What you need to know about Virginia’s General Assembly

It’s that magical time of year again in Virginia’s capital city, where people from all over the Commonwealth come together for General Assembly. Virginia’s very part-time legislature can be a little intimidating to keep up with — especially in short session years like 2017 — so here’s some GA 101 to get you grounded.

General Assembly is a specific and strictly time-limited event

The Constitution of Virginia dictates the length of our legislative sessions and when they begin in Article IV, Section 6. Unless the Governor calls for a special session, which is quite unusual and usually limited to addressing very specific emergency circumstances, this one brief window of time is the only time of year when Virginia’s body of statutory law, the Code of Virginia, can be updated, changed, or amended.

Make no mistake either — the General Assembly session is brief. In even-numbered years, the session is 60 days long, and in odd-numbered years (like 2017), constitutionally prescribed to be just 30 days, though by tradition the members agree to extend it to 46 days. Every year, it begins on the second Wednesday in January.

The members of Virginia’s 100-member House of Delegates and 40-member Senate then have just between today, January 11, and 46 days later, February 25, to make law.

Not surprisingly, things get really frantic

All over Richmond and the Commonwealth, the General Assembly Session Calendar has been printed out likely many hundreds of times and taped up directly in front of peoples’ eyes at their desks. The brevity of the General Assembly forces the body to adopt very strict deadlines for its work, and every one of them will be a struggle to hit.

This means very long days for legislators, their staffs, lobbyists, issue groups, Executive Branch agency staff, reporters, and basically everyone whose work depends on Virginia law. Meetings will often be scheduled from the pre-dawn hours of the morning until very late at night.

Just know that in General Assembly, things can happen really fast. Blink and you’ll miss it.

Most of the action is in committees

Here on the first day of the 2017 General Assembly, there are already 1,585 bills sitting in front of the members, and the filing deadline is still nine days away, so that number will keep rising. The sheer volume of measures coupled with a short session means that the House and Senate have to divide up the work if they’re to have any hope of managing the flood. The House of Delegates has 14 standing committees, and the Senate has 11.

The higher volume committees in turn have subcommittees underneath them, with snappy titles like “General Laws Subcommittee #3.” These committees and their subcommittees are where the vast majority of the discussion, presentation, and testimony takes place. There simply isn’t much time for any of that once a bill has made it to the floor.

It’s important to be clear about this: a majority of the bills that members file will die before they reach the floor of the chamber where it was introduced. In 2016 session, House committees reported about 46% of their own bills upward, and Senate committees reported about 56%.

Even though the bills that will appear on a committee’s docket are determined by the Speaker of the House in the case of the House of Delegates or the Clerk of the Senate in that body, committee chairs have a lot of authority. They decide how to order the bills, how much time to devote to testimony or discussion, and generally take the lead on when and how to move the committee.

Committees have a lot of ways to kill bills, which have technical variation in how and why they’re used:

  • Fail to Report: Committee votes on a motion to report the bill. If the majority votes no, it’s dead.
  • No Action Taken: Committee just doesn’t make a motion to report the bill. Same effect. It’s dead.
  • Pass By Indefinitely (PBI): When a committee votes on a motion to PBI, it reserves the right to consider the bill at the next meeting, but far more often than not, that doesn’t happen. A PBI’d bill is almost always dead.
  • Strike: Almost always, the bill’s patron makes a request to strike, which removes it from the committee docket and kills it.

In way of contrast, they only have one way to advance a bill: a majority “yes” vote on a motion to report. They can choose to tinker with it before reporting though. The bill can be reported as is, but they can also report it either with amendments, usually minor technical changes, or as an Amendment in Nature of a Substitute, where the bill is essentially redrafted before passing it along.

Committees have three additional things they can do with bills. They can incorporate, or merge, multiple bills together into one. In even years, they can carry over a bill, which just takes it off the docket for the current sitting General Assembly and move it on to the next. Since 2017 is an odd year, the session will open by considering the 242 bills that were carried over from 2016, but won’t carry over any bills itself. Finally, they can move for a rereferrral, which picks up the bill from their committee’s docket and puts it onto that of a different committee.

Here’s the real kicker though: bills don’t just go through the committee wringer once. Each chamber begins the session working through the bills their own members introduced, but after crossover, every bill that was reported out of committee to the full body and then passed by that body will start the entire committee process over again in the opposite body.

So if HB100 is reported from subcommittee to committee, then from committee to the floor, and the House of Delegates passes it, after crossover HB100 will be referred to an appropriate Senate committee, which will be able to process it precisely the same as if it was a Senate bill. For it to become enrolled — ready for the Governor’s signature — it must be passed by both the Senate and the House of Delegates.

It’s worth noting that bills which have passed one chamber already tend to move more quickly through the committee process, and the report rate is much higher than in the chamber of origin. In 2016, Senate committees reported about 90% of bills the House of Delegates had passed on to the full body for a vote, and House committees reported up about 80% of Senate bills.

The two rounds of committees and floor votes whittle down the volume of bills that reach the Governor’s desk substantially. In the 2016 session, just 37% of Senate bills and 35% of House bills (excluding resolutions) made it all the way through and received Governor McAuliffe’s signature:

General Assembly is uniquely difficult to cover in news media

Put all these elements together — a very short time window where a dump truck full of bills must each pass through a lengthy process with a wide array of outcomes, and often meet their final resolution quietly and suddenly in subcommittee with a voice motion to simply not vote on a bill — and you can understand why even the most dedicated members of the General Assembly press corps have to perform extreme triage to decide what to report on.

