherent problems with solving complicated social, transportation, housing, economic, and budgetary problems when cooperating with a number of municipalities. Using census data, he explains why cities that have expanded their boundaries to encompass their own suburbs have historically done much better than cities that are unable to expand their boundaries.These locked-in cities lose revenue, resources, and opportunities in the long run to their independent suburbs. This same reason is also why suburbanites fight consolidation/annexation. They believe that their suburbs are doing well and that they don’t want to take on the inner city’s problems. There are a couple of problems with this philosophy, however. First, history and statistics have shown that suburbs that are independent from their central city do not grow as fast as suburbs that are connected to their city. In fact, the average income for the entire region is lower for regions that are segmented versus those that are not. Second, when connected to their suburbs, central cities have fewer problems and the region as a whole has a lower crime rate and a better quality of life.

While I have always felt that a regional Hampton Roads would be a good thing, this book got me thinking that it should go further than that. It is certainly a step in a positive direction to have regional organizations. Certainly don’t get me wrong. Our current institutions such as HRT, SPSA, HRPDC, HRTPO etc all have their problems but when it comes down to it, they make certain things simpler for our area. Imagine if each city had to run its own bus service. You would have to transfer to another bus every time you crossed a city boundary. What if each city had to compete individually for transportation money from the state and federal government? You think we get shorted our share now? Despite current and planned or possible future regional entities, we still need to go further.

Let’s look at one thing that our region does. It may seem minor but think about it. Tourism. Our region has many great tourist attractions. From the Virginia Beach Oceanfront and Ocean Breeze to Colonial Williamsburg and Busch Gardens/Water Country and everything in between such as Nauticus and the Wisconsin, Hampton Roads has a lot to offer. Each city spends millions a year in tourism advertising money to attempt to attract visitors to patronize their respective city. While places like Virginia Beach and Williamsburg spend money to directly advertise their attractions, other places such as Chesapeake advertise to attract visitors to stay in their hotels, hoping to capture tourists’ shopping dollars at Greenbrier, etc. The reason this has to be done is because otherwise, Chesapeake makes no money off of Virginia Beach’s tourists. If our cities were one jurisdiction, however, things would be much different. We could combine our money to advertise for our regional attractions and the whole area would benefit. The area of Chesapeake would benefit just as much from tourists that came to Greenbrier as from those that never shopped west of Lynnhaven.

The same goes for transportation. Think of our major projects. The HRBT is a good example. As it stands, Hampton and Newport News want an expanded HRBT. Norfolk, however, is against it because the outcome on our side of the water would be destroyed properties. If we were one city, though, we would be much more likely to support it. An expanded HRBT would almost certainly be a catalyst for a better business climate on the Peninsula. Norfolk doesn’t really care about that. Hampton voters can’t vote for Norfolk’s City Council. As one city, the Peninsula’s economic climate would be Norfolk’s economic climate meaning that the expanded HRBT would benefit the city. Same goes for the Dominion Blvd. project. Peninsula, Norfolk and VB leaders can see how it is important to Chesapeake and the region overall. Secretly, though, they also know that Chesapeake residents are not their constituency. They can support Chesapeake’s project but at the same time they are obligated to do what is best for their constituency.

We can look at social issues. Public housing for example. First, current housing projects were built in Norfolk, Portsmouth, Newport News, and Hampton simply because the cities were there. Chesapeake, Virginia Beach, Suffolk and the counties of Hampton Roads did not have the capacity to support large scale housing projects at the time. Current housing policy no longer supports concentrated ‘projects.’ Studies have shown that everyone does better when the poor are dispersed throughout the middle class housing areas. This dispersion keeps the poor from feeling hopeless about their situation. Their income rates increase as does the pass rate for their school children. College attendance and graduation rates increase. Despite the objections by some middle class areas, the property values do not decrease and crime does not increase. In cities that are serious about this policy, overall crime rates tend to decrease and overall income averages go up. In our area, however, due to our segmented cities and therefore our segmented housing authorities, the residents of the current projects cannot be transferred to other cities using funds from their home city to pay the rent. This condition severely limits the ability of our housing authorities to successfully assist the poor residents of the housing projects. As one city, the authority could move residents freely around the region to make sure that they have the best opportunity to advance their situations.

I think that this can be accomplished with the right amount of public support. This will not be easy, however, and will take careful consideration to make a thorough proposal to the General Assembly (required for consolidation in Virginia). This will require public education and public input to make sure that all issues are addressed. I know that not everyone will support this but that is typical of any major proposal. I also know that if we could consolidate our area so that the central cities encompasses 60-75 % of our regional population that we would be a force to be reckoned with at the state, federal, and economic levels.

