Free Speech Guaranteed — Except When You Disagree with Us

The Loudoun County School Board expects public school employees to conduct themselves in a professional manner. A draft policy for professional conduct contains all the usual things one would expect. Teachers and other employees should treat students and peers with dignity, respect and civility. They should not bully people, consume alcohol or drugs in the workplace, use racial slurs or insults, or engage in inappropriate or sexual relations with students.

But the proposed policy, which the board is scheduled to vote on Oct. 12, contains something extra. It would curtail what school employees can say outside of school. Specifically, it would prohibit anyone from making speeches, social media posts or any other “telephonic or electronic communication” that is “not in alignment with the school division’s commitment to action-oriented equity practices.”

In other words, if you are a public school employee who disagrees with the leftist social-justice agenda of the Loudoun County Public School system, shut up or face the consequences.

The draft professional-conduct policy is explicit about what it is trying to accomplish. States the draft (my highlight):

The Loudoun County School Board is committed to an equitable and inclusive work and educational environment for employees and students. As outlined in the Superintendent’s Statement on Equity, Loudoun County Public Schools reject racist and other racially motivated behavior and language, recognizing that it encourages discrimination, hatred, oppression, and violence. Employees are expected to support the school division’s commitment to action-oriented practices through the performance of their job duties, as the Division engages in the disruption and dismantling of white supremacy, systemic racism, and language and actions motivated by race, religion, country of origin, gender identify, sexual orientation, and/or ability.

Behavior that will not be tolerated includes but is not limited to discriminatory statements, the use of racial insults or slurs, or:

Any comments or actions that are not in alignment with the school division’s commitment to action-oriented equity practices, and which impact an individual’s ability to perform their job responsibilities or create a breach in the trust bestowed upon them as an employee of the school division. This included on-campus and off-campus speech, social media posts, and any other telephonic or electronic communication.

Moreover, states the draft policy, employees are … encouraged to to report violations of LCPS’s commitment to “equitable treatment” of students and staff to their immediate supervisor or principal.

Apparently, it did occur to the drafters of this proposed policy that some provisions might infringe upon employees’ right to free speech. “Nothing in this policy or any other policy shall be interpreted as abridging an employee’s First Amendment right to engage in protected speech,” the draft says. But then it creates a massive loophole. The right to free speech does not apply “on matters of public concern [that] may be outweighed by the school division’s interest in … achieving consistent application of the Board’s and Superintendent’s stated mission, goal, policies and directives, including protected class equity, racial equity, and the goal to root out systemic racism.”

In other words, nothing shall abridge your right to free speech — unless you express disagreement with the School Board’s leftist social-policy agenda.

This document is so grievously flawed that I cannot imagine the Loudoun County School Board will approve it. If the board, in a fit of madness does adopt this policy, surely the free-speech provisions would never survive a legal challenge. But the fact that such a document could be drafted tells us a lot about the people running the Loudoun County school system. In their zeal to “root out systemic racism,” they’re perfectly willing to root out traditional American liberties as well.

These people are dangerous, and they are taking over.

This commentary originally appeared on Oct. 4, 2020 in the online Bacon’s Rebellion.

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Dominion Green Energy Costs Grow Again

Dominion Energy Virginia’s major capital projects listed in its pending integrated resource plan. The SCC staff added the lifetime revenue requirement, the total dollars extracted from ratepayers over time which includes financing costs and the company’s current profit margin. Source: SCC

As sobering as they were, the initial estimates of how a green energy conversion will explode Dominion Energy Virginia rates have now been revised up. The State Corporation Commission staff now sees it costing an additional $800 per year for a residential customer to purchase 1,000 kWh per month by 2030, an increase of just under 60%. 

The main drivers of the higher costs will be all the offshore wind and solar generation Dominion proposes to build, as outlined in its most recent integrated resource plan. That plan is now being reviewed by the SCC, and the staff filed its analysis late last week, summarized here on pages 4-5. 

