Climate Change Zealots Ignore Subsidence in Hampton Roads

My friend, former Governor and U.S. Senator George Allen recently posted on Facebook, “While this research will annoy some dogmatic folks, it is Interesting to consider subsidence in the Hampton Roads region surrounding the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay” and linked to this article.

Former Gov. and Sen. George Allen

I applaud Mr. Allen’s recognition of the phenomena of subsidence and its prevalence in Tidewater. The article he promoted contributes to a realization that costal Virginia is not solely experiencing the sea level rising, but the fact that the land sinking. It is a trend the city of Virginia Beach has been addressing for more than five years.

His post is a valuable fact check on climate alarmists who sound a clarion call to “trust the scientists” and “follow the science”, but ignore basic scientific facts. For example, the Washington Post Magazine published an article, “Sounding the Retreat” in its April 19 edition that claimed to report on the dire impact of rising sea level on communities in Hampton Roads.

A critical word is missing from the article — “subsidence”. In all its discussion of sea level rise and climate change, the article fails to mention, let alone address, a key scientific fact – that Norfolk and the rest of the Hampton Roads region of Virginia experiences one of the highest rates of subsidence in the nation. Yes, the sea level is rising, but the ground is also sinking. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) found, “land subsidence has been responsible for more than half the relative sea-level rise measured in the southern Chesapeake Bay region” (Land Subsidence and Relative Sea-Level Rise in the Southern Chesapeake Bay Region). Early data collected and analyzed by NASA (NASA Finds Virginia Metro Area Is Sinking Unevenly) also found “Hampton Roads has one of the highest rates of relative sea level rise — the combined effects of sinking land and rising seas — along the U.S. East Coast”.

It is a phenomena I addressed in a surveying trade magazine in 2019.

Rep. Suzanne DelBene (D-WA) has introduced H.R.1261, National Landslide Preparedness Act, to authorize and encourage a number of activities to address landslide hazards. Her district includes the town of Oso, Washington, site of a deadly 2014 landslide. The bill, which has passed the U.S. House of Representatives and is pending before the Senate, includes a provision to make subsidence research, surveying, mapping, and identification a higher priority for the USGS. A fledgling National Land Level Change program is in its embryonic stages in USGS, and other agencies, using NASA satellite data to identify areas of the United States where subsidence is likely, so that more precise local surveys are carried out.

Subsidence is caused by a number of natural and anthropogenic activities, most commonly ground water withdrawal for irrigation. But subsidence can also be caused by natural events such as earthquakes, soil compaction, glacial isostatic adjustment, erosion, sinkhole formation, and adding water to fine soils deposited by wind (a natural process known as loess deposits). The future of existing development, as well as the planning, design, and construction of new infrastructure, are heavily reliant on accurate data on the existence and rate of subsidence. The impact can be in the trillions of dollars.

Perhaps subsidence didn’t fit a pre-ordained political agenda driving “Sounding the Retreat”. When one wonders why there are climate change skeptics, and why there is doubt about the alleged 97 percent consensus among scientists, one needs only to point to biased and poorly researched articles, such as those that fail to recognize factors such as subsidence.
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Opening Up Interstate Weigh Stations and Rest Areas: A COVID-19 Side Effect

While everyone is focused on very large decreases in highway traffic, an overlooked element is the continued strength of truck traffic. Indeed, America’s truckers are among the unsung heroes of the pandemic, keeping goods flowing to the supermarkets, home-supply stores, pharmacies, and other providers of necessities while much of everything else has been shut down.

But truckers don’t work 9-to-5 jobs. Within the limits of federal hours of service (HOS) regulations, truckers may be on duty at all hours of day and night. And that raises several problems—including safe places to sleep in the cab when a driver’s hours run out and getting food on the road when restaurants are closed (and trucks often don’t fit into drive-through lanes at fast-food restaurants).

Two innovative policies have been launched on a temporary basis. Some states, such as Virginia, have opened shuttered weigh stations to be used for additional truck parking. Virginia’s Department of Motor Vehicles, in early April, announced the availability of 246 truck parking spaces at 10 of its weigh stations for as long as the weigh stations are out of service. Other states subsequently followed suit, including Arizona, Georgia, Indiana, and Missouri.

A nationwide policy change was announced by the Federal Highway Administration on April 3. For the duration of the national emergency, FHWA is waiving enforcement of the 1956 ban on commercial food services at Interstate highway rest areas—but only for food trucks. Still, this is the first known exception to that ancient ban that is kept in place by lobbying and political contributions by members of the National Association of Truck Stop Owners (NATSO). As I write, during the first week of May, I am aware of 11 states that have legalized food trucks at rest areas: Arkansas, Arizona, California, Connecticut, Florida, Idaho, Indiana, Maryland, Minnesota, Ohio, and Oklahoma. The North Carolina Trucking Association reports with dismay that its state department of transportation has declined to act.

Christian Britschgi at reports that NCDOT wrote in an email that it “will not pursue allowing food trucks at rest areas because state law prohibits commercial activities within the right of way.” But the president of the North Carolina Trucking Association, Crystal Collins, said, “They don’t want to hinder or take business away from the truck stops that are open.”