With literally thousands of bills up in the air, there’s a good chance there will be some bills you would personally care a lot about one way or another, but don’t expect that to automatically mean there will be general-circulation coverage of them. This session will be like any other, where a small number of highly controversial bills and maneuvers, even some that are nearly guaranteed to be swiftly killed in committee, will get a lot of ink, and many others just won’t be discussed at all.

When you see General Assembly reporters around Richmond this month, know they are basically working harder than it’s actually possible for humans to work, so please offer them a choice of either something caffeinated or alcoholic. Or both. They deserve it.

Keeping up with your pet issues is where state-level issue advocacy groups come in. If there’s something you’re really into, you’re much more likely to hear about bills affecting that issue from them than you are from any other source, and chances are they know when it’s the right time to pull out the action alerts and when they think they can do better by quietly nudging a sponsor to strike something troubling.

Don’t forget that you are a constituent

You shouldn’t be discouraged by the rapid pace of the General Assembly from contacting your elected officials, early and often, about things that are important to you. On the contrary: the firehose of bills means it’s not unheard of for a Delegate or even a Senator, to receive just one comment about a bill. That comment could be yours, and it could be right on the front of their mind as they walk into a committee to vote on a bill you think is critically important.

You should go ahead right now and find out who your Delegate and Senator are. Write down their email address and phone number. Have them handy. Ask any legislative assistant and they will tell you in no uncertain terms that they absolutely keep track of constituent contacts about legislation, and share them with their members often.

The most important thing when you’re making that contact is to be specific about what you want the legislator to actually do. Your phone call, or email, or letter, or even in-person meeting — yes, just anyone can schedule a meeting with their Delegate or Senator — should come from an explicit thing that you want them to do for you. Do you want them to support a bill in committee? Vote against it on the floor? Even seek an amendment you think could make it better?

Go for it! Tell them!

Your informed General Assembly watcher toolkit

  • Virginia Legislative Information System is your best friend for keeping up with the status of legislation, committee and floor dockets and calendars, and all manner of other things. If you see a screen of a laptop or a tablet illuminated in the General Assembly Building, chances are about 80% that it’ll be displaying an LIS screen. It’s essential.
  • DLS’s Virginia Law portal is your spiffy go-to for reading Virginia’s current laws and regulations, which you’ll certainly need to refer to for info on what a particular bill is modifying in the first place.
  • Also from DLS, the Virginia State Budget site is an absolute masterpiece that I can’t believe we lived without before. It puts the entirety of both budget bills and amendments in one easy to review place.
  • The major Virginia General Assembly publications are also handy. Don’t be fooled by seeing the coloring books and activity sheets at the top, though don’t feel ashamed if you want to do those too. There are really useful references here. I’d particularly suggest you keep “Your Guide to the General Assembly” handy. I’ve been known to forward that PDF to people with GA questions as a nice alternative to “let me Google that for you.”

Race, R, and Richmond’s new mayor

r_wpgraphic

Something unusual happened in the 2016 Richmond mayoral election that doesn’t fit neatly with our municipal self-story about how our racial politics work. I wrote an election wrap-up for Style Weekly that tells you quite a bit about how Levar Stoney won the mayoral race, but this one particular unusual thing fell out of scope of that because it requires a very small statistics primer to make sense.

Don’t worry, this is easy stuff, and it’ll help you understand a lot of things beyond what we’re talking about today.

There’s a number statistics nerds call R which, in a nutshell, helps you figure out whether or not two things are correlated to one another, and if so, how strongly1. It’s not the whole story, as totally nonsense things can be strongly correlated to one another, but it gives you an idea of what to examine more closely.

R always falls between -1 and +1, because there are two different kinds of relationships that are possible when numbers are correlated: positive, where more of Thing A means more of Thing B, and negative, where more of Thing A means less of Thing B.

The closer to +1 or -1 the R is, the stronger the correlation; the closer to 0 it is, the weaker it is:

fix_r

Now that you know what an R can tell you, here’s some real-world information: the vote share by precinct for two of Richmond’s 2016 mayoral candidates, Jack Berry and Joe Morrissey, was strongly positively correlated with the racial makeup of the precinct:

Precinct Morrissey Vote % : Precinct % Black :: R = +0.911
Precinct Berry Vote % : Precinct % White :: R = +0.919

The relationship for those two candidates was so strong that if you knew nothing about a precinct but the percentage of its residents that are white and the percentage that are black, you would be able to reasonably guess the Berry and Morrissey vote percentage at that precinct with simple equations:

Precinct Morrissey Vote % ≈ 0.507(Precinct % Black) – 0.007
Precinct Berry Vote % ≈ 0.5613(Precinct % White) + 0.0764

That sounds like a really strong relationship, but we still need to look at the actual numbers on a plot to see if that’s real or not online task manager. If the correlation is actually strong, we should see the points clumped pretty tightly around the regression line. For these two cases, they definitely are:

fix-bermor_r

These results would seem to support the narrative of a racially Balkanized Richmond, where voters come in neat ethnic blocs. But neither of these candidates who performed mostly in line with racial groups won the mayoral election.

Levar Stoney did.

Let’s compare those same R values we dissected above with the comparables for the winning candidate:

Precinct Morrissey Vote % : Precinct % Black :: R = +0.911
Precinct Stoney Vote % : Precinct % Black :: R = -0.182
Precinct Berry Vote % : Precinct % White :: R = +0.919
Precinct Stoney Vote % : Precinct % White :: R = +0.160

Those numbers should absolutely leap out at you by this point: there was almost no correlation between the percentage of a precinct’s votes that went to Levar Stoney and that precinct’s racial makeup. Compare the plots:

path6630

So unlike for 2nd place finisher Jack Berry or 3rd place Joe Morrissey, you can’t write a simple linear equation to predict Stoney’s vote share based on race. Those two variables just weren’t related in any meaningful way.