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HRT Mismanagement – A Day Late, A Dollar Short

26 12 2009

I didn’t actually think that I would be writing an article such as this. While I assumed that HRT was just as mismanaged as every other government-run organization in the region, state, or country, I also assumed that HRT would at least step up their game for this project. The HRT President and CEO, Michael Townes is a nice guy with good ideas. Unfortunately, whether his direct fault or not, he is the President and CEO, therefore making him ultimately responsible for the inner workings of HRT. This problem is deeper than Mr. Townes. If we ever want to have a strong, regional transit company, we need to get to the root of the problem. In my opinion, the root of this particular issue stems from poor project management. That is not Mr. Townes’s direct responsibility. The Tide has a project manager and a third-party consultant whose stated job is project management. All of this management should be held immediately accountable. First off, the consulting company is over budget. How in the world can we allow a company tasked with keeping costs under control¬† to go over budget? I consider that a failure. According to a story by WVEC, “Factors cited by HRT include unexpected conditions in the field, requests for design changes, underground utility relocation, consultant issues, and management problems.” I will go with the first three. Sh*t happens. but the final two are unacceptable. If HRT themselves can point out that consultant issues and management problems are the cause for part of our problems, why are these people still employed. It is my personal belief that when a person is hired for a job, they are to do that job. If they fail to do that job, they should be terminated. This applies to head executives as well as 7-Eleven employees. You are paid to do a job. Your employment agreement is a contract between you and your employer. A breach of contract should result in termination unless some rare circumstance exists. Fire the consultants and sue for the money back. As far as I am concerned, if your job is to keep an eye on the money and you instead rob us blind, you should be held accountable. Additionally, there are others that should be docked pay at a minimum. Take the Senior Vice President for Development, Jayne Whitney. Her HRT bio states that she is “currently responsible for the planning, engineering, design and construction and funding of major capital projects in the organization, including New Starts projects such as the Norfolk Light Rail project.” (By the way, Ms. Whitney, if you ever read this, could you please remind your webmaster that stating that you “began [your] professional career with VDOT and performed highway planning and public transportation planning,” just screams inept to this part of the state?)¬† Or look at Jim Price, Vice President of Rail Operations. What does he do right now? There are no “rail operations.” This means that either he sits on his hind parts all day (and we should lay him off) or he is actively involved in the management of this project (and should be held accountable).

Hampton Roads needs this to succeed. We cannot continue to allow waste and incompetence to drive our regional organizations. Bone fide mistakes do happen. I understand that.Especially when you work Downtown, you never know what is lurking underground. When you work in an office, however, and are tasked to not drop the ball, you should either do it or get out. SPSA, HRT, VDOT, each individual city council, the CTB, the General Assembly, etc. all seem to just maintain the status quo. In Hampton Roads this appears to be, “screw the taxpayers.” Light rail can and will work here. So will HRT. As citizens, however, we need to strongly voice our opinion that we want competent staff members before we want expensive ones with lofty resumes.





Fairfax Gets It, Why Can’t We?

9 12 2009

Fairfax recently released a new 10-year plan aimed at making transit travel more attractive the vehicle travel. The plan would increase service and frequency, create new routes, and use innovative techniques such as tying traffic lights to bus schedules, so that they never wait at lights. They also plan on utilizing dedicated bus lanes and fixed-route-style fare collection on some bus routes to speed the buses through stops. These new routes, including their already planned BRT routes, would work in unison with METRORail to make transit commutes faster than traditional, usually single-occupant, private car transportation.

My only question is why can Hampton Roads not come up with something this comprehensive. We did work on a plan for the future of transit but it seems to be viewed more as a dream and less of an actual this-is-what-we-need-to-work-for plan. Think about it. You see city after city create plans and actually follow them. Our area can do that too. Virginia Beach has been working on the Southeastern Parkway for 23 years now because it falls into their now-outdated plans to make the Corporate Landing office park successful. Why can’t we work this hard to make transit plans come through? If you ask any city, they will tell you that they want it to work, but nobody seems to be actually pushing for it.

In my opinion, the reason for the lack of drive for this issue is the lack of regional cooperation. Fairfax’s plan will work and has support because it only deals with one locality, Fairfax County. It ties into existing routes that go into other municipalities, but the plan itself, only expands service inside county lines. Here, however, our plan encompasses Norfolk, Virginia Beach, Chesapeake, Portsmouth, Suffolk, Newport News, Hampton, Williamsburg, James City County, and York County. In fact part of our Transit Vision Plan extends service toward Moyock, NC. How in the world do our leaders think that they can make something this expansive work if they can’t make simpler regional systems work. It is hard enough to get two cities to work on a bus route together let alone a system including both light rail and commuter rail. We need a functional regional government. If our localities could combine services and resources, we could actually overcome the problems that we face now. Look around. we are facing budget cuts all the time and money can no longer be guaranteed by the state. We have to help ourselves. Nobody else is coming to our rescue.