The separate cost analysis by Carol Myers of the SCC’s Division of Utility Accounting pushed up the utility-issued estimate by disputing assumptions the utility made. Staff disagrees with the utility projection that by 2030 less than half of its electricity will be used by residential customers. It is now about 55%. Should the portion shrink as Dominion projects, more of the project costs would be imposed on commercial users.

Myers reported it is also unrealistic to assume most residential households use 1,000 kWh per month, when the history show usage at or above 1,100 kWh.  Plugging that into the data would increase the projected cost to families even beyond $800. Myers’ testimony also shows huge increase in commercial (60%) and industrial (65%) power costs by 2030, even larger on a percentage basis than residential. For the state’s economy, they also matter.

Reading her testimony demonstrates how many variables are involved in these projections. Behind the “gotcha” headlines, it is clear these estimates could easily be too high or too low. Much but not all of the coming price increases can be blamed on the 2020 Virginia Clean Economy Act, which is dictating the massive wind, solar and storage investments. The General Assembly is also responsible for the vast majority of the other recent decisions driving up your future bills. 

There is also no reason to assume that a General Assembly which has rewritten utility law several times in the past decade will not continue to do so going forward. Each integrated resource plan seems to survive as a useful document only until the next General Assembly session, if that long.

One of the major unanswered questions is whether the North Carolina regulatory authority will impose these capital costs on its citizens served by Dominion. If not, that will further increase the bill on Virginians.

The new analysis by the State Corporation Commission staff confirms that the green energy law passed by the General Assembly is indeed the “Clean Energy We Don’t Actually Need Act.” Dominion Energy Virginia will be collecting $100 billion from its customers to build far more electricity generation than we need, either to meet renewable energy goals or to simply meet demand.

Environmental opponents of the plan will seek to stop continued operation of the coal-fired Virginia Hybrid Energy Center in Southwest Virginia, which on an accounting basis is actually a money-losing operation with a net present value of negative $472 million by 2030.

Along with fossil fuel plants not being closed, Dominion proposes to add 970 megawatts of new natural gas generation by 2024, “to address what (Dominion) characterizes as probable system reliability issues resulting from the addition of significant renewable energy resources and the retirement of coal-fired facilities,” the staff wrote.

SCC Staff versus Dominion estimates of residential cost increases by 2030. Plan B assumes a 25% solar capacity factor, and B19 assumes a 19% capacity factor.

Like Gaul, your future Dominion bill increases are divided into three parts in Myers’ testimony, as her table above illustrates.

First, identified in the document as Plan A, are increased costs not directly tied to the 2018 or 2020 legislation. Those include the Assembly-approved plans to remove coal ash, to place hundreds of miles of residential tap lines underground, and various demand management programs where customer A pays customer B to use less power. Also included are the cost of gaining new 20-year operating licenses for Dominion’s four nuclear reactors.

The second tranche of higher costs are projects which were mandated in the 2018 Ratepayer Bill Transformation Act (also called the Grid Transformation Act). That includes a portion of the planned solar, a broadband program subsidized by ratepayers, even more demand management, and a planned pumped storage facility to provide 300 megawatts of backup to renewables. 

The third tranche comes from 2020’s VCEA: Four or more waves of wind turbines built off Virginia Beach, thousands of megawatts of new solar, battery storage, the cost retiring coal plants early, and the new carbon tax Virginians will pay as part of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.

Myers includes a table comparing the new generation sources, the amount of energy generated when they operate and their initial cost and all-in cost, including financing and profits over time. That’s how $45 million in capital costs translates into $100.6 million in customer payments.

Do the division and it turns out the offshore wind will cost $7 million per constructed megawatt, solar will cost about half that at $3.7 million per megawatt, and the natural gas generation less than $2 million per megawatt.  The disparity is even worse, in reality, because solar and wind are unreliable, intermittent producers.

The staff testimony and all the other documents in the IRP case may be found here. Below is the revised version of a chart used earlier. 