Don’t mistake this for a Pollyanna proclamation of post-racialism. But it is significant that mayor-elect Stoney earned his new office with broad biracial support when the other top contenders earned most of their votes from single racial groups.

That’s your statistics lesson for now, but R—”Pearson correlation” if you’re nasty—is everywhere in the world around you.

Now that you know a bit about it, you’ll be able to easily pick out figures in my election wrap-up that are based on R and other numbers that measure “goodness of fit” (yes, this is a real statistical term).

  1. We’re just talking about linear regression today, which is just one kind, but you have to start somewhere, right? Also, this is a Pearson correlation.

Vote “No” on Virginia’s constitutional amendments

amendment_x

In an exciting general election season, it’s easy to overlook the dreary matter of amendment questions. Virginia voters must approve all amendments, and this year, they’re being asked about two of them.

One needlessly jams a piece of sound extant labor law into a place where it doesn’t belong, and the other is an ill-considered tax scheme that doesn’t serve meaningful policy objectives.

Both proposed amendments for 2016 deserve to be soundly rejected at the ballot box.

Amending our constitution is a big deal

As provided for in Article XII of the Constitution of Virginia, amending the document requires approval by a majority of both the House of Delegates and the Senate in two separate sessions with a House of Delegates election between them, followed by a voter referendum. Constitutional amendments are one of the few ballot issues most Virginia voters see with any frequency. Unlike states with more populist traditions that allow citizen groups to propose statewide ballot initiatives, only the General Assembly can put matters to such a referendum, and it rarely chooses to do so.

Let’s break this process down to how these amendments wound up in front of voters in 2016:

  1. In 2014, a majority of members of the House of Delegates and the Senate voted for each new amendment.
  2. The Constitution requires an intervening House of Delegates election, which we have every two years, before amendments go back for their second approval. We held this in 2015.
  3. Following that election, the 2016 General Assembly was presented the same measures again. A majority of members of the House of Delegates and the Senate voted in favor of them again.
  4. The amendments were then ordered to be placed on the ballots for voter approval in the November General Election. If a majority of voters vote “Yes” on the amendments, they will become part of the Constitution of Virginia.

If these amendments are approved, it will be the conclusion of a three year process, which is as short of a process as is possible under the constitution. So if later we decide these things we put into the Constitution of Virginia aren’t a good fit for us anymore and we’d like to change them, how do we do that?

Repealing amendments to the constitution, or even changing the wording of them, is a form of amending the constitution. So yes, you guessed right: by putting these matters into the constitution, we’ve moved them from matters we can tweak, adjust, or drop altogether in one General Assembly session to matters that take a minimum of three years to resolve.

Bearing the ardor of approving amendments, they should address matters that can only be resolved through constitutional change, and represent extraordinarily sound, well-designed policy.

Neither of the 2016 amendments rises to that standard.

Question One is already properly defined by statute

Should Article I of the Constitution of Virginia be amended to prohibit any agreement or combination between an employer and a labor union or labor organization whereby (i) nonmembers of the union or organization are denied the right to work for the employer, (ii) membership to the union or organization is made a condition of employment or continuation of employment by such employer, or (iii) the union or organization acquires an employment monopoly in any such enterprise?

The so-called “Right-to-Work Amendment” doesn’t belong in the Constitution.

The Code of Virginia already has an entire article devoted to spelling out the commonwealth’s position that union membership or non-membership shouldn’t be a condition of employment. This article was adopted in 1970, and to date has survived the scrutiny of the courts as consistent with the constitution.

The assessment of whether the amendment proposed by Q1 is a good idea or not can actually stop with just that one fact: the statute is on the books and it’s worked as the General Assembly intended for nearly half a century. The only reason to embed this language in the constitution would be to make altering it more difficult.

But the proposed amendment actually takes § 40.1 Article 3 even further. While current statute holds that companies can’t make employees join or not join unions, the amendment would merely restrict companies from mandating union membership for employees. That sounds like a dweeby quibble, but it’s a shift from decades of employment policy that favors corporate bodies to the disadvantage of employees.

Whether you think “Right-to-Work” is good policy or not, the Virginia Constitution is the wrong place for it to be defined. Turn this one down.

Question Two helps the wrong people

Shall the Constitution of Virginia be amended to allow the General Assembly to provide an option to the localities to exempt from taxation the real property of the surviving spouse of any law-enforcement officer, firefighter, search and rescue personnel, or emergency medical services personnel who was killed in the line of duty, where the surviving spouse occupies the real property as his or her principal place of residence and has not remarried?

The second amendment before voters is the latest in a string of flawed amendments that would create a tricky, caveat-loaded benefit for a tiny number of Virginians. The General Assembly, in advancing this measure, has decided that the best salve for grief is, of all things, property tax relief. The intent is probably OK, but the strictures that come with this amendment ensure it will help few Virginians, and those it does offer relief to aren’t the ones who need it most.

For a person to receive a property tax exemption under the Q2 amendment, they’d have to meet all of these qualifications:

  • Have been legally married to an emergency service worker – specifically, “law-enforcement officer, firefighter, search and rescue personnel, or emergency medical services personnel” – who died while doing their job
  • Own their own home
  • Live in a county or city whose governing body has decided to offer a property tax exemption to spouses of emergency service workers who died while doing their job
  • Remain unmarried if they wish to continue receiving a property tax exemption

With me still? Cool. With that in mind, what’s the purpose of this amendment?

