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.

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.

Transit Oriented Developments

7 12 2009

If you ever read the PilotOnlie comments, then you will know that there are just some people in Hampton Roads that just don’t get it. They just don’t get how there can be people who don’t want to live in a sprawling suburb. They just don’t get that there are actually people that want to move out of Virginia Beach and into Norfolk. They just don’t get that you actually should know what you’re talking about before you form an opinion.

Most recently, the Virginian-Pilot ran an article about HRT’s new facility that they were building. In fact, I have posted already on this. For a refresher, HRT’s new building was supposed to incorperate a mixed-use development, but now the developer is putting it on hold until the economy improves. My favorite comment so far is by the Virginia Beach Taxpayers’ Alliance’s  Vice Chairman and Transportation Chairman, Reid Greenmun. Now, this man is affiated with the VBTA, so we know that by default he is against all change and somehow wants the city to print its own money and stop wasting their tax dollars doing crazy things such as repairing schools/roads/etc. His comment is as follows:

Gosh, that must touted mythical TOD (Transit Oriented Development) HRT has been pitchinf to justify its light rail boondoggles is now shown for the myth it really was – and in this case HRT is not willing to stick with their own TOD plans! Gosh, if tens of millions of state, local, and federal taxes are available to be used to subsidize the planned HRT TOD project (LEADS “green” roof and all)- and HRT can’t make it happen with all that FREE tax money thrown into the “deal”, just imagine how unlikely it is that any PRIVATE developers will be able to find the hundreds of millions needed to build the promised TOD in VA Beach, along the old Norfolk Southern right of way. The light rail TOD ROI myth is being exposed for the sham it is – right here in River City folks!

As you can see, he (and the VBTA) is severely misguided on the concept of a TOD. If we follow his definition of a TOD, every neighborhood that happens to be built near a bus line is a TOD. This is completely and utterly wrong. In order to be a TOD, the development has to have been built because of the transit line that it sits near. The HRT mixed-use development was not being build because the buses ran through. It was being built because the developer saw potential for profit. This is the same reason that the other development  was built right across the street from the HRT building: not because of HRT, but because a developer saw profit potential in an underutilized area.

Existing Development between Granby St. and Monticello Ave. HRT building can be seen in bottom right corner.

Furthermore, if TOD were “mythical,” how can Mr. Greenmun explain actual TODs in Northern Virginia? Take the following example in Arlington, VA:

This TOD is located around the Ballston-MU Station located on the Orange Line of the DC METRO

This suburban neighborhood is located only one mile from the TOD, above. It is not located on a transit stop

TODs are not myths, as Mr. Greenmun believes. They are simply not well known around Hampton Roads because there are so few of them. They do exist here, however. Both the Belmont @ Freemason and the Wachovia Center developments are TODs. The Wachovia Center development is also a mixed-use TOD. Both of these projects have a Tide light rail stop on the same block. As Hampton Roads’s light rail lines grow and become well-used, these TODs will begin to sprout up along the routes. In fact, Virginia Beach is planning a TOD off of Newtown Road because of Norfolk’s light rail stop.

Wachovia Center (TOD) - Under Construction

Belmont @ Freemason (TOD) - Under Construction

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.

Virginia Beach Comprehensive Plan

10 11 2009

While reviewing the Final Draft of the City of Virginia Beach’s Comprehensive Plan, my initial reaction was a positive one. A number of their so-called “Strategic Growth Areas” (SGA) were planned to have increased density with a focus on mixed use and mass transit. They even discussed a switch to the use of Form-Based Zoning in the SGAs. Unfortunately, they failed to follow through on their own recommendations. They start out with comments such as, “Instead of relying on the remaining inventory of underdeveloped land to absorb growth, the City carefully defined areas planned to accommodate and absorb urban growth called ‘Strategic Growth Areas.’” Then they define characteristics of the ‘Urban Area’ in the SGAs. Among these characteristics are “higher density residential uses” and “absence of single-family detached units.” This is interesting, mainly because in the first SGA defined in the plan, Burton Station, has the Planning Department making this very contradictory recommendation: “Respect and retain the existing houses in the neighborhood along Burton Station Road and maintain the low density character of this neighborhood.” (Emphasis added) Now, I understand the need to respect the people that live there, but the majority of this SGA is industrial. The small amount of land that has potential to be redeveloped is made up of a trailer park, woods, fields, and mud holes. In fact, aside from the trailer park, there is no technical ‘neighborhood’ in existence here. It is no more than a rural road with fewer than 20 homes and approximately 30 residents.

Does this mean the city wants to maintain the trailer park? Yeah, right. According to the actual Burton Station plan from the Planning Department, even the options that keep it low density force the residents to move. In fact, according to the Burton Station plan, the City of Virginia Beach would work to reconfigure the Lake Wright golf course (City of Norfolk property) into the Burton Station area and then create a golf course community around it. How is a golf course community fit in with their Urban vision?