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Feds’ Jargon-filled Memo Won’t Help Farmers Manage Wetlands

Back in July USDA Under Secretary Bill Northey, Assistant Secretary of the Army R. D. James, and EPA Assistant Administrator for water David Ross signed an essentially meaningless memorandum on how to determine issues related to the implementation of Section 404 of the Clean Water Act (CWA) and the Food Security Act (FSA) of 1985.

Before you do any work involving soil and water on your farm or ranch you best call a lawyer to interpret the memorandum among USDA, EPA and the Corps of Engineers (Corps).

After writing eight pages of recommendations and alleged clarifications, the memorandum of understanding (MOU) states “Nothing in this memorandum is intended to diminish, modify, or otherwise affect statutory or regulatory authorities of any signatory agency.”

The 8-page MOU of understanding also states: “Nothing in this memorandum is intended to affect the authority of a state or tribe pursuant to an authorized CWA Section 401, 402, or 404 program.”

With language like this you might wonder: why was this memorandum published?

Bureaucratic jargon

The MOU is filled with bureaucratic jargon such as CWDs, DLs and JDs. What it boils down to is, the three agencies have made a valiant effort in trying to assist landowners in determining what is or what is not a water of the United States. The three agencies also recognize they have different programs to determine wetland delineations.

This is nonsense. You should be aware, several of us have tried cases against NRCS and USDA, and the issues always come back to, what is a wetland?

One need only to read a recent case out of the 7th Circuit involving a widow whom NRCS attempted to punish. The agency was rebuked strenuously and viciously by three federal judges in Chicago.

This memorandum apparently has writers and/or lawyers who have difficulty understanding a court case.

How confusing is this?

Numerous farmers and ranchers have attempted to convert potholes and wet property on their land. The MOU states “As defined by NRCS pursuant to the Food Security Act at 7CFR 12.2: a converted wetland where the conversion occurred prior to December 23, 1985, an agricultural commodity had been produced at least once before December 23, 1985, and as of December 23, 1985 the converted wetland did not support woody vegetation and did not meet the hydrologic criteria for a farmed wetland.”

As a farmer or rancher you need to know that the hydrologic criteria is simply the level of the water table during a percentage of time during the growing season. You would be amazed as to how the technical people at NRCS determine the growing season.

Another confusing section of the MOU is on the development of LLAs. You probably have never heard of LLAs, but it stands for “Local Level Agreement”. All this means is “Agreements developed between two or more of the agencies at the district, regional, and/or state office levels to promote business process efficiencies in order to reduce delays in actions related to their wetland programs.”

Whew!

Where does LLA make sense? One case in Massachusetts involving cranberry bogs has continued for almost 30 years. The MOU is helpful because it does encourage the development of LLAs “…to improve overall communication, coordination, and partnering to reduce duplication of efforts, to improve efficiency, and to provide as much consistency as possible for landowners, USDA program participants and the regulated community.”

Agency goes missing

One agency not included in this agreement is glaringly missing. The Department of the Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Office is notably absent. For those who have forgotten there was a major taking of forest property from the owner involved in the “Invisible Frog” case. The lawyer landowner in this case took the Interior decision all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Even the Trump Administration did not have the courage to kill this silly case. The landowner won in the Supreme Court.

This MOU is likely to be the subject of future litigation and may also end up before the Supreme Court.

This commentary was originally published August 18, 2020 in the online Farm Futures.

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How the Unpaid Utility Bills Will Instead Come to You

Thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of Virginia households have fallen behind on their electricity, natural gas, and water service bills in the COVID-19 recession, with no fear (yet) of being disconnected. The moratorium on disconnections is now scheduled to end October 5.

When the dust settles and the unpaid bills come due, they are likely to come to all of the other customers of the various utilities in the form of extra monthly charges. In the case of Dominion Energy Virginia, the General Assembly is considering a second way to make its customers pay.

The General Assembly now in special session might act to extend that moratorium until the end of the official COVID-19 emergency orders. But it is not waiting for that to go after the larger problem: How to relive pressure on those families and how to maintain the economic health of these vital utilities when they are owed hundreds of millions and perhaps a billion dollars.

