Same Old Lapdance: Infrastructure and Politics In Tha 757
It’s so real
It’s how I feel
It’s this society
That makes a n—- wanna kill
I’m just straight ill
Ridin’ my motorcycle down the streets
While the government is soundin’ like strippers to me
They keep sayin’ but I don’t wanna hear it
– N.E.R.D., Fly or Die, “Lapdance”
For once there is some marginally good news from VDOT in southeastern Virginia, where an independent review board OK’d the public-private Martin Luther King freeway and tunnel expansion to proceed apace.
“Marginal” has long been as good as it gets for transportation in Hampton Roads, where most news, to borrow a line from Beck, is the color of resignation. Jurisdictional fragmentation dating to the tumultuous 1960s, as well as the vagaries of rights and privileges afforded local governments under the unitary “Dillon Rule” construction of state government power, has long left the conurbation of cities and counties huddling against Virginia’s southeastern coastline in a state of internecine hostility. What the “seven cities” do have in common, even if they can’t agree on it, is the Hampton Roads harbor itself, which – through defense, shipping, tourism, real estate and manufacturing – utterly dominates the local economy and political economy.
This puts the “growth machine” of private quasi-public interests in the catbird seat of the local political economy, whereby (for example) the interests of the port authority have great influence over at least one of the local newspapers, or the city council of Virginia Beach is dominated by real-estate developers that are able to concurrently siphon public funds to provide services for large projects, developments which in turn vaguely justify further development. (A lot of money was made and lost on this side during the condo craze, but faded into the background of military spending and municipal guarantees.)
This is the way things are done in Hampton Roads, though this is not entirely popular with the public in the region. A 2002 state referendum to provide transportation tax levies failed resoundingly in most southeastern Virginia jurisdictions, partly because the ballot language appropriated less than 2% of funds to transit, restricting the rest to six highway “megaprojects”. While some of these have been non-controversial (such as improvements on the US 460 road/rail corridor), others have been of questionable benefit, and of great fiscal and environmental concern – such as the Southeastern Parkway and Greenbelt, a $2 billion roadway through old-growth forests, reserved agricultural land and the airspace of an already-threatened master jet airbase.
The Army Corps of Engineers, which controls much of the right-of-way along the project route, has rejected the project’s FEIS three times. Nonetheless, the SEPG is perpetually resurrected, likely not due to an overwhelming demand for northeastern North Carolina commuters to access the Virginia Beach resort area – a claim that seems especially spurious given that hostilities between the two states have forced major reroutings of three highways and the cancellation of the I-44 project between Norfolk and Raleigh. Rather, the “Southeast Sprawlway” lingers on due to the pollyannaish hopes of Virginia Beach real-estate concerns to continue with business as usual in the short term – despite the threat of continued sprawl to the environment, future infrastructure costs, or the mission of Oceana airfield in the long term.
The Norfolk Virginian-Pilot has at least once editorialized against the project, but has withheld whatever skepticism it may have about another project, the Hampton Roads Third Crossing. Strongly favored by the port authority, this network of causeways and tunnels is intended to “shunt” traffic from the Port of Virginia to the underused I-664 tunnel in Suffolk. The project has been a public-private venture since the defeat of the bond referendum, and given the ongoing privatization of the port system, any potential bidder such as Dubai Ports World or the Carlyle Group stands to benefit enormously from billions of dollars in state-guaranteed profits from the venture.
All of this is happening regardless of whether the SEPG is needed at all, or whether expansion of the pre-existing Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel and Martin Luther King Tunnel would serve similar capacities as the Third Crossing but more quickly, more sustainably, and for less money. (I demonstrated in a 2007 report at Virginia Commonwealth University that money spent on the two megaprojects could handily pay for the MLK and HRBT expansions, as well as high-capacity transit “from the Base to the Beach”; copies, or a more brief presentation, are available upon request.)
Beautifully, this is an election year. Bob McDonnell, the Republican gubernatorial candidate, supports the Third Crossing as part of an ostensible bid for improved high-speed rail connectivity in the region. Yet 150+MPH rail could be implemented much more quickly, and with much less expense, using the Norfolk Southern right-of-way in the 460 corridor – a straight shot between Petersburg and Suffolk, and from there to downtown Norfolk and Richmond.
McDonnell has not provided a position so far in his multi-point transportation platform, though he has called for paying for projects by promoting offshore drilling, privatizing liquor stores (McDonnell’s least-worst plank, according to Noah Kazis) and tolling interstates 95 and 81. And I cannot see what could do more than that last proposal to exacerbate the suspicion that North Carolina and Virginia have about any shared, cross-jurisdictional transportation issue, particularly at a time when Richmond, Virginia Beach and Raleigh seem to have a rare political opportunity for improved mobility.
Creigh Deeds’ transportation plan is perceived as rather vague – though he has consistently stated that transportation is his key issue, it doesn’t appear on his website – but he is on record as supporting the 460 approach to HSR, and opposing ports privatisation. He appears to oppose the Third Crossing without saying as much; he advocates expanding the Elizabeth River tunnels and HRBT, and improving transit.
Bob McDonnell, meanwhile, doesn’t mention transit or HSR except in the context of the “Third Crossing”. I’m not sure that he exactly wants to give Hampton Roads’ port capacity to Dubai, then take their money and give them a looping highway to nowhere, but that’s what it’s shaping up to be. Any chance we can get I-264 extended out to those proposed offshore oil platforms while we’re at it?
Oi. They keep saying, but I don’t wanna hear it.