News Picks

Friday, June 27, 2008

Virginia Gov. Timothy Kaine Promotes New Transportation Plan

Last week, Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine unveiled the Commonwealth's transportation plan he will present to the legislature. This is what he says it will do, and how it would be financed:


  • Cut the highway maintenance deficit.
  • Increase local road construction funding and restore support for construction projects statewide.
  • Invest in targeted projects to reduce traffic congestion in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, the state's two most congested regions.
  • Create a Transportation Change Fund to increase investment in transit, rail, and innovations that would reduce traffic congestion. (He offers the example of expanding ridesharing.)
  • Provide incentives for cities and towns to take responsibility for their road construction programs.
  • Create incentives for localities to use their land more efficiently by providing dedicated funding for transportation improvements in urban development areas.
  • Clarifies local government flexibility to use secondary and urban road funding for transit projects.


  • Increase the statewide motor vehicles sales tax from 3 percent to 4 percent. Do it with a one-half percent increase in January 2009 and another half-percent percent in July 2009.
  • Dedicate all motor vehicle sales tax funds to maintenance.
  • Increase the statewide annual vehicle registration fee by $10 and dedicate that extra money to maintenance.
  • Increase the retail sales tax in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads by 1 percent, except for food and medicine. In our region, the money would go to the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority.
  • Increase the statewide grantor's tax by 25 cents, and put the money into the Transportation Change Fund.
  • Lock it up: Any of these tax increases would expire if used for any purpose other than transportation.

Canada, U.S. increasingly at odds over pollution issues

Border battles: Canada, U.S. increasingly at odds over pollution issues

After decades of relative cooperation between the nations on either side of the river, border battles over environmental issues are becoming increasingly contentious. DTE officials will appear in a Canadian court July 7 to answer charges concerning how its plants' mercury emissions have affected Canada's waters and soils downstream.

Some legal experts trace these changes to the Bush White House and what they see as the government's go-it-alone approach to dealing with the environment. And there are varying ideas about whether the trend is a good thing.

"The Bush administration has been less interested in solving trans-boundary issues through diplomacy and bilateral cooperation than previous administrations," said Noah Hall, an international law expert at Wayne State University. "They haven't taken the diplomatic bilateral approach, and people have been left with no other option than to go to court."

Previously, disputes have been resolved through groups like the International Joint Commission or the Center for Environmental Cooperation, which was established as part of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Spotlight on easements

Grand jury probe should lead to tougher penalties for lawbreaking
Rocky Mountain News
Friday, June 20, 2008

Some real estate appraisers, property owners and land trusts have manipulated tax credits available from Colorado's conservation easement program in ways that seem downright criminal.
So we welcome Wednesday's decision by Attorney General John Suthers asking a statewide grand jury to look into the more questionable deals. An independent probe is essential.

A grand jury can subpoena witnesses and compel testimony; the AG would not have that authority for this investigation. Subpoena powers will help the grand jury unravel any scams.
The probe should publicly highlight the worst abuses. Exposing obvious loopholes should prod state lawmakers to close those gaps.

No single agency has direct oversight of easement credits, which have drained more than $274 million from state coffers since 2000. Articles in the Rocky have uncovered a host of dubious transactions, some involving what looks like excessive appraisals and multiple tax credits claimed from the same parcel of land.

For some people the temptation to game the system must have been irresistible. It was possible to collect millions in tax credits without drawing any attention. With little risk of getting caught, pushing the limits may have seemed a gamble worth taking.

Indeed, the penalties for illegally cashing in easements are little more than a slap on the wrist - low-level misdemeanors which carry modest fines and minimal jail time, if any.

To be sure, the grand jury might discover evidence of conspiracy, tax fraud or securities fraud - offenses that carry much stiffer penalties. And for months the IRS has conducted its own probe of easement deals that could violate federal tax laws.

If those wider offenses aren't prosecuted, don't count on stiff sentences for those who illegally manipulated easements. Another reason to welcome the grand jury's independence: Tax attorney Rodney Atherton, now under investigation by the Colorado Supreme Court for potential ethics violations related to the easement program, is likely to get a look.

A Rocky investigation of a land trust he organized found that Atherton got two open-space agreements on land he owned in Jefferson County and that these deals led to $360,000 in state tax credits for the attorney and his wife. Atherton may have attracted attention because the state Republican Party is a client of his law firm Zakhem Atherton. Suthers is Colorado's highest-ranking GOP official.

Michael Huttner of ProgressNowAction called for Suthers to recuse himself from the investigation, claiming Suthers had "a conflict of interest with one of his major contributors."
Atherton is hardly a "major contributor," since he did not give Suthers any money for his 2006 campaign. And while Atherton's law partner John Zakhem gave $900 to Suthers' campaign, Atherton did not join the firm until 2007. The most direct link Huttner can make is a contribution from Atherton to Gov. Bill Owens' 2002 re-election campaign.

Huttner's allegation is ludicrous. We have no reason to question Suthers' independence.
Besides, if Suthers wanted to protect Atherton, or any Republican, why wouldn't he take charge of the investigation, so he could cherry-pick who was scrutinized and who was left alone?
We trust the grand jury probe will be thorough, giving lawmakers plenty of ammunition to stiffen the penalties for looting public coffers and abusing a program meant to conserve valuable open space.

Jesse J. Richardson, Jr.
Associate Professor and Program Chair Urban Affairs and Planning
Virginia Tech

Friday, June 20, 2008

Michigan, Last in Efficiency?

This is a commentary on energy efficiency posted on the Enviro Mich Listserv on Jun 19, 2008

Dear Michigan Citizens, Voters and Ratepayers,

Evidence suggests that Michigan's lack of energy efficiency programs and achievement are hurting our citizens and businesses and putting us deeper in an economic hole. This situation may not improve. Energy efficiency legislation is currently being debated in the Michigan Senate with opposition.