Those numbers are not unrealistic. The State Corporation Commission reported in August that as of June 30 the various companies it regulates were already owed $184 million, and the three months since then included the hottest part of the summer. It is conceivable the official pandemic emergency will extend deep into 2021, picking up winter billing.

Under orders from the SCC, but also on their own initiative, the companies have been instituting payment plans for the struggling customers, and the General Assembly is also likely to dictate some of the terms of those, including precluding interest or penalties. If the deep recession continues, many customers will not be able to catch up, even over a long payment period.

A similar crisis is brewing in the housing market, with the government preventing evictions or foreclosures on tenants or borrowers crushed by the recession. In that case, there is no easy way for the government to spread the cost to other tenants or borrowers directly. It is different with the regulated utilities.

Here is the direct approach the state might take to cover the unpaid bills with money from paying customers. It could add a monthly charge, perhaps a set amount or a set amount per unit of service, through what is called a “rate adjustment clause.” That would be one more added line to your monthly bill. Dominion or Appalachian Power Company bills are already festooned with such charges, all but invisible.

That approach comes in Senate Bill 5118. The link is to the version which has already passed the Virginia Senate but not the House of Delegates.

“The Commission shall allow for the timely recovery of bad debt obligations, reasonable late payment fees suspended, and prudently incurred implementation costs resulting from an (Emergency Debt Retirement Plan) for jurisdictional utilities, including through a rate adjustment clause or through base rates,” it reads. “Shall” is the key word as it directs the SCC to do this if the utility has asked.

The indirect approach being considered by the legislators would only work with Dominion, which will surely have the largest amount of accounts receivable outstanding. Since its last rate review in 2015 the company’s accounting indicates it has earned perhaps $500 million or more in profits above its authorized level of earnings. Governor Ralph Northam has proposed taking $320 million of that to cover unpaid bills owed Dominion.

The problem is that money is not just sitting there for the taking. State law already dictates two possible uses for it, both of them of benefit to all Dominion customers. In fact, the same legislature set those rules for how to spend it, which it now may abandon.

Dominion, as you may recall, is under orders from the legislature to conduct a massive building campaign for solar collectors, offshore wind turbines and battery storage. The $500 million is to be invested in that energy transformation. That would benefit us because otherwise customers will pay for that building program with even larger (you guessed it) rate adjustment clauses for years to come.

If not used that way, the money would be refunded to customers, lowering bills a bit.

One way or the other, that $500 million in excess profits, if confirmed by an audit next year, was going to benefit the customers who paid it in. Now most of it may benefit the customers who didn’t pay. All three of the possible approaches benefit Dominion and its shareholders.

Only Dominion has that pot of extra cash for the state to raid. The go-to move for the other major utilities, including natural gas companies and even the rural electric cooperatives, will be to ask the SCC to impose a new rate adjustment charge to collect their uncollectable back bills.

It didn’t take a degree in economics to understand that eventually there would be consequences if people were allowed to stay in their homes without paying, or allowed to keep their power, water, and gas on without paying. The bills could eventually come to us either as taxpayers or as customers of the same entities.

In its order to end the bill moratorium on October 5, the Commission urged the General Assembly to use tax funds to cover the bills, or the special funding Congress provided for COVID response.

Using existing tax revenue for this purpose means less to spend somewhere else. Raising new taxes for this purpose would have political risk. Burying the cost on everybody’s monthly bills for years to come offers political cover, and it seems the General Assembly is taking that route.

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Five Steps to Guide Transportation Planning and Spending During the Pandemic

This analysis discusses a five-step approach to understanding and addressing the new challenges that preceded, and now are intensified by, the COVID-19 pandemic and economic events of this year. The way that we react to them will be crucial to the nation’s transportation capabilities in the future. The COVID-19 pandemic and the governmental responses to it have reduced overall travel activity and shifted demand to different locations and modes of travel. Demand has shifted away from any form of concentration of passengers in vehicles and terminals, or even at potential destinations of travel. There has been a major shift to relying on household vehicles for any travel demand since there is less personal exposure to others.