If the purpose is to help partners financially after a sudden loss, then this measure is seriously mistargeted by offering a tax break to those least likely to need one. The median household income for homeowners in Virginia is $81,739, nearly twice the MHI of renter-occupied households, $42,613.

mhi

By that measure alone, a property tax exemption is the wrong tool to help widows and widowers. But even providing this benefit to spouses comes with issues, as being married in the first place tracks with substantially higher individual and household income. Marriage also comes with vast ethnic disparities. Where 75% of white adults in Virginia are currently married, just 33% of black adults are.

Statistically speaking then, this measure would largely benefit higher-income whites. Does that sound like the kind of benefit that we’d like to permanently embed in our constitution?

Not even mentioning the perverseness of asking widowers who’ve found a new partner to check in with a tax professional to determine if they should claim the tax benefits of marrying them or the tax benefits of the property tax exemption that they would forfeit by choosing to move on from their grief and remarry.

That’s just cruel.

Question Two seems like a sensible act of state compassion on its face, but its structurally flawed design means it can’t provide one bit of assistance to many of the neediest families that lose a loved one in service. Vote no on this and ask the General Assembly to design something better.

Always default to “no” on constitutional amendment votes

Constitutions are meant to be compact. They define the powers and limits of governmental authority and the essential rights of citizens, and are supreme over all statutory laws and regulations. As such, amending Virginia’s constitution should only be done with extreme scrutiny and obvious need.

Constitutional amendments are one of the very few matters of policy that most Virginia voters will ever vote on directly. Don’t be afraid to exercise your veto power over them. If they’re really important, the General Assembly can always go back to the drawing board and rewrite them or explain them better, but if voters approve putting bad policy into the constitution, as they did in approving the so-called “Marriage Amendment” in 2006, the fix isn’t nearly as simple.

Happy voting, Virginia!

Why Richmond doesn’t need a new train station on the Boulevard

Dr. Trani's "New Downtown" looks awesome you guys!
Dr. Trani’s “New Downtown” looks awesome you guys!

Famous unemployed persons Dr. Eugene Trani, former president of VCU, and John Watkins, former Virginia senator from Powhatan, have checked in with us through the pages of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, and boy oh boy, do they ever have some thoughts for us about where “downtown” is, how people use trains, and how much parking is required for everything (SPOILER: INFINITE!). Specifically, Dr. Trani has swooped in once more to make a sad case for building some sort of magical new train station on Boulevard rather than sending trains to, like, the very pretty train station we already have downtown.

I think this is a super un-smart idea, and it’s an idea that people like for really bad reasons.

So I couldn’t restrain myself. Below is my abridged line-to-line response to “Why Richmond needs a new train station on the Boulevard”, which is the title of the opinion piece but not a thing that is true.

The Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation is winding up a Tier II Environmental Impact Statement for the future of rail transportation on the 123-mile corridor from Washington to Centralia, which is 16 miles south of Richmond

This is mostly accurate! OK! We’re off to a good start here, with the Recitation of the Things.

There has been much publicity about how to get the trains through Hanover and Ashland. There has been much less discussion about the train station, or stations, in Richmond

That’s because everyone but you and miscellaneous other white dudes is pretty sure we should have passenger trains go to our passenger train station that already exists.

The federal government appears to want both station locations, and its one-size-fits-all regulations may prevent an objective consideration of the true, long-term economic opportunities available to our entire region

I like to think that Dr. Trani and Mr. Watkins sat down in front of a Ouija board and asked it to tell them what the US Federal Government really wants, and after a long session of sputtering, it spelled out to them, “the US Federal Government, an entity with thoughts and feelings which is hamstrung by one-size-fits-all regulations, whatever that means, desires passenger rail service to serve both Staples Mill Road and Main Street Station.”

The current study started with 15 possible station locations for Richmond but quickly narrowed the study to four locations: Main Street, Broad Street, the Boulevard, and Staples Mill. There are seven possible alternatives, with four being full-service single station options at each of the above locations and three being split service between Main Street and Staples Mill

This is correct! You can check out the seven service alternatives for Richmond yourself.

There should be only one station in the Richmond area. This would be similar to the other major cities from Washington to Boston and would improve the times of the trip from Richmond to Washington.

Not true. Fact Check: Boston has approximately one million stations (Route 128, Back Bay, South Station, and North Station), and it’s a pain in the ass. You literally can’t take a train from Maine to New York because of this. But sure, I’m with you on the principle. One station is definitely best for us. One station makes it easier, simpler, and more cost-effective to connect intercity passenger rail with frequent public transit and other local transportation services.

Only a Broad Street or Main Street station location will benefit immediately from Pulse BRT service scheduled to begin in October of 2017. This kind of connection to frequent, reliable mass transit is critical. We can’t afford to waste precious, potentially revenue-generating real estate on deeply underperforming assets like lots of parking. But oh? What’s this?

It should have excellent highway access and significant parking, if we are serious about getting people out of their cars and off I-95

OK. Stop. Garbage. If we’re serious about getting people out of their cars, we aren’t sending them to the train station in their cars in the first place. They’re taking transit, they’re riding a bike, they’re getting dropped off by a friend or a taxi or whatever.

And I’m gonna show you this graphic this one time, but I need you to remember it every single time this piece barfs up another superlative adjective followed by the word “parking:” if “parking” is a thing that we need at Main Street Station, well, there’s definitely room for it. Here’s all the land area being used for parking in the immediate vicinity of Main Street Station today:
mss-parking

If anything, Main Street Station area needs to go on a serious parking diet. So yes, “we need a Boulevard Station because Main Street Station can’t have parking” is nonsense. Moving on.