Unfortunately, that reflects typical NATSO zero-sum thinking. There is a serious shortage of food available for purchase by truckers, and food trucks at rest areas are a welcome addition to the supply. Kudos to FHWA for changing (even just temporarily) this obsolete prohibition, and shame on the majority of state DOTs who are letting our truck drivers down.

A version of this commentary originally appeared in the May 7, 2020 edition of Surface Transportation Innovations Newsletter.

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Full U.S. Recovery Could Take Two Years

As the coronavirus continues to play havoc with the economy, many analysts are starting to think through how the recovery will occur.

Which industries will rebound first? Will the recovery resemble a V-shape? How long will it take to reach the previous peak of employment?

The timing and speed of the recovery is largely dependent on the public feeling safe to venture back to work and to visit stores, restaurants and other establishments that have been closed for the last several weeks.

Testing for the virus and tracing its origin in communities will certainly promote confidence among consumers. A vaccine would be a game changer.
In our economic modeling, we assume that a vaccine is successfully tested, produced and dispensed by the first quarter of 2022.

In the meantime, we see the recovery taking place in two stages.
First, the supply shock that was mainly created by closing non-essential businesses and asking citizens to stay at home ends. The second stage is the eventual recovery from the demand shock that persists because of social distancing even after all businesses are allowed to open.

The first stage of the recovery has already begun in some states that have lifted restrictions such as allowing elective surgery or opening some stores, parks and beaches. This should create growth in June employment and output, but the massive contraction that took place in April and May will swamp that modest growth in June.

Real gross domestic product — the monetary value of all final goods and services produced — is expected to contract to an annualized rate of 18.4% in the second quarter and 1.0% in the third quarter. This comes after the first quarter annualized reduction of 4.8%. Real GDP should rebound at an annualized 4.4% pace in the fourth quarter.

The second stage of the recovery starts in the third quarter for many industries and the improvements to the economy become more widespread in the fourth quarter. But it does not benefit all industries equally because social distancing continues without a vaccine.
Restaurants, many retail establishments and entertainment venues should see some recovery, but their employment levels should still be less than half of their pre-coronavirus levels throughout this year.

On the other hand, employment at utilities, professional services and company headquarters should be back to 90% of pre-coronavirus levels by the fourth quarter.
The Payroll Protection Program plays an important role in the recovery by enabling small businesses to retain and bring back employees who would otherwise have been laid off during the recession.

Over the course of next year, employment in all industries should reach about 90% or more of pre-coronavirus levels with employment reaching its previous peak in the third quarter of 2022.

But the economic shutdown put into effect to reduce the spread of the virus has already and will continue to lead to many firms filing for bankruptcy.

The widespread use of a vaccine in the first quarter of 2022 should help propel the economy forward. These forecasts will change significantly if a vaccine is available sooner or if the coronavirus continues to spread into the third quarter of this year.

A version of this commentary originally appeared in the May 10 edition of The Richmond Times-Dispatch.

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Governor Punts on First Down

Just as COVID-19 was starting its destruction of the world’s economy in early March, the Virginia General Assembly took final action on an exuberant two-year state budget within shouting distance of $140 billion. Six weeks later at the Reconvened Session, with the economic damage obvious but not yet measured, the Assembly reaffirmed the same spending plan.
Rather than substantially cut the budget, Governor Ralph Northam and his finance team proposed to delay the vast majority of the newly authorized spending and decide later whether the state can afford it. About $2.3 billion in increased spending will remain in the budget, but frozen until a new revenue forecast is presented later this year. A special session will then be called where legislators either release the freezes or approve other actions.
It was a punt on first down. It is the same tactic the Northam Administration displayed with four controversial union-backed labor law changes, all of them likely to impair the economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. The spending is postponed, but not yet canceled.
In fact, fueled by new authority to issue $750 million in short-term bonds and by a new 35% tax on those ubiquitous skill game machines, every effort may probably be made to avoid any state budget cuts until absolutely necessary. When more clarity makes a new revenue forecast possible, the state may legally begin to dip into the Revenue Reserve Fund, further delaying the inevitable.
That safety net will not help for long. At the end of Fiscal Year 2007, on the eve of the last recession, Virginia had $1.2 billion in the Revenue Stabilization Fund, a.k.a. the Rainy-Day Fund. At the end of Fiscal Year 2019, with the pandemic eight months away, the balance was 75% lower, or $291 million. The combination of that plus an additional revenue reserve stood at less than $800 million, 33% lower.
That bears repeating: Going into the last recession, when Virginia’s budget was far smaller, the reserve cash balance was far higher. This has not been widely advertised.
Virtually every state revenue source is going to decline, some precipitously, perhaps for a long time. They will not be flat, they will decline. Alcohol is selling well, but even those taxes may fall below the levels seen with bars open and big events authorized. It will not be just sales and income taxes, and the accounting tricks used in the past will not work.
Also unknown is the level of federal largesse coming toward the state and Virginia’s local governments. Congress barely passes one massive bailout with borrowed money before speculation begins about the next one, probably larger. In an early response, Congress raised the federal the reimbursement level for Medicaid services, but the additional revenue for Medicaid will go out the door in new spending for that threatened population. Other federal funds coming may be tightly targeted, as well.
If the state’s leaders wait until the revenue losses and federal grants are known to make the hard decisions, Virginia’s budget hole will be far deeper than necessary. This is about cash flow. The state needs to end its current fiscal year on June 30 with the largest pile of cash it can accumulate, and then continue to keep spending below revenue. That means reduced spending now.
Virginia’s local governments, lacking cash reserves comparable to the state, are making the hard decisions to lay off staff and eliminate services now. When Richmond’s hard decisions come due, medical history tells us a second wave of COVID-19 may be taking hold, forcing yet another economic contraction and more stay-at-home orders.
Is the administration willing to cut existing spending now, before the revenue questions are answered? If that is happening, there are few signs. There were only a few actual cuts in proposed amendments April 22 and some new expenditures were allowed to proceed. The bulk of the frozen spending is in the second year of the budget, which starts in July 2021, when many must dream things will be back to normal. This is a bad time to engage in dreams.
A version of this commentary originally appeared in the May 3, 2020 edition of The Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star.

