The Bridge That Does Not Exist

jordanbridgeThe new South Norfolk Jordan Bridge is located on the South Branch of the Elizabeth River.  At that site, the middle of the river is the boundary between the cities of Chesapeake and Portsmouth.

However, the bridge is not located in either city – according to the General Assembly.  It floats above the political layer on the map.

The 150-tall bridge replaced a drawbridge constructed in 1928 as a private toll bridge.  After 50 years, all debt was paid and the City of Chesapeake gained ownership of the old bridge in 1977.  Crossing it was free until 1995, when the city re-instated a toll to pay for repairs.

The city closed the old span in 2008, after deciding that more repairs would be too expensive.  A private company then arranged to build a new bridge, getting $100 million in private funding.  The city transferred its ownership of the land, and the General Assembly authorized tolls without State Corporation Commission review.

To subsidize the deal, the City of Chesapeake agreed that it would not collect property taxes on the now-private bridge for 15 years  – but the bridge is partially within the City of Portsmouth.  That city made no such deal.  Since the bridge was no longer government-owned property, it was no longer exempt from real estate assessment and taxes.

Portsmouth calculated that it should collect $500,000/year in property taxes from whatever part of the $100 million bridge was within the city. The United Bridge Partners simply ignored the property tax bills sent by Portsmouth.

In its 2014 session, the General Assembly included language in the budget that  declared the bridge was  not “within any locality to which it is attached.”   Unless modified, the South Norfolk Jordan Bridge is no longer within the boundaries of  either city, and Chesapeake or Portsmouth will never be able to collect property taxes.

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The Secret Ballot is Not-So-Secret in a Corner of the 38th District

d2precinctOn August 20, 2014, voters in District 38 elected Republican Ben Chafin to the State Senate, replacing State Sen. Phillip Puckett (who had resigned). That was a significant election, because Puckett had been a Democrat.

The result shifted control of the State Senate to the Republican Party, ending the 20-20 balance that allowed Democratic Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam to break ties in most votes.  Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe now must deal with a Republican-controlled House of Representatives and a Republican-controlled State Senate.

One curious feature in that special election: according to the Virginia State Board of Elections, only one voter in Part 2 of the D-3 precinct cast a ballot.  That part of the precinct has only three homes, the result of a 1986 annexation that left an enclave of Montgomery County surrounded by the City of Radford plus a 2011 redistricting which included only that tiny enclave of Montgomery County within the 38th District.

The names of the residents on Norwood Street in that enclave are available through the county’s real estate assessment records.  The political parties can obtain the list of voters from the Virginia State Board of Elections, to create get-out-the-vote tools such as Virginia Votebuilder of the Democratic Party.

So a little sleuthing will reveal who in Precinct D-3 voted for Ben Chafin, the Republican candidate.  The “secret ballot” in that particular election is not so secret…

(For more, see Town and City Boundaries – and Annexation and “Our view: No secret ballot for some voters” in The Roanoke Times.

Peace Agreement Reached By Fairfax/Falls Church

Mediators in the Middle East may always have a conflict to resolve, but the water war between Fairfax County and Falls Church appears to be ending.

As reported by the Falls Church News-Press, the City of Falls Church has agreed to sell its water distribution utility to Fairfax Water.

The city will get 90% of its asking price ($40 million of the “minimum” $44 million bid), plus a change in city boundaries.  Falls Church will gain 12 acres with high potential for generating property taxes, plus additional land already used for city schools.
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Now that Virginia Has Emptied the Bank Account for Funding Transportation Projects – What’s Next?

The Commonwealth Transportation Board has now spent all of its money – and Hampton Roads was the last winner.

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Governor McDonnell assembled $4 billion to fund 900 transportation projects in the 2012–2017 Six-Year Improvement Program (SYIP).  He was unable to get General Assembly funding to sell the state liquor monopoly and ABC stores, so he went to Plan B.  He borrowed $3 billion by issuing bonds – $1.8 billion in Capital Project Revenue (CPR) Bonds, $1.1 billion of Grant Anticipation Revenue Vehicle (GARVEE) Bonds, and $283 million for the capitalization of the Virginia Transportation Infrastructure Bank funds (VTIB) – plus assembled another $1 billion from various sources.

It appears that Hampton Roads, not Northern Virginia, just sucked up the last of that $4 billion in transportation funding.  The state will spend the remaining $900 million in its transportation checkbook to build a 55-mile long highway between Norfolk and Petersburg, parallel to existing US 460.  It will be a toll road, designed primarily to move trucks from the Port of Norfolk to I-95.

As one member of the Commonwealth Transportation Board noted, “This is it for a few more years with no new money coming in…”  In musical chairs, when the music stops, some people are left without a seat.

It appears the proposed Tri-County Parkway, connecting US 234 near Gainesville in Prince William County to Route 606 in western Loudoun county, has been left without a chair.  Despite claims that it is a done deal, allocating the last of the funding to southeastern Virginia leaves no funding to build a new highway to Dulles. Potential objections from the National Park Service to that “Road to Dulles” may have been overcome and the government approvals may be formalized soon – but the checking account to build anything appears empty.

As one Northern Virginia legislator has noted, “we can’t borrow more without diverting additional General Funds for debt service or coming up with a new source of revenue.”  Repeating Gov. McDonnell’s strategy is not an option: the next four governors “will only be able to borrow $50 million/yr — not the $600 million/yr spent by this Administration.”