Overall, I applaud their effort and most of their plan. The new form-based zoning code will certainly curb sprawl as long as the city sticks to it. Sticking to it is going to require increasing density as density increases. In fact, if Virginia Beach can stick to this way of zoning, they will be catering less to suburbanism than Norfolk. Norfolk still has the older, suburban zoning, which is completely contrary to urban density. Good job Virginia Beach and keep up the good work.

Green Metropolis – A Book Review

9 11 2009

Green Metropolis - By: David Owen

Last Thursday, I purchased the book Green Metropolis, written by David Owen. This book was an incredibly well thought out, well researched book. Contrary to the popular held opinion that ‘being green’ involves CFLs and recycling, Owen argues that the greenest city in America is not in Maine or Oregon, but rather New York. In fact, he argues that New York City is the greenest city in America. I was confused too, at first, because the image that I (and most people) have of NYC is a dirty, concrete jungle full of traffic jams and smog. According to Owen’s research, despite the dirty nature of NYC, the city uses less energy per person than any other city in the USA. He uses gasoline as an example and compares NYC to Vermont. Most would agree that wehn you think ‘green,’ you are thinking about something that looks like Vermont: trees, clean air, clean water, etc. According to Owen’s statistics, Vermont residents, on average use 545 gallons of gasoline per person per year, whereas Manhattan residents use only 90 gallons of gasoline per person per year.

It is an interesting theory that the more compact a city is, the more energy efficient it is. There are many examples in this book that I think are important lessons for area, especially since the light rail will be opening next year and we want to expand it and we want it to succeed. Owen talks about light rail. He references it in multiple places. First, in order to be successful, he reinforces the fact that the area served by light rail (or any transit system) needs to be dense.  He references a specific density of seven people per acre. This gives us something to think about if we want to have a regional mass transit system. Hampton Road’s overall density is .625 people per acre. Of course that includes rural counties such as Surry and Isle of Wight. Norfolk’s density is 6.82; much closer to the 7/acre number referenced by Owen as essential for successful transit.  When you consider that there are many places in Norfolk that are not ever going to be ‘dense’ (such as the 1300 acre Norfolk International Airport), we really do have a good start. Virginia Beach has a little bit to go. Their density is only 2.67 people per acre. Granted, half of the city is rural, we will give them the benefit of the doubt and give them 5.4 people per acre. That takes into consideration that most of their people live above the self-imposed ‘green-line.’ In the past few years, they have made great strides increasing density. Town Center is a good example. The recently proposed redevelopment of the Newtown Road ‘Strategic Growth Area’ is another good start (also an attempt to capitalize off of light rail without officially supporting it). We must continue to make the corridors around the light rail lines and proposed light rail lines more dense. I specifically emphasize proposed because if we can make these corridors dense now, it will be easier to get funding and ridership once they are built.

Another thing that Owen’s emphasizes in his book is that, in order to make density and transit more effective, we have to stop catering to cars. If we keep building new roads and highways, we are only reinforcing the automobile’s ease of use. If it is cheaper and easier to drive to work than use transit, why would you bother? Instead, we should use a combination of tolls, gas taxes, congestion pricing, etc. to make driving more costly and less inviting. The proceeds from these revenue streams could be used to expand the transit system. We have to remember, though, that while we want to make driving more uninviting, we do not want to make transporting goods more costly, which would only raise prices of everything and hurt the economy. Truck traffic could face free tolls, lower diesel taxes, or designated lanes (these lanes would be removed from regular lanes, increasing congestion and making car travel even more uninviting). I am not saying to do this overnight, but it is certainly worth it. With a denser area that focused on efficient transit rather than wasteful suburbanism, Hampton Roads would be more likely to compete with other areas.

These are just some of the ideas that would be useful in creating a more efficient, more environmentally friendly metropolitan area. I strongly suggest that everyone reads this book. Especially those who identify themselves as environmentalists. Current ‘environmentalism’ is destroying the planet. Hybrid cars are terrible ideas and only firm up and strengthen our dependence on oil. Read this book. No matter who you are, you will gain something. No matter who you are, your opinions on environmentalism will change.

…in the long run, a car’s fuel gauge is far less significant, environmentally speaking, than its odometer. In the same way that life in Manhattan is inherently energy-efficient, whether or not residents consciously try to conserve, life in the suburbs and beyond is inherently wasteful, no matter what kind of cars the residents park in their garage, or how assidously they swap incandescent lightbulbs for compact fluorescents. It’s miles traveled, not miles per gallon, that make the difference. A sprawling suburb is a fuel-burning, carbon-belching, waste-producing, water-guzzling, pollution-spewing, toxic-leaking machine, and, unlike a Hummer, it can’t be easily abandoned for something smaller and less destructive. We’ve spent a century erecting our way of life. Now we must reconfigure it.

-Excerpt: Green Metropolis – By: David Owen