  1. Call a moratorium on all expansion-based transportation investments—for the obvious reasons.

While being willing to accept some absolutely clear and verifiable capacity needs, we must place a hold on transportation expansion investments, at least until the dust settles. The possible exceptions foreseen could be expansions that have already begun and need to be finished, such as bridge expansions, truck access to ports, storm responses, or natural disasters.

Even before the pandemic and recession—back in the fall of 2019—it was clear to transportation analysts that we were in the most difficult period in our professional lifetimes in which to forecast demand. The central issues were linked to technological and demographic changes.

The focal technological questions were examining the speed of arrival and the ultimate characteristics of autonomous vehicles (AV). Forecasts for the arrival of full-scale AV were anywhere from five to 50 years, and expectations were for a surge in travel volume or a decline. Who would own the vehicles: Hertz, Uber, General Motors, individuals, or governments? The new tech communication tools disrupted the taxi world, transit, and other traditional options.

There were also other questions. Demographically, the central challenge was where would the future skilled workforce come from? Would the retirement-age Baby Boomers work longer? Would the country import workers? Would we hope for the best? Shifting from child-centered travel households to an elder-care focus was on the horizon. Instead of you taking your kids to the dentist, they’d be taking you.

Travel growth that had been close to zero or negative during the 2007-2009 recession experienced a brief recovery but dwindled by 2018. Highway miles of travel grew by a meager 0.8% in 2019. Growth rates for the upcoming decade (2020-2030) were forecast at 1% a year. The only real growth sector was expected to be aviation.

Then COVID-19 hit and all of those very limited forecasts became almost foolishly optimistic. Travel by all modes decreased dramatically through the first half of 2020 and prospects for recovery and growth were not much more than conjecture. Modes that required certain levels of demand to justify services—rail, air, charter buses, cruise ships—sharply curtailed capacity.

At present, it is impossible to answer “when will we be back to the travel levels of 2019?” Without falling into talk of a “new normal,” at a minimum we can see uncertainty for the next several years. At the same time, fuel taxes, sales taxes, and general revenues that fund federal state and local transportation needs have shown massive declines.

With the present dominated by uncertainty in all aspects of travel demand, any proposals for capacity increases have zero credibility. Any modal option predicated on responding to congestion must be suspect. Thus, a hiatus, or maybe a moratorium, on building new facilities is the appropriate policy response. Auto travel, requiring no more than one person to justify a trip, has shown greater recovery.

  1. Focus on improving the condition of the existing systemnot just restoring, but modernizing.

At this time, the main focus could be the reconstruction of the Interstate Highway System, improving operations to assure safety and environmental enhancements, and rehabilitating— for safety purposes—existing  rail transit systems.

In this environment, calls for transportation infrastructure spending need wary—even scrupulous—examination. Even in areas seeing substantial population growth, any investments based on forecasted travel growth must be suspect. Many projects require not just years but decades to develop, and proponents bear the burden of providing plausible situations for future dates that can justify the investment.

In this period, the wise public policy course is to recognize the massive backlog of transportation investment we already have. Bringing our transportation systems up to appropriate standards and investing in them should be the starting point for programs.

The National Highway System needs on the order of a trillion dollars in investments to restore and modernize the system. Looking at the physical condition of the Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago transit systems, restoration investment is a matter of safety as well as efficiency. The more modern transit systems developed in our timeWashington, D.C., and San Franciscohave already reached the level of massive needs for rehabilitation. All in all, the major transit systems could similarly identify ”trillion” as the basic investment level.

Certainly, no transit systemgiven six years of declining ridership and now the very serious health concerns of rail and bus ridersshould be expanding while its massive rehabilitation needs are unmet. A national moratorium on the expansion of services along with efforts to rebuild, renovate and modernize should be the basic national infrastructure theme. 