Is Michigan last in Energy Efficiency?
· A quick look at the chart in this site suggests the State of Michigan may be making the least effort to promote energy efficiency of all 50 states. Arkansas, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana appear to be making more energy efficiency efforts.
· Michigan is ranked very low in US residential and commercial building codes and only 33
rd in energy efficiency policy according to an ACEEE study. About 15 years ago, we were one of the leading states in efficiency.

Does Energy Efficiency Matter? (It’s only money and health and …)
· Successful commercial and industrial companies are energy efficient. Wal-Mart became highly efficient in many ways including energy use and prospered. K-Mart didn’t. Cutting energy costs contributes directly to profits and even corporate survival.
· Energy efficient homes allow residents to save and spend on better things (education, retirement, health care, mortgage payments) rather than just creating more smoke, CO2 and other pollution.
· Wisconsin and Vermont have had excellent efficiency programs for years. If Michigan had Vermont’s program and results, we would have put back $3 billion into our economy since 2000.

An Energy Efficiency Program is an Investment, not a Tax
· A mandated, state-wide, utility funded energy efficiency program would communicate and incentivise efficiency products and practices for residential, commercial and industrial electric and heating.
· Such a program would cost less than $1.00 per month on a typical home electric bill. But, it can offset the need for a new coal plant which would increase the monthly electric bill by $3.00 to $4.00 for decades.
· In addition to avoiding a coal plant charge on an electric bill, an energy efficient house can save over $50 per month on combined electric and heating bills.

There is Strong Support for Energy Efficiency program in Michigan
· According to a poll by MUCC and NWF, 79% of Michigan sportsman support a Michigan energy plan which requires investment in energy efficiency and renewable energy, first, before building new coal fired plants to meet our energy needs.
· Other polls confirm public support for energy efficiency.
· Preliminary recommendations from the Michigan Climate Action Council strongly support the need for an energy efficiency program in Michigan. Business, utilities, environs and government are all represented.
From the RCI workgroup:
From the Energy Supply workgroup:
· Plus, energy efficiency will create Michigan jobs.

Surrounding States already have Energy Efficiency Laws and Programs
· Surrounding states have already passed stronger energy efficiency legislation (mandating energy efficiency programs) which puts them far ahead of Michigan in ratepayer savings. For example: Wisconsin (1.2% of revenue), Minnesota (1.5% of savings), Ohio (2% savings) and Illinois (2% savings).

· Of note, proposed Michigan legislation calls for only a modest 1% energy savings per year. We will never become fully competitive by aiming low.
· A recent Midwest Energy Efficiency Alliance study indicates that Michigan could save $1.7 billion a year (2025) with a 1% energy savings program but $3.1 billion a year with a 2% savings program.

Energy efficiency is the quickest, cleanest and least expensive way to achieve our energy goals. It creates jobs, save rate payers money which can flow back into the state's economy and reduces CO2, pollution and health problems. Energy efficiency is an investment in waste and pollution reduction and pays many dividends.

The Senate, House, other government, media and friends need to know of our support for energy efficiency in Michigan. We haven't had an energy efficiency program in years and it is hurting our residents and economy. Quick action and a high energy savings target can help get us out of our economic hole.

Take care, frank

Frank Zaski
A Concerned Citizen
Franklin, Mi.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

2008 National Dump the Pump Day

National Dump the Pump day on Thursday, June 19, 2008.

The day is designed to encourage people to get out of their cars and ride public transportation to raise awareness of the financial and environmental benefits of public transportation. Public transportation has the ability to save people money, conserve gasoline, and reduce the harmful greenhouse gases emitted into our environment.

On June 19, public transit agencies from coast to coast will join together to encourage their communities to dump the pump by leaving their cars at home and riding public transportation.

Personally, I have parked my car and opted to take public transit and transportation (a combination of trains and/or buses) to my job for about a year now. It's definitely a lifestyle adjustment. But I think that if more Americans would do this once or twice a week it could have a great effect in reducing traffic congestion, curbing pollution and create household savings.

Find out more at

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Forum on National Infrastructure Plan

From the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy:

In 2008, a new national plan for infrastructure is taking shape, responding to 21st century challenges including economic competitiveness, energy independence, and the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. At “Rebuilding and Renewing America: Toward a 21st Century Infrastructure Investment Plan” on May 9 in Washington D.C., members of Congress, representatives of state government, and civic, business, and labor leaders came together to share ideas on the ambitious task.

See full article here

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Commuting costs and housing markets- S&P makes the connection

A link is below to an interesting paper from a Standard and Poors economist. It validates through changes in housing prices what planners have been saying for a long time: exurban, sprawl development is unsustainable. The author makes the case that the recent rise in gasoline prices and heating and cooling costs have made smaller homes closer to work, schools, and parks more desirable and economically stable than McMansions 2 hours from work. Nice to have it wrapped up with a bow from a credible source. Their conclusions:

During market downturns, home prices fall the least in the most desirable areas of a metropolitan region. As housing affordability improves, home buyers who were previously priced out of their preferred towns and neighborhoods will be able to purchase properties in these areas. So, even as overall sales volume drops, relatively stronger demand for housing will limit price declines in neighborhoods with shorter work commutes, better schools, and easier access to parks, recreation, and retail centers. Because of sharp increases in gasoline prices, living closer to work has become an even more important consideration in the location decisions of home buyers. When combined with large inventories of unsold housing on the edges of urban areas, this shift in preferences will mean that prices for homes in outlying neighborhoods will continue their more rapid decline and will be slower to rebound when housing markets finally start to recover.

See link to article at: