What to do about the Port and Tidewater’s transportation needs?

On the matter of the port.

It is a business decision. The balance sheet for “profits’ (meaning net gains in state tax revenues yielded) needs to include all of the associated costs for related public infrastructure. This cost is now understood to be more than $6.5B in highways, nearly $200M or more in rail improvements, plus the cost to taxpayers for dredging the harbor to allow access for the newer, deeper draught container ships that the port is seeking to serve. Then there is the cost associated with borrowing tens of billions of dollars (interest paid on the bonds). Then there is the cost of the maintenance of the new highway lane miles and rail lines.

These are not trivial costs, they are massive costs.

The balance sheet needs to weigh the INCREASED port revenues paid to the state FOR ONLY THE EXPANSION against the cost to taxpayers for the required infrastructure improvements to handle the increased movement of cargo in and out of the port.

Also involved are the environmental costs related to the port expansion.  Our region teeters on non-attainment and thus the loss of Federal highway funds. The planned port expansion will increase truck traffic five fold, thus adding a significant amount of pollution to our air. In addition, the MPO plan reveals that the use of the MMMBT will result in greater congestion at that crossing, thus further slowing all traffic and increasing the resulting air pollution from the non-port traffic combined with the new port trucking traffic. The increased vessel traffic also adds pollution to our air and our waterways.

The port jobs created are jobs that require commuters. Other industries such as software development and financial management offer our region jobs that can be worked from home, thus leading to less regional commuting. The discussions of selling the port to foreign investors raises the issue of foreign worker being brought in to work the jobs, thus potentially not creating significant opportunities for our existing local labor pool. Automation is already planned to reduce the manning levels required to work the port. We need realistic estimates of the true jobs, their compensation, and an understanding of where the workforce will live to better estimate the “cost” of increasing regional commuting demands on our highway system to support a new, larger port workforce to staff the planned port expansion. Should that workforce be significant and should they have families, what are the resulting costs to taxpayers for educating their children or providing other expensive government services?

When you begin to view the port expansion through the lens of a balance sheet, you have to ask the question – do we collect more in taxes then it will cost taxpayers to pay for all the highway infrastructure improvements, the rail infrastructure improvement, the port access improvements, the related costs of maintenance for all this public infrastructure, the increased air pollution we will breath and related healthcare costs – and – the possible loss of Federal highway funding, the dangers to citizens from mixing more HUGE trucks with smaller and smaller cars, and the cost to dredge the harbor – and keep it dredged – to serve deeper draught shipping vessels?

If the answer is that the STATE earns more in taxes then all these costs, then the new revenues flowing into the STATE should be sued to pay for all this public infrastructure. Once the infrastructure costs are paid for the STATE will enjoy a windfall “profit” flowing into the General Fund from new port revenues. That is a good thing.

Yet now we have a STATE OWNED asset that the STATE’S General Assemblies and Governors have targeted largely ONLY the residents living in Tidewater and our region’s businesses and our tourists for paying billions and billions of  new REGIONAL taxes, tolls, and fees for funding the STATE’S new port infrastructure.

Expanding the port only makes sense if the increased revenues the state collects exceed the cost of all of the new public infrastructure and the potential the loss of Federal highway funding our region will be forced to make up. A loss of Federal highway funds due to non-attainment from the addition of thousands of new highly polluting TRUCKS to serve the port expansion.

If we have to pay more in taxes then we get back from the expansion, then it is a bad business decision.

If we believe the state will collect more in new taxes then it costs for all of the port’s new infrastructure, then why isn’t the new tax money being collected from the port expansion being used to cover the cost of the port’s infrastructure?

Since we are only discussing NEW REVENUE in this case, not sending the NEW REVENUE to the General Fund doesn’t reduce funding to the General Fund by one dime. It is money that does not yet exist.

And .. without the new infrastructure, it will not exist – for the most part.

Lastly, the population growth estimates used back in 2000 when all these decisions were made to build the $4.4B Third Crossing are grossly out of date. The recent massive increases in fuel prices were not factored into those decisions either. Given the reality of diesel fuel prices, suddenly the use of RAIL may be far more economical – and far more clean (using electric powered engines) then the use of highly polluting diesel powered trucks.

The “plan” to expand the port was predicated on many future projects that should now be reevaluated to ascertain how correct they still are – instead the Chamber of Commerce and the General Assembly/Governors doggedly stick to an out of date MPO economic development “regional transportationplan” and they have failed to reassess the business conditions to determine if the global market changes and the potential for a significant domestic use of coal may mean the anticipated increases in port shipping and the export of coal may not longer be realistic.

Like I said – It is a business decision.

If the proposed port EXPANSION makes a profit to the taxpayers targeted to pay for the port’s infrastructure then it is a good idea. If it costs local taxpayer more to pay fore the port’s infrastructure and air quality mitigation than they get back – it is a bad idea.

Lastly, there is the expenditure of political capital. Our region has been working the political process for decades to offer our citizens some much need traffic congestion relief. Yet the MPO plan fails to offer the region’s residents and commuters any significant traffic congestion relief for the worse bottlenecks we are forced to endure. None of the new billions proposed by the General Assembly with HB 3202 will be used for any interior roads, or even for RT 264 between Norfolk and Virginia Beach. We have many more transportation NEEDS than the 6 economic development projects within the MPO plan. If we expend all of our political capital on these 6 speculative economic development projects, how long will it be before we can muster adequate political capital to deal with the rest of our unmet transportation needs?

We need a better plan than the MPO’s plan – and we need a plan that includes funding for key interior roadways and bridges and not just highways.

Obviously we need also funding for more mass transit where such an investment makes the most sense. The HRPDC is in the process of developing a regional mass transit plan as I write this. Perhaps spending our political capital to fund the port expansion is not the wisest use of our political capital in Richmond?

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5 Responses to What to do about the Port and Tidewater’s transportation needs?

  1. Don Tabor says:

    Why is the Commonwealth of Virginia in the business of operating a port in the first place?

    When did that become a core function of government?

    If the port was privately owned and operated, would we even be asking these questions, or would we be demanding that the Port pay its own way just like any other business?

  2. reidgreenmun says:

    I suppose given the sorry state of our government today, a privately owned and operated port would hire a small army of expensive lobbyists and make large “donations” to fund “their people” in local, state, and federal elected offices, so that taxpayers would be forced to pay for the infrastructure the port wants to move their frieght in and out of the port.

  3. reidgreenmun says:

    One more thing, the port is a good business opportunity. But if the cost of new infrastructure exceeds the return in new revenue to the taxpayers that paid for that new infrastucture, then the wrong people were targeted to pay for the infrastructure.

  4. Kevin says:

    Who is actually going to use light rail here?

  5. reidgreenmun says:

    Kevin,

    The low income “workforce” that will be living in taxpayer sunsidized “housing” included in new TOD (Transis Oriented Development) along the Light rail corridors – and in some cases, Tourists travelling between downtown Norfolk and the Virignia Beach oceanfront. They will use Light rail as it is being implemented at this time.

    A system of Light Rail and feeder buses/vans could be designed and built that could serve critical masses of commuters, connecting large employers with major residential areas, but sadly the special interests business groups within our region have hijacked the transportation decision-making process in our region and our state, and we really aren’t heading in that direction right now.

    As far as the ‘regional vision” for transportation, its mostly about the port expansion in Tidewater. That, and funding more highway lane miles.

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