  1. Assess ways to determine the role and prospective impacts of Work at Home trendswhich already exceeded transit in share in 2017.

In addition to the above challenges, we have also seen a new world emerging regarding working at home. Working at Home (WAH), has been the fastest-growing “mode” of travel to work in America since 1970, growing at twice the rate of worker growth. In 2017, more than 5% of “commuters” worked at home, surpassing the percentage of people across the country that used mass transit. Working at home now has the third-highest share of work travel, trailing only car-pooling at 9%, and driving alone at more than 76%.

The outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic coincided with the ongoing trend of a massive increase in workers shifting to working at home. Many of those workers, engaged in this forced experiment, have found working at home an acceptable or even attractive option, providing both time and cost savings. Perhaps more significantly, employers are finding it to be an effective tool with limited near-term losses in productivity and prospective cost savings in office size and location.

The evolution of working at home in the longer term will depend on current unknowns, such as which activities can be justified in terms of sustained productivity over time, and how team-oriented activities and the acculturation of new employees can be structured.

Heretofore, the great majority of those working at home were typically individuals conducting personal service businesses, whether incorporated or not. Instead of writing the next great American novel, they were creating the next great American software program. Those working in traditional activities that are not always computer-based, such as childcare, also represented a significant share of “employees” working at home.

The immense power of today’s home-based tools—smartphones, computers, printers, scanners, and the internet— empowered many small businesses. However, since 2010, and certainly now in the COVID-19 environment, large private corporations have been the major growth source. It is unrealistic for everyone who is working at home to continue after the pandemic eases, but there is a new tolerance—even acceptance for it—among employees and management.

Working at home doesn’t generate greenhouse gases, consumes far fewer resources, and does not require significant public investments in infrastructure. Lower greenhouse gas emissions, decreased traffic congestion, and lower financial costs—what’s not to like?

The entire workforce structure has been moving towards a more flexible environment in this century, accommodating the needs of the hard-to-attract skilled workforce and recognizing the increasing influence of working women, who are now close to half of the workforce. At the very least, we can expect an environment where a large segment of the workforce operates on a split workweek at home and a meeting place—perhaps two or three days on each side. Recognizing that roughly two-thirds of workers live in a household with other workers, this opens many opportunities for shifting residence locations that are focused more on access to other things people value rather than job access. In the past this has permitted people to optimize their housing or other non-work-related preferences, resulting in moving farther from the occasional workplace. In many cases, our massive communications connections will continue to increasingly permit the work-from-anywhere workforce to locate wherever they find it attractive—a beach, a forest, a mountaintop. 

  1. Focus further on shifting transportation funding to be responsive to the accessibility needs of lower-income populations.

In many cases, that means buses, vans, and jitneys. Anything on rails would be exceptional.

The skilled workforce will continue to be in demand wherever they choose to locate. Often their only work needs will be the internet, a highway, and maybe a large commercial airport. Most of their activities are not resource-based.

Many of the key work-related transportation questions will concern the less skilled, who typically need access to physical workplaces. These can be resource-based, involving minerals, farms, rivers, and ports in rural areas. More typically they can be floorspace-based, requiring commuting trips to various structures such as factories, warehouses, hospitals, shopping centers, hotels, restaurants, and construction sites to provide services. In some cases, these are in the center of the metro area, but more frequently they are located in suburban work locations. Serving these businesses’ needs will require a far more flexible structure of public and private transportation services.

One of the great unrecognized advances in American transportation that benefits this population has been the increased longevity of the vehicle fleet, now at an average age of more than 10 years. Very serviceable, low-cost used vehicles are a major transportation benefit to lower-income workers. Both Hispanic and African American workers have made substantial gains in auto ownership, expanding their access to a broader reach of job opportunities.

Accessibility research in our major metro areas shows that in 30 minutes of travel, automobiles can reach approximately 30 times the number of jobs that can be reached by mass transit. Even among the best transit systems, such as Washington, D.C., cars can reach 90% of all the jobs in the region in 60 minutes, whereas transit can reach fewer than 11%. 