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Behaving Like a Commonwealth

Gov. Ralph Northam’s press conferences are weird, unsettling events. They’re free of the fireworks and drama that are a regular feature of the president’s wild pressers. But there’s a sense of quiet despair and dictatorial impulses about them.
Northam is frequently befuddled on these occasions, as he was last week when he was asked why Virginia’s nursing home deaths had tripled overnight. He had no idea. And as he was weeks ago when a reporter asked about his plans to help the homeless during the health crisis. Again, not a clue.
At other times, Northam displays flashes of irrational stubbornness.
On Monday, for instance, Northam was asked if he would consider reopening Virginia by regions. After all, there are four localities with no infections at all and more with very few positive tests or hospitalizations.
Northam’s answer ? No.
Northam responded as he has several times before, insisting that Virginia is a commonwealth and we’re going to behave like a commonwealth.
I dug out my battered Webster’s to check the definition of “commonwealth.” In the simplest sense, it means “a group of people united by common interests” or “a political community founded for the public good.”
Nothing about commonwealth having uniform rules across every inch of the territory.
Come to think of it, wouldn’t it serve the common good – the common wealth – for at least part of Virginia to be back in business and generating revenue to send to Richmond?
Yes, I know, the U.S. has four commonwealths: Virginia, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and Kentucky. When these states were formed they were designated as commonwealths in their constitutions, but in reality they are no different from any of the other 46 states.
Again, this time from Merriam-Webster: “The distinction is in name alone. The commonwealths are just like any other state in their politics and laws, and there is no difference in their relationship to the nation as a whole. When used to refer to U.S. states, there is no difference between a ‘state’ and a ‘commonwealth’.”
Which raises the question, why is Northam so hung up on the “c” word?
I called a local historian to ask if I was missing something about commonwealths that would require citizens to be treated with rigid uniformity. He said no. “Commonwealth was a term that started to be used more often in the 16th and 17th centuries in England. It just meant a government for the common good or commonwealth. It became more closely identified with a republic as time went on… But that has nothing to do with complete uniformity of laws across the commonwealth.”
More than you wanted to know. Definitely more than Ralph Northam knows.
In other words, there’s nothing in Virginia’s commonwealthiness to prevent the governor from opening the rural parts of the state – you know, where crops are grown and coal is mined – while keeping closed parts of Virginia where the infection rate is high and the inhabitants live in high-rise ant colonies and ride public transit.
In a pointed editorial, Why Must Southwest Virginia Wait On The Rest of the State?” The Roanoke Times on Tuesday pointed out that only two members of the governor’s COVID-19 Business Task Force come from west of the Blue Ridge.
Too much of the pandemic has become unnecessarily politicized — and polarized. Yes, Republicans have been the loudest voices pushing for the economy to reopen and yes, most of Southwest Virginia votes Republican. However, we can’t help but point out that some other Democratic governors — from Andrew Cuomo in New York to Tom Wolf in Pennsylvania to Jared Polis in Colorado — have approached things on a regional basis. Northam’s decision not to in a state with such geographical differences as Virginia – and such a wide disparity in infection rates — is curious, indeed.
The paper gently mocked Northam’s silly contention that if he allowed parts of Virginia to open, people from other corners of the Old Dominion would rush in, bringing disease with them.
If every business in those zero-infection localities reopened today, would we really see a caravan of people from Northern Virginia driving down to a barbershop in Bland County or to a diner in Dickenson County? wondered the Roanoke Times.
No, we wouldn’t. Northern Virginians don’t even like Southerners.
The Times noted that using Northam’s logic, the entire U.S. should remain locked down until New York’s coronavirus outbreak ends. After all, what’s to stop people from the Bronx from getting in their cars and driving to the pristine mountains of Virginia, bringing their New York pathogens with them?
Northam seems to have a fundamental misunderstanding about what being part of a commonwealth means. Will someone please toss a dictionary to him at his next presser?
This column was published originally at
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