Second, it should be located in the “downtown” area, though modern definitions of what makes up “downtown” are changing. Unfortunately, the city and the federal government rely on a 1950s definition of where Richmond’s downtown actually is. Shockoe Bottom’s recovery since the floods is impressive, but it is no longer the “downtown” part of our city and it is not the true cultural or employment center of our region.

Wait. Back. Up. The. Truck. Downtown Richmond isn’t Downtown? Where on earth is Downtown Richmond? Who moved it?

It’s a funny thing about “1950s definition of where downtown actually is.” If you had a downtown in the 1950s, well, your downtown is still there today. Sure, there are good chances that, in a healthy city and region, other centers of significant activity have developed. But downtown is right where it’s always been: downtown.

Just check out these spiffy pics from Google Earth and ask one question: “Which of these places looks, today, like an Actual Downtown?”

whichisdowntown

Job concentrations exist in an oblong, east-west axis between the I-95 James River bridge and I-195

Oh, that’s much clearer. Downtown Richmond is an oblong, east-west axis between two interstate highways, and it is this thing because “job concentrations” exist within this oblong.

A three and a half mile stretch of turf covering over 7 square miles of area. Well, OK, but, what you’re speaking of isn’t “downtown.” Trust me. You will be mercilessly mocked, and deservedly, for telling a city resident that your “favorite downtown restaurant” is in Carytown.

Downtowns are a special kind of thing. Though decent-sized cities have multiple business districts, and even multiple cores, in America your downtown is a specific core that is the historical center of commerce and government. In Richmond, this actual downtown is growing rapidly for the same reasons that so many others are. It already has good urban fabric, walkable streets, and regular transit service, and, of course, a very heavy concentration of jobs.

And downtowns aren’t geographically huge, either. Even in the ten largest cities in America, the most sprawling downtown core measures in at just about two square miles. Most are much smaller:

downtown-size

Which makes the assertion that this vast chunk of Richmond is “downtown” look positively farcical. Check out The Oblong East-West Axis overlaid with LA’s humongously sprawly downtown:

tranisize

Claiming such a vast swath of territory as “downtown” shows a deep lack of understanding of how cities function, what they are, or how they work.

This is the true and rapidly redeveloping downtown of our entire region, and neither Main Street Station nor Staples Mill Station serve it or help this emerging region core grow.

Here’s a quick story, dude: according to Better Housing Coalition, which just announced a substantial investment in transit-oriented development in Scott’s Addition, there are about 1,200 apartment units total in the neighborhood. That sounds like a lot of apartments!

But with all the activity in Scott’s Addition, maybe it would be easy to miss, but you know where in Richmond added 1,350 new units in just the last year alone?

Oh! That’d be Downtown! Like, actual Downtown Richmond. Not whatever this thing is.

Finally, the location should contribute to RVA’s efforts for economic development, with a particular focus on recruiting and retaining young professionals to live and work in our area.

Major Spoiler Alert: You will read this meaningless phrase, “young professionals,” used several more times, for no apparent reason. Get your shot glasses ready, we’re making it a drinking game, OK?

Main Street Station is an iconic building that has had more than $80 million of renovations and is the choice of the city of Richmond to be the single train station for Richmond. But it has many problems, including being in a very congested area with little or no parking.

What does “very congested area” mean? Short Pump is a very congested area.

“Congestion” is not a thing that pedestrians really experience in cities our size, so when someone says “congested” in Richmond, I assume they mean “sometimes I have to wait in my car through a stoplight cycle before I can go to the next intersection.” Good transit, biking, and walking infrastructure obviates the need to worry about that.

As for the thing where we’re working through $80 million in renovations for Main Street Station right now: that actually does matter. Make no mistake: the Boulevard Station option absolutely means closing Main Street Station. No more train service there. Period. It’s right there in the plans:

doesmeanclose

Eh, maybe we can use it as an ice skating rink if we do this Boulevard Station, right? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

It also has major rail infrastructure problems that would be very costly to remedy

The entire point of this whole process is that we are going to spend money to remedy rail infrastructure problems.

The recent attempt to relocate the baseball stadium adjacent to Main Street Station should be a message to us all about the conflicting passions and histories of the Shockoe Bottom area

If you took away the message “it is impossible to do anything in the Shockoe Bottom area ever,” you weren’t paying even the slightest bit of attention.

Staples Mill is not “downtown” and even with the announced parking expansion would continue to have parking problems. It is not an attractive option. The area around the train station has done little for economic development, and it may be many decades before its surrounding low-density, strip retail development could actually power the entire region.

Agreed. Go on.

And it will not help recruit young professionals to live and work in our area

YOUNG PROFESSIONALS *glug*

Also, Staples Mill is not easily accessible from the southern or western quadrants of our region, nor is it served by transit

Whereas Main Street Station is, because it is downtown, at the confluence of a zillion major highways and surface streets, due very soon to be served by high-quality rapid transit, and even easy walking distance over nice streets on a tight grid to hotels, restaurants, and all kinds of other nice stuff. On the Boulevard, you can get off a train and walk to … well, I guess Starbucks is only a 15 minute walk away, and it has a drive-through. And there’s a Wawa coming. So those are pretty urban amenities.

In contrast, the Boulevard has many positive features to become a signature entrance into RVA, particularly if a “starchitect,” a well-known architect, would design the station

Oh! A “starchitect!” Maybe we could hire the award-winning firm responsible for some of Philadelphia’s most beloved institutional structures. Doesn’t that sound cool? Oh, wait. That’s already been done for us! The Seaboard Air Line and Chesapeake and Ohio hired Wilson Brothers to design an outstanding, landmark train station — in 1901. We call it “Main Street Station” today, and it already exists.

