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.





Norfolk Public Schools: Who’s in ‘charge’?

8 01 2010

With all this talk of HRT and the apparent want to fire the one ‘responsible,’ I have to wonder… Why not now? I consider problems like those allegedly reported at LaFayette-Winona just as serious as communication failure at HRT. The school board apparently hadn’t heard about this problem until the Pilot started investigating. In fact, the Pilot story states:

“Although state investigators conducted their investigation in September and published their findings on Oct. 14, board members said they first officially heard of testing irregularities from school officials in a Nov. 9 e-mail. That e-mail from the school division informed them that The Pilot was looking into the situation but didn’t provide details”

If the school board hadn’t heard, I would put money down that says the City Council was in the dark as well. Where is the outrage here? Judging by the response to the HRT situation, shouldn’t the school board be calling for the Superintendent’s head? Shouldn’t Council? I will go out on a limb and say its about the money. Sad, i know, that apparently HRT’s money is more important than a school system with integrity. Its only our children. The future of Norfolk and all. In my opinion,  the children that we have in our schools are much more valuable than whatever cost overruns could have occurred with the Tide. As a resident of Norfolk, I feel that the city’s apparent uneven application of accountability should stop. Remember that fellow Norfolkians; the City Council is up for election this year.





HRT’s Missing Money: Board’s Fault, Not Townes’s

8 01 2010

There has been much talk recently about the performance of HRT President & CEO Michael Townes. While I do think that he should share responsibility for the Tide-related cost overruns, I do not believe that he should be held responsible for not informing the board about the $80,000 allegedly stolen from the fare boxes over a six-month period in 2009. The missing money was uncovered during an independent audit of HRT. This audit was paid for and authorized by the board. In other words, the auditors worked for the board, not for Mr. Townes. If the auditors failed to inform the board of the missing money during their presentation, it is the fault of the auditor for failing to make a complete report and it is the failure of the board to make sure that the auditor gave a complete report. Mr. Townes does not fit into that equation. After Mr. Townes was made aware and an investigation was complete, the responsible employees were terminated. No charges were filed because the HRT lawyer did not think that there was sufficient evidence. No civil suit was filed because the associated costs outweighed the benefits. This means that HRT, after learning of the issue, fixed the problem and decided not to waste more money than they would have recovered (i.e. responsibility).

I believe that no matter what, you should always give credit where credit is due. The cities of Hampton Roads should change their board representation if they have failed to properly oversee HRT. They want to fire Mr. Townes because he failed to give timely notification of cost overruns. Now, fire the board for failing to take responsibility for their share of the problems. The board is not just there for sh*ts and giggles. They have a purpose. They have a duty to the residents of their respective cities to make sure that money is spent wisely.





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.





HRT’s New Southside Facility

4 12 2009

HRT is in the process of building a new facility for Southside services. The old (really old) maintenance building still had the old trolley tracks in the floor. The new facility will be up to date and include everything that is needed to operate an efficient, safe bus system. In the future, the building will also include a mixed-use development with shops, apartments, etc. Once this project is completed, the mixed-use portion should bring people (especially pedestrians) down Monticello Ave. When new must be built, this is the kind of development that needs to be considered to bring Norfolk into the future instead of stagnating in the past.

18th Street Facility

15th Street Facility





I ♥ Light Rail

2 11 2009

Now available! Get you I [heart] Light Rail gear today to show your support for Light Rail in Hampton Roads!

Available Products: Hats, Shirts, Coffee Mugs, Water Bottles, Mouse Pads, Tote Bags, and Stickers. Shirts and large tote bag also says “I support Light Rail in Hampton Roads” on one side. Ideal to wear to public hearings, work, school, shopping, or just walking around! Get ’em while they’re hot!

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Why Fight Light Rail?

10 10 2009

I ask again, why fight light rail? Especially if you are part of the Virginia Beach Taxpayers’ Alliance. For a group that doesn’t want to pay more taxes, they sure are fighting strong against something that would potentially bring increased revenue without increased taxes. In fact, Virginia Beach is already benefiting from light rail. If you hadn’t heard, they are planning a high density development on their side of Newtown Road and plan on promoting its position near the light rail.

Norfolk is only spending less than $100 million on the Tide. That is one of the lowest amounts in the country for a new light rail start up. Virginia Beach could have been in on it, but people like the VBTA fought the deal. Light Rail is coming to Virginia Beach. The questions are only when and how much will the VBTA cost the taxpayers in inflation? Since construction began, Norfolk has see construction begin on the Fort Norfolk development, the Belmont at Freemason, Wachovia Center, and the Residence Inn. Not bad for a recession. In contrast, how many are planned for Town Center? I couldn’t find but maybe one. They have another phase that’s supposed to start soon. It will likely take a large infusion of taxpayer dollars, which may not exist with their new found budget shortfall. Good luck with that.

I’ve said it before and I will say it again. As energy prices rise, people are going to be looking to move closer to their jobs. The suburban model of growth (i.e. VA Beach) cannot continue to pay for 12 lane highways and hour long daily commutes. The VBTA continually asserts that Light Rail is a waste of money that cannot pay for itself. What is the alternative? The Southeastern Parkway? A highway that costs more per mile than Light Rail and shaves less than a minute off your commute? When Light Rail gets old, you but a new car for $7 million. Virginia Beach is set to spend $45 million this fiscal year just for widening and maintaining its current roadways. How is that more fiscally responsible? Would it not stand to reason that expanding mass transit and decreasing the reliance on personal vehicles would save the city $ million per year?

Despite their outward appearance, the VBTA is not against wasteful city spending, but rather against progress in general, unless of course it directly benefits their members. Their website gives no membership numbers, but I would venture to guess that they have nowhere near the numbers to support their name. They are not representative of the taxpayers of Virginia Beach. Their website has not been updated in nearly 2 years. They have no mission statement. Their last posted issue is from June of 2007.

If you live in Virginia Beach and somebody comes up to you asking to sign a petition to support a referendum, tell them, “No. I elected my representatives to be leaders. I support progress and responsible growth. I support Light Rail.”