VDOT’s Budget Cut Again

6 12 2009

Once again, the state is once again cutting money off of VDOT’s budget. This time, however, there is nothing left but bones. In fact, as early as 2011, Hampton Roads will get zero (you read that right) dollars for road construction. Statewide that same year, Northern Virginia would receive $225 million (93.2%) from VDOT. Even sooner, in 2010, the overall budget will grow 3% despite Hampton Roads’ funding getting cut another 13% for that same year! In 2010, Northern Virginia’s budget actually increases by 5%. Our luck would not change until 2015, when we get a whopping $100 million. Of course, seeing as 2015 is six years from now in the six year budget, our actual chances of seeing anything are very slim. When are we, as Hampton Roads residents going to stand up for ourselves? When will we decide that allowing Northern Virginia rob us blind is no longer acceptable? You know when? When we decide that we are a single, unified voice. Northern Virginia can say that, as suburbs of DC, they all need the same general projects to get by. Hampton Roads, on the other hand, can do nothing of the sort. Norfolk wants money for the Midtown Tunnel. Virginia Beach wants money for the Southeastern ‘Parked’way (which is what it really will be when it is full of traffic). Chesapeake wants a new Dominion Blvd. Portsmouth wants the MLK extended. Hampton wants the HRBT redone. Newport News wants I-64 expanded north. None of the cities here realize that we all need the same things to function. Without one of our major connectors, the whole place is gridlocked. Look at any interstate when one gets all lanes blocked during rush hour. The whole area shuts down. We can’t court new business if we don’t have a reliable road system. We need to work together as one region to secure our road money. We need to tell our legislature that Northern Virginia has robbed us enough and we demand our fair share. People here complain when a city spends tax money on something light Town Center, light rail, Downtown, etc., but they seem to have no problem paying taxes to a state that is ripping us off. Its not VDOTs fault. It is completely the legislature’s fault. We cannot allow current elected state representatives to serve another term. They have not fixed our problem yet and they will never fix it. Short of seceding from the Commonwealth of Virginia, regionalism and voting out our incumbents is our only option.





Light Rail in Chesapeake?

3 12 2009

On November 24th, the City of Chesapeake officially and unanimously voted to push for a light rail study for their inclusion into regional light rail plans. This is a major and definitive move for Chesapeake, showing that they support a regional mass transportation system. A Greenbrier line connecting to Norfolk Naval Station would be a tremendous asset to a fledgling light rail system such as ours. A Chesapeake line would also set the stage for a line through Portsmouth and out to Suffolk. A system with a strong East-West corridor (Downtown Norfolk-Oceanfront) and a North-South corridor (Norfolk Naval Station-Greenbrier) would increase ridership and overall importance as well as add fuel to an extension to the Peninsula, thus giving us a truly regional system. Good job Chesapeake. If Virginia Beach does, for some unseen reason, back out yet again from progress, Chesapeake will be in a position to surpass Virginia Beach as the largest city in Virginia.





Computer Model Assists Prioritizing

19 11 2009

According to today’s (11/19/09) front page Virginian-Pilot article, VDOT spent $150,000 on a consultant to help prioritize our transportation projects. The first round of rankings (43 projects) seem very similar to most peoples’ current opinions. There are a few interesting projects, however. Number 5 under highway projects, for example, is a reconstruction project for the I-64 interchange at Norview Ave. I know from experience that it is a terrible (and incomplete) interchange and sometimes it might just be safer to drive over the edge of the overpass. Despite this well-known fact, I am not quite sure that I would put it on a top-ten list of projects. In fact, I think that most around here would agree that widening US 460 (#9) would be of more importance and benefit than a new Norview interchange.

Also part of this model were transit projects. The model ranked the need for a Light Rail line to the Naval Base higher than a line to Virginia Beach. Personally, I think they go hand-in-hand. There are a lot of people in Virginia Beach that would take LRT to the base. I think that if we can build a line to the Beach sooner rather than later, we all win. If we were to lose in Virginia Beach, however, and instead built a line to the Base, I think that Virginia Beach would once again reconsider, realizing that they are making the worst mistake in their history as a city.

Their next step is to feed the model a list of 200 Hampton Roads projects. I didn’t realize we had 200 projects, but apparently we do. Hopefully this model will help our transportation leaders figure out what they want and help us get the road funds we need to actually get something built.





Better Get Ready To Walk

17 11 2009

The Future of Hampton "Crumbling" Roads

The state is getting ready to cut another billion dollars from VDOT. This is in addition to the over $3 billion that has already been cut out.We already can no longer afford to build roads or even maintain them. Now, we will be unable to plan and design them, meaning that we will be ineligible for future federal stimulus money that requires projects be ‘shovel-ready.’ In other words, you might want to look at moving closer to your work, because in the not-to-distant future, the roads will not only be completely gridlocked, but also reverting to gravel. We need to think outside of the box on this. We can no longer rely on the State legislature to fund our transportation projects. We have to start looking at options that we would have thought unthinkable in years past. Nobody wants tolls or new taxes. But I can guarantee you that there are even fewer people that want to have to walk to work because our roads are closed or crumbling. To make it worse, our new Governor wants to pay for roads with education money and money from profit sharing oil operation off of the coast of Virginia. We need to make it known to our representatives that we will not tolerate lack of action.

Either we act now to raise money for our roads or we need to raise money for new welcome signs. They will read:

Welcome to _______
A Hampton ‘Crumbling’ Roads Community
Proudly Sponsored By:
Fix-A-Flat