The Boulevard has great highway access and plenty of room for extensive parking

Remember this when later on, these dudes suggest their Boulevard station will, quote, “get people out of their cars,” because they really mean “get people out of their cars once they arrive at this train station and then get them immediately back into them when they return from wherever.”

It is located at an Interstate highway exit

Main Street Station is also located at an interstate highway exit — a series of them, in fact. This is not an actual differentiating factor. They are both at interstate highway exits. Stop trying to make “fetch” happen, Trani. It’s not going to happen.

and is already the site of many popular destinations, with the Science Museum, the Children’s Museum, the Bow Tie Cinemas complex, and The Diamond ballpark already attracting more than 1.5 million annual visitors

Riddle me this: What’s the first thing I want to do after I have made an intercity rail journey from a different city? Do I want to schlep all my baggage and go to a museum or see a movie? Do I want to go to a minor league baseball game with my wheelie suitcase wedged between my legs?

Or is it more likely that I want to go to my hotel via frequent, easy-to-use rapid transit, and then take a nap?

The emergence of Scott’s Addition as a major center for business, housing, and entertainment is only the first step of the development of the Boulevard, which should be rebranded as RVA’s Diamond

OK, so this is cute. I see what you’re saying. So, like, we called the baseball stadium The Diamond out of a desperate lack of imagination, because a “diamond” is the shape of the field on which the game baseball is played, but the idea here is, maybe we can use “Diamond” to mean “very nice, precious thing” instead.

Which is a pretty generous thing to call a low-slung assortment of warehouses, body shops, and self-storage units with no sidewalks.

It’s true that Scott’s Addition is growing. But to suggest that it’s a few rehabs of low-density buildings away from rivaling downtown for urbanity is just silly.

Combining the Boulevard station with the nearby Greyhound station could turn the Boulevard into an accessible transportation hub for the entire region, and a destination for travelers from Alexandria to Norfolk

Do you not believe that Greyhound service could be delivered at Main Street Station for some reason? The high-volume intercity bus service Megabus is currently operating a brisk business from the Main Street Station parking lot. Bring the Greyhound service downtown too! This is good for everyone!

The development that would occur at RVA’s Diamond would be dramatic. Retail, housing, entertainment, and business would flock to RVA’s new downtown

“RVA’s New Downtown” sure sounds appealing. The word “new” is right in there, and man, new things sure do outperform old things, don’t they? Except that RVA already has a downtown, which is conveniently located Downtown. Main Street Station is there!

RVA’s Diamond would be especially attractive for young professionals

YOUNG PROFESSIONALS SHOUTOUT NUMBER THREE! DRINK!

But seriously, when people say “young professionals,” it’s kind of an old person dog whistle for “educated, white collar white people that don’t require extensive public services.”

We could add a dozen more points, but suggest we just stop here and ask two simple questions: Could a Main Street station or a Staples Mill station support anything like these benefits?

Staples Mill? No. Main Street? Yes.

Would a Main Street station or a Staples Mill station do anything to get people out of cars and onto more sustainable modes of transportation?

Staples Mill? No. Main Street? Yes.

We believe that the answer to both questions is no

I don’t think you read your own questions very carefully.

If we do nothing, we will wind up with a two-station option of Staples Mill and Main Street. Only if we stand up and demand that the Boulevard be seriously considered will this great possibility occur.

Well, there you have it. We have a great possibility that can occur, of locating a new passenger rail station, designed by a Starchitect, for Young Professionals, in a New Downtown, “RVA’s Diamond,” where it will be disconnected from rapid transit and Actual Downtown and surrounded by just oodles and oodles of parking, guaranteeing that it will be just as sad as Staples Mill in perpetuity because it won’t generate any activity outside of its walls.

Where do we sign up, Richmond?

All kvetching aside, and I did a lot of kvetching

Main Street Station should absolutely be the station for Richmond. It’s actually downtown, it’s actually going to be served by excellent public transit, and it’s actually already a beautiful train station that exists.

All the arguments against it, and for the alternatives, come from a profoundly anti-urbanist view of Richmond’s future that continues to assume the vast majority of people will, in perpetuity, originate all trips from a car, and that we should make our development decisions to accommodate cars first and people second.

That’s not how we’re going to grow, y’all. It just ain’t.

You should keep up with the DC2RVA Rail Project closely as they work through the Tier II EIS process. It’s important work!

And if you want a robust Richmond, I’d encourage you to submit a comment supporting Main Street Station as Richmond’s single passenger rail hub. It’s the right thing to do.

CNU’s Richmond mayoral poll doesn’t tell us much about district-level preferences

Because polling for local elections is both notoriously challenging and expensive, the newly released public poll of voter preferences in the Richmond 2016 mayoral election from the Watson Center at Christopher Newport University is both the first, and likely the last, public poll Richmonders have to go on in gauging how the city will vote.

The citywide results of the poll of 600 respondents has an adjusted margin of error of ±4.9%, but the margins for the individual districts are much, much higher — ranging from ±13.1% to ±16.3%. And those numbers matter, because the successful candidate will need to win a plurality in 5 of 9 council districts to be seated.

What gives here? What is a margin of error? And why does this mean it is very unlikely that Bruce Tyler will capture 11% of the vote in Michelle Mosby’s Southside 9th District?