Former Redskin coach George Allen’s used a future-is-now strategy, trading away draft choices to assemble the veteran Over-the-Hill Gang.  Allen’s strategy got the Redskins football team to the Super Bowl, but limited the options for future coaches.

Governor McDonnell has done the same.  In one term, he tackled transportation, generated funding, and committed to 900 projects. However, there’s still a transportation wish list (VTrans 2035) with $50 billion of unfunded proposals.

What’s next?  Look for a funding crunch, to start.  Maintenance of existing roads and bridges built in the last 50 years will suck up even more funding, while fuel-efficient cars will result in lower revenues from the taxes of gas.  New tolls on I-95 will cover some maintenance costs, but there is a limit on the willingness of users to pay for more tolls (especially on bridges and tunnels in Hampton Roads).

The Washington Post has articulated one solution clearly, in its editorial Raise the Gas Tax.  When the General Assembly transfers money from the General Fund to subsidize the transportation budget, Virginia taxpayers pay 100% of the cost.  If the gas tax was increased, then out-of-state drivers would be contributing.

Senator Russell Long of Louisiana gets credit for identifying the politically-correct solution: “Don’t tax him. Don’t tax me. Tax that man behind the tree!”

Next Stop from Wallops Island: International Space Station… and the Moon

The old World War II rocket launching site at Wallops Island will enter the big time in 2013.

Under a $1.9 billion contract with NASA, Orbital Sciences will launch supply missions from Accomack County directly to the International Space Station (ISS), 200 miles up.  Next year, NASA will launch a satellite from Wallops Island to orbit the moon.

On October 1, a test version of the Antares rocket was transported to the launch pad.  The liquid-fueling process will be tested next, followed by a “hot fire” of the engines for 30 seconds – and a month later, the first actual launch will occur.  Starting in 2013, Orbital will begin 8 resupply trips to the ISS.

Virginia is competing with Alaska, California, Florida, and New Mexico to attract commercial spaceflight operations.  In 2007 and 2008, the General Assembly passed the Spaceflight Liability and Immunity Act and the Zero G Zero Tax Act, and the state has invested $26 million in bond financing to build a new launch pad at Wallops. (Orbital is committed to repay $19 million for that infrastructure.)

Virginia expects to spur other companies – especially those involved in commercializing Unmanned Aerial Vehicles for civilian use – to move to the Wallops Research Park. NASA has already used Wallops to fly Global Hawk drones over hurricanes, with “fly-by-mouse” pilots on the ground at Wallops and in California.

The newest economic bright spot in the state’s economic recovery just might be the glint from a rocket motor.  For more, see Space: The Final Frontier

If Virginia Beach Gets A Professional Basketball Team, What Should They Call It?

should we call the new team the”Tidewater Kings“?

Maybe the NBA Sacramento Kings will move to Virginia Beach, as rumored in August after city officials announced plans for a new arena.

Of course, threatening to move to Hampton Roads might be just a negotiating tactic by the owner of the Kings, as he seeks the best deal from various competing communities.

Hampton Roads has played this game before.  Norfolk was jilted 10 years ago, when the  Charlotte Hornets head-faked a move to southeastern Virginia before ending up in New Orleans.  Before that, in 1997 the NHL put its expansion hockey teams… elsewhere.

In 2004, the Montreal Expos toyed with the region before settling in Washington, DC.  In 2006, the Florida Marlins teased local officials with the potential of a move from Miami.

Why are there no major league team in southeastern Virginia, when there is as much or more disposable income in Hampton Roads as there is in Jacksonville (with NFL Jaguars) and Charlotte (with NFL Panthers and NBA Bobcats)?

“If we had an adequate arena, the Hornets would be playing in Norfolk right now…” said a member of the Norfolk City Council in 2003.
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Pride and Prejudice at Second Manassas

Today, August 29, is the 150th anniversary (the “sesquicentennial”) of the first day of major fighting at the battle of Second Manassas.  The National Park Service held a series of special tours, attracting 120 or so people to walks/talks that traced the military actions on the battlefield.

The park rangers have developed an ability to present the political and social nuances of the battles, as well as the detailed who-fought-where troop movements.

First tour of the day traced the attack on Maxcy Gregg’s brigade, on the far left wing of Stonewall Jackson’s half of the Confederate Army.  Union troops in a division under Franz Sigel moved west and probed to find where the Confederates were located, triggering a fight with Gregg’s troops along an unfinished railroad near Sudley Church.

Both Gregg and Sigel gradually committed more troops, until they were engaged in an unexpected large-scale battle.  Sigel expected help from Phil Kearny’s division, but Kearny directed his troops so they did not assist Siegel’s regiments.  Some crossed Bull Run and wasted their effort  attacking the wrong place, while others wandered around without joining Sigel’s attack.

One possible reason, according to historian John Hennessy: Kearny was biased against German-Americans, and choose to leave Sigel unsupported because of his prejudice.  Kearny had expressed his bias in a letter that Sigel obtained and had published.  The Union generals may have been fighting for the same side, but Kearny may have been willing to let other Union soldiers die in vain because he was unwilling to support German-Americans.

In contrast, two days later Kearny committed his troops rapidly to assist Gen. Isaac Stevens at Chantilly/Ox Hill, reportedly saying “My God, I will support Stevens anywhere!”

We will never hear Kearny’s rationalizations of his behavior, because he died at Chantilly/Ox Hill.  As an army the Confederates were, ultimately, fighting for preservation of slavery… but they were not the only ones on the battlefield with prejudices.

For more on the battle itself, see the National Park Civil War Series on the Second Battle of Manassas.