  1. Emphasize a strong focus on private sector solutions to respond to needs in this transportation world—utilizing the disruptive technologies that can serve users’  needs rapidly.

Rural connectivity will be a major concern. As jobs move farther into the suburbs, they become more accessible to rural workers, However, with the exception of resource-based employment, developing self-sustaining economic centers in rural areas has been very challenging. The tourism connection and the more recent tendency of retirees to locate near amenities like national parks will prove to be a major potential resource. One of the “resource-based” industries in rural areas will likely be providing services to newcomers to the area, as retirees seek services, health care, and attractive lifestyle amenities.

The almost-standard response over the years to these sorts of challenges has been to generate ideas for fleets of carpools, vanpools, and small buses. Frequently, this really is the answer, but it has suffered due to public constraints. To fully succeed, it will require eliminating or reducing the regulation of private vehicles that “compete” with transit. This may require action by governments to assist prospective operators by restructuring the many agencies that operate their many separate programs to facilitate new private initiatives.

All of the necessary responses seem to suggest small, focused entrepreneurial efforts rather than massive public programs. Private-sector roles in both highways and transit represent the real potential here. If the private sector, as part of a public-private partnership (P3), saw opportunities to invest in toll facilities and van-style services where they were willing to risk their money and become the great experimenters in new services, many “disruptive” new Uber- and Lyft-like experiments could emerge. Establishing a new program, or shifting public-private partnership programs to serve the capital needs of van- and bus-based start-ups along with traditional reconstruction needs could be effective.

The bus or vanpool approach has taken many forms:

  • Private firms have developed their own bus fleets to deliver their employees. Microsoft has the third-largest fleet of buses in Seattle;
  • Some companies have helped employees to operate a vehicle, owned by the employee or provided by the firm that can serve as a vanpool for groups of employees, given preferential parking, etc;
  • The intercity bus industry has developed an important off-shoot of charter buses that deliver people to major job centers;
  • In some cases, religious institutions have developed van systems to serve their members in daycare and other services; and
  • Entrepreneurial opportunities, functioning like airport vans as something of a model, could emerge to serve large centers. It might be a great time to experiment with the many parked airport and hotel shuttles.

These are areas in which public, private, institutional, and market-based approaches can all play far greater roles than they have succeeded in doing so far. One reality is to establish how far they have succeeded and in what roles. It would not be surprising that the airport auto rental bus fleets and the airport-to-hotel fleets have a market role comparable in scale to public transit in many areas, which a Reason Foundation policy study pointed out more than two decades ago.

The lack of information on the functions the various systems perform obscures their potential to expand their services. We do not know how many fleets of vans/buses/vehicles there are and what they accomplish, how many passengers they carry, how far they travel, and at what cost. The new Vehicle Inventory and Use Survey (VIUS) being re-established by the Bureau of Transportation Statistics at the Census Bureau has the potential to address this issue. The transportation statistical system has a unique universe to sample to gain this information: the vehicle registration files of the states. The VIUS originally addressed only trucks and is now being redesigned to expand observations to further understand the vehicle fleets that serve the nation.

An important place to start an inventory would be in the federal aid programs that support local agencies assisting the elderly and disadvantaged. There are multiple programs, within the U.S. Department of Transportation and other agencies, among them the Section 5310 paratransit programs and Section 5311 rural and small city assistance programs under the Federal Transit Administration. These programs have been criticized as over-organized and over-scheduled, requiring previous day reservations and long wait times rather than their modern private counterparts serving on-demand travel. They can be modernized and expanded to reach low-income workers.

The new concepts of micro-mobility and Mobility as a Service (MaaS) are potentially helpful to van-based systems in the sense that more real-time information and rapid real-time responses could energize a new approach to transportation services. It would be delightful to believe that our transportation systems and public policies are up to these very serious challenges and from it more effective systems can emerge.

This commentary was originally published on August 19, 2020 by the Reason Foundation.  

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