Like most matters in statistics, margin of error makes the most sense when you just put it into a sentence:

A poll result of 50% with a ±5% Margin of Error means we can say, at the chosen confidence level, that the “true result” lies somewhere between 50 minus 5, or 45%, and 50 plus 5, or 55%.

Or hey, let’s make it even simpler:

±5% Margin of Error tells us that the “true result” is somewhere in a 10% spread around the reported result from the sample.

Not too bad, right? It’s not bad to have a large margin of error, but it’s really important to be aware of it when you’re trying to make sense of a statistic. A large margin of error can result from a lot of different factors, but in this case, it’s the most common bogeyman of all: small sample size. CNU just didn’t make contact with enough voters in every one of the city’s nine council districts to be confident that the sample they wound up with was particularly representative of the population in each council district. That shows up in the results as a large margin of error.

Let’s put a particular result into a narrative sentence again to explain it:

In Richmond’s 3rd Council District, 29% of respondents to our poll gave Joe Morrissey as their first choice for mayor, with a margin of error of ±14.1%. This means we can say with 95% confidence that, if we could somehow have spoken to to every registered voter in Richmond’s 3rd Council District, somewhere between 14.9% (29-14.1) and 43.1% (29+14.1) of them would give Joe Morrissey as their first choice for mayor.

You can fill in the blanks of that sentence with the results for these leading candidates, reflecting the full range of possibilities given by the district-level margins of error, and see just how massive a ±13.1% (26.2% spread) to ±16.3% (32.6% spread) margin of error really is:

moe_table

That doesn’t mean you can’t tell anything from the district-level results, of course. Overall poll leader Joe Morrissey (citywide 28% ±4.9%) has a higher floor and higher ceiling of registered voters who would be likely to make him their first choice in a larger number of districts than any other candidate. This is expected, and there’s some interesting variation here that’s worth considering.

These margins are so big though because the pollsters can’t be very confident they got a representative sample from the very small number of voters contacted in each of the nine council districts. Of the 600 respondents polled, if an equal number had been from each district, that would be just 67 voters to represent an entire council district of roughly 25,000 people. That means larger margin of error.

With 69 days to go, it’s still very early season for local elections, and especially here in Richmond. Current poll leader Morrissey is a household name throughout the city and across all social and economic groups, and in a race few are truly tuned into or engaged with, a preference poll tends to exaggerate support for the known.

But the results from individual districts in CNU’s poll are just too noisy to tell us a lot we, or the campaigns, don’t already know. Interpret them loosely and with extreme caution.

Nine Pokémon Go tips from an Ingress veteran

Richmond's Capitol Square in three realities: real, Ingress, and Pokémon Go.
Richmond’s Capitol Square in three realities: real, Ingress, and Pokémon Go.

The new Pokémon Go is the introduction to the idea of a “Mobile Augmented Reality Game” for a vast number of people, but the developer, Niantic Labs, didn’t start from scratch with it. The seemingly ubiquitous PokéStops and Gym locations are directly drawn from a vast database of places of interest submitted by players of an earlier game, introduced in late 2012 and still ongoing, called Ingress.

I started playing Ingress during its “Closed Beta” phase, in January of 2013, and kept at it well into 2015. Over my time playing the game, I walked over 3,000 kilometers, had 216 portals I submitted become part of the landscape (you’re welcome for the PokéStops, y’all!), and visited 3,602 different individual portals in the world. All my statistics and achievements together combined to put me at Level 16, the highest possible level in Ingress. That’s a lot of game time.

Through playing nearly every day for years, and leading the local effort for the Enlightened team in an anomaly in Richmond, Virginia — a grueling Ingress event that brings players from far and wide to play in one city — I like to think I, along with the worldwide Ingress community, learned a lot about this “augmented reality mobile gaming” thing that so many folks are now meeting for the first time.

Here are some starter tips directly informed by my time as a hardcore Ingress junkie for new Pokémon Go trainers:

  • Don’t get emotionally attached.

    Playing in the real world means there will be spots in the game that feel personally important to you because they become part of your regular daily life, and it’s very easy to get frustrated if you can’t “own” them as often as you’d like.

    In Ingress, some players were notorious for furiously defending a specific “home portal,” which they could be expected to focus vast resources and time trying to possess and hold. Those players are incredibly easy to grief, so in a self-reinforcing loop, they get griefed frequently. Don’t be that guy.

  • Get a battery pack.

    The nature of the game requires that every single element of your phone’s machinery that sucks juice the fastest — the screen, the cellular radios, the GPU, and the GPS — be active simultaneously to play. No matter how powerful your phone’s battery, it’s going to drain, fast.

    You’ll want at least one high-capacity portable battery pack (Anker got a great rep as a brand name among Ingressers) so you can tether yourself to it while you’re out playing, and for goodness sake, don’t catch yourself out with just one cable.

  • Check your data plan.

    You’re going to go through a surprising amount of your mobile data allotment playing, as the bulk of the game’s actions are processed on the server and then dispatched back to your phone. You’ll want to keep a closer eye on your usage than usual to make sure you don’t have any unpleasant surprises.

  • Play with friends.

    In Ingress, you needed to get at least eight of your higher-level teammates to coordinate to get the most useful game items. Pokémon Go lacks the game-driven need for mobilizing and coordinating such large numbers of people just to do basic things, but you’re guaranteed to have more fun if you choose to play when you can enjoy the company of others.

  • Be courteous.

    You might be tempted to play pretty much any time you’re moving or in a different place, hoping to stock up on gear and catch exotic Pokémon, even when you’re with others that either don’t play at all or aren’t playing at the time. You might think they won’t notice, or that it’s not a big deal.

