Should Manassas Park… Disappear?

mpManassas Park (shown in yellow) started as a subdivision in Prince William County 60 years ago.  The community incorporated as a town in 1957.  It annexed 600 acres in 1974, increasing the town’s size by over 50%, and then chose to become a city in 1975, just before the General Assembly blocked that option.

Manassas (shown in green) also converted from town to city status in 1975.

As a town, residents were citizens of Prince William County.  They voted in both the town and county elections, and paid town and county taxes.  Becoming a city meant Manassas Park and Manassas were completely independent of the county.  Their taxes would be kept local to provide local services, and not be used to construct schools in fast-growing eastern Prince William near I-95.

Manassas Park has stayed a small (2.6 square mile) residential community with little commercial property.  The city has sought to create a mixed use development next to the Virginia Railway Express station, but most of the ground floor retail space has remained vacant.  Property taxes from homeowners must finance government operations, and the city has the highest property tax rate in Virginia.

Yesterday the Washington Post reported that there will be three open seats in the November election for city council, but only one person filed to run.  The story called it a “stark example of the civic apathy that experts say is growing more common in some of America’s smaller cities and towns.”

So Manassas Park has relatively high taxes, and relatively low citizen interest in governance.  Should the city abandon its charter and return to town status, as Bedford, Clifton Forge, and South Boston have done?

That would spread the cost for schools across all the residents of Prince William.  The property tax rate on homeowners, without the cost of services shifted to the county, could be lowered if the city became a town.

Schools would be managed by the county, but responsibility for land use planning could be retained by the town council.  Zoning decisions would be made by town officials.

On the other hand, “identity” as an independent city is different. Manassas Park is 37% Hispanic, while Prince William County officials have made headlines by their opposition to immigration.

Choosing to abandon the status of city, one of 38 in Virginia, would be an emotional decision as well as an analytical exercise.  The three cities which made that choice were in greater financial distress than Manassas Park.  mana


Is EPA’s Clean Power Plan “Unfair” to Virginia?

powerplantTo address climate change, EPA will regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant.  The Clean Power Plan proposes to reduce carbon emissions from existing sources, in particular power plants generating electricity from coal.

The carbon intensity of generating electricity in Virginia, as in other states, will be reduced – assuming the EPA is able to implement its plan despite political opposition in the US Congress.

Governor McAuliffe has objected to the impacts on Virginia, saying in his official comments “The disparity in state goals leaves Virginia at a competitive disadvantage to its neighbors…”

The impact of EPA’s Clean Power Plan on Virginia vs. nearby states is presented in that official response, which measures carbon intensity in pounds per megawatt hours of electricity generated (lb/MWh).

Nuclear power plants count as zero emitters of carbon.  Virginia, with 4 reactors at two nuclear power plants, has a relatively low overall carbon intensity compared to adjacent states:
Of course, emissions data can be presented in multiple ways.  In an issue as complex as climate change, assessing the problem and the alternative solutions requires dealing with lies, damned lies, and statistics

If you look at the percentage reduction required by each state in its overall carbon intensity, Gov. McAuliffe should be sympathetic to West Virginia and Kentucky – but EPA would put Virginia at a competitive disadvantage with Maryland:


A cynic would suggest someone at EPA created a formula to reward Democratic-voting states vs. Republican-voting states – but then, look at Tennessee.

How Would Keystone XL Pipeline Approval Affect Virginia?

xlstatedeptVirginia’s two senators disagreed with each other in yesterday’s vote on the Keystone XL pipeline.  Tim Kaine opposed it, while Mark Warner supported approval – reflecting his stance in the 2014 campaign.

If that pipeline is finally approved and built, how would Virginia be affected?  There are three take-aways:

1) It won’t reduce transport of crude oil by rail through Virginia.

The fiery derailment of a CSX train on April 30, 2014 in Lynchburg exposed the risks of transporting crude oil from the Bakken formation in North Dakota to the former oil refinery at Yorktown.  That site is now an oil storage facility, from which Bakken crude is later shipped by water to refineries in Delaware/New Jersey/Pennsylvania.
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What Would It Take to Consolidate Airports in Southeastern Virginia?

air3Allegiant just announced it would start flying from Richmond to the Tampa area.  Why is that new service not a sign of economic progress in southeastern Virginia?

There are three airports in southeastern Virginia providing scheduled passenger service.  Between Richmond (RIC), Newport News/Williamsburg (PHF), and Norfolk (ORF), they carry roughly 3.5 million passengers a year.

Those three airports continue to invest in upgrading separate facilities, competing for business, and splitting the customer base. The Newport News/Williamsburg airport is 60 miles east of the Richmond airport and 30 miles north of the Norfolk airport, and local officials are focused on economic development of their separate jurisdictions in three separate areas.

The fragmented market makes it difficult for any airline to make a single airport into a major hub and provide better service to more locations.

Fragmentation even blocks discount and vacation airlines from providing reliable service.

AirTran carried 50% of the passengers at the Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport in 2011.  In 2012, after Southwest acquired the discount airline, it stopped service at Newport News/Williamsburg and increased service at the Richmond airport.

Vacation season airline Allegiant filled the void at Newport News/Williamsburg, but only briefly.  In 2014, it abandoned the airport, avoiding competition with soon-to-start PeoplExpress.   PeoplExpress service at Newport News/Williamsburg lasted only three months, and then Allegiant announced it would start service from Richmond.

Closing Newport News/Williamsburg and concentrating 3.5 million customers at just two airports would trigger airlines to offer better service to more locations from southeastern Virginia – but today, no local official on the Peninsula could afford to endorse such a regional approach.  Newport News would lose competitive advantages in attracting new business and retaining existing commercial operations, if the airport closed.

Of course, there are ways to compensate the jurisdictions on the Peninsula for such an economic disadvantage.

Bristol and Washington County negotiated a revenue sharing deal, to facilitate the city’s economic initiative at Exit 5 on I-81.  The deal mitigated the impact on Washington County ,when the Lowe’s store moved across the jurisdictional boundary to the new “Falls” development within Bristol.

There are opportunities for regional initiatives to re-balance the impacts.  Williamsburg, James City County, and York County do not share the costs of funding the airport, so other jurisdictions might choose to subsidize a regional project that focused economic benefits on just Newport News and Hampton.

The new Hampton Roads Transportation Accountability Commission has already prioritized widening I-64 from four to six lanes between Hampton-Williamsburg. That’s the most obvious way to benefit Newport News and Hampton, and it’s already going to be funded.

The possibility exists that various jurisdictions in southeastern Virginia could find another way to improve airline service by consolidating rather than fragmenting the market – but that would require a united regional perspective.

The selection of a chair for the Hampton Roads Transportation Accountability Commission require nine votes before a decision could be made… so there is no reason to assume the other jurisdictions would be willing to negotiate any closure of Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport.

(For more, see Air Transportation in Virginia.)


Wallops gets Walloped


damaged launch pad and Antares Transporter/Erector/Launcher after the October, 2014 launch failure

The Antares rocket that launched from Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) on Wallops Island on October 28 barely made it past the launch tower.  The dramatic destruction of the rocket, so close to the ground, damaged Pad OA.

It’s not the first setback for efforts to develop a commercial space launch business there.

Starting in 1995, Virginia decided to build a spaceport to subsidize a new industry, commercial launches into space.  That same year, the first commercial launch ended in failure when a Conestoga rocket was destroyed 10 miles into the climb to orbit.

Wallops recovered.  In 2004, Virgina agreed to partner with Maryland, and the Virginia Space Flight Center was renamed the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS).  In 2013, Orbital Sciences Corporation started launching Antares rockets into orbit,  and NASA launched a mission to the moon from the island.

Virginia has no other feasible location for a spaceport, and Orbital builds its spacecraft near Dulles airport.  Assuming Orbital resumes resupply missions to the International Space Station, it is likely to return to Wallops.

For more, see Space: The Final Frontier.

Bye Bye, Colonial Downs

colonialdownsColonial Downs announced today that Virginia’s only pari-mutuel track with an unlimited license would close on November 1, after the Fall harness racing season.

The track and the Virginia Horsemen’s Benevolent & Protective Association, representing owners and trainers of Thoroughbred horses, reached an impasse this year.

They failed to sign a contract, the 2014 Thoroughbred race season was cancelled, and Colonial Downs was unable to get the Virginia Racing Commission to approve a contract with another group that the track claimed could arrange for horses to race in the future.

Bottom line: it costs too much to run live races in Virginia.  The horse breeding industry will continue, but the opportunity to win stakes at Colonial Downs appears to have closed.

For more, see Horse Racing and Gambling in Virginia

Public Access and Private Property Along the Alexandria Waterfront

odbcThe Washington Business Journal has revealed the Old Dominion Boat Club’s design for its new facility, which will replace the old Beachcombers restaurant on Prince Street.  The club is moving one block downstream after winning a 38-year property rights battle against the Federal government – but losing its war with the City of Alexandria.

The Federal government claimed the boat club’s building, at the foot of King Street on the Potomac River, was located on Federal land.  That claim was based on the location of the shoreline of the Potomac River in 1788, when the United States was formed after ratification of the Constitution.

Since then, the land on the Alexandria waterfront was extended into the river as the gaps between shipping wharves were filled with dirt.  That fill was placed on the bottom of the Potomac River, which was a navigable waterway so the bottom was owned by the Federal government in 1788.

The US Department of the Interior claimed that the fill placed on the Federally-owned river bottom became Federally-owned surface land.  A Federal court ruled otherwise in 2011, concluding a lawsuit first filed in 1973.  Two Federal courts ruled that the gradual process of extending the waterfront also extended private ownership of the new land in Alexandria.

The city of Alexandria then pushed for the boat club to vacate its location, or allow for a public walkway along the riverfront between the clubhouse and the marina.  Unlike the Department of the Interior, the city made no effort to claim it owned the land.  Instead, Alexandria made clear that the local government had the right to acquire the boat club’s land through eminent domain, in order to create a public park to be known as Fitzgerald Square.

The boat club lost its exclusive access to the waterfront, but the consolation prize was a $5 million payment for a half-acre and the new building site a block away.

For more, see:
Virginia-District of Columbia Boundary
alexwaterfrontSource: City of Alexandria