    But be real with yourself: it’s pretty tacky to your company to play when they aren’t. Even though the game is taking place all around you, catching Pokémon surreptitiously under the table when out to dinner with a friend is no less rude than if you sat there banging away at Candy Crush.

  • Allow time.

    A common pitfall of Ingress is when a player goes out to do the simplest, most minor thing, they’ll find the whole journey takes a lot longer than it might have otherwise because there are so many things to do in the game between Point A and Point B. That’s fine! But you need to be realistic and build in the time the trip will take if you want to play en route and still get where you need to be on time.

  • Be mindful.

    The Ingress portal database on which Pokémon Go is built includes places of artistic, cultural, spiritual, and historical interest across your neighborhood and the world. Some of these places, naturally, are more appropriate for game play than others, and you need to be mindful of where you are and how you need to behave when you’re playing there if you choose to take a few minutes to engage with the Pokémon world.

    Obviously, you should fully respect any regulations or rules surrounding the space, and completely avoid trespassing for any reason. If you can play respectfully, you’ll be welcome in public places, but all it takes is for one group or individual to violate the norms in such a way that future players won’t be able to enjoy them. So be cool, okay?

  • Play fair.

    Playing on an electronic device that requires moving around in the real world leads to extra ways to behave badly on top of the usual ethical dilemmas in popular game worlds. Accusations, and even instances, of “spoofing,” or falsifying a device’s actual GPS location to try and play remotely have been rampant in the past. Ingress was unplayable in some cities for extended periods of time because of hundreds of scripted “bots” moving in gridlike patterns over them to completely control the field.

    Basically, don’t cheat, guys. You’ll know it’s wrong if you feel a little weird about doing it.

  • Be respectful of other players.

    You’re going to find yourself in a new world of suspicion when you’re out and around, imagining everyone around you that’s looking at your phone is a fellow Pokémon hunter, even a potential rival. You need to be very, very sensitive though about confronting human beings in public places. Everybody has vastly different comfort levels.

    If you want to chat up a fellow player, use your best judgment, but if they show you they aren’t interested in chatting, disengage right away. Don’t be creepy.

AR is a pretty cool tech, and Pokémon Go is a pretty nifty implementation for getting gaming out of the living room and into the real world. You’re going to have a blast, as long as you try and be cool about it.

Well, as cool as you can possibly be while trying to trap Pokémon outside of your local laundromat. There are limits.

Richmond and Henrico: A Tale of Two Revenue Streams

henricoline

You could almost write the story arc in Mad Lib format by now: Richmond Mayor Dwight C. Jones proposes a thing. The Internet Comments Sectiontariat, knowing that the administration proposing the thing is that of Mayor Dwight C. Jones, not exactly the most popular executive in Richmond’s history at this point, reacts with universal condemnation and horror, certain that whatever the thing is, it is probably as bad as building three new Redskins Training Camps inside of 6th Street Marketplace.

Here’s the thing though: when the administration says Richmond’s government can’t afford to do the things citizens want it to without collecting more revenue, and that taxes and fees may need to rise, that didn’t come from nowhere. A quick and dirty comparison of the tax take between the City of Richmond and the neighboring county of Henrico offers a really easily overlooked possibility: maybe Richmond really just doesn’t take in enough money.

Let’s start with by far the largest source of revenue: local property taxes. In the current budget cycle, Richmond expects to bring in $250,225,128 in property tax revenue for its 214,114 citizens — $1,169 per capita. Henrico is anticipating $408,950,000 total for the 318,611 county dwellers, which makes $1,284 in property tax per capita, nearly 10% more than Richmond.

rvarev-proptax

What gives? Even though Henrico’s property tax rate of $0.87/100 is substantially lower than Richmond’s $1.20/100, the county’s taxable property value is about $35.6 billion to Richmond’s $20 billion. With nearly 80% more value to collect on, the county collects more revenue even with a 35% lower tax rate.

So what would put the two in parity? To oversimplify, Richmond could just about match Henrico’s property tax revenue per capita under two scenarios tackling the equation from either end. If Richmond’s taxable property value increased by about 15%, or $2.9 billion, that would just about do it without moving the current tax rate. The city could also raise the real property levy to $1.37/100 at the current book value. That’s a 15% increase, but just about what Petersburg is currently collecting.

Since raising property taxes is pretty unpopular, this should lend a little clarity to why the Jones administration has put such a strong emphasis on economic development, even if there’s a lot of (legitimate) disagreement about some of the ways they’ve pursued that goal.

What’s going on here then? Surely property taxes make up a bigger slice of the pie in Henrico, and that explains the disparity?

Nope. When considering all revenue, the gap is even more vast. Richmond is anticipating $709,152,771, and Henrico is looking for $1,256,906,591. On a per capita basis, that means Richmond is collecting $3,312 in total revenue for every citizen, while Henrico is collecting $3,945 — about 19% more.

rvarev-total

When we talk about our priorities for future local government budgeting, we have two really unfortunate and hugely unproductive instincts in Richmond:

  • To assume there are simply vast inefficiencies lurking in city administration that, if someone just had the guts to go in and eliminate, we could afford to do anything we wanted, and
  • To turn every discussion about future budgeting into a referendum on past budgeting — and I know you, Richmond, I know you have a project or expenditure on the tip of your tongue that you want to fume about right this second — on the premise that if we just hadn’t spent some money on whatever that thing was, we would be able to afford whatever the thing was we want to do now.

You’ve gotta let those go, y’all. Nobody is going to find a way to trim 20%, or even 10%, from the city’s budget without completely crippling even the most basic public services, and we can’t take back money that’s already been spent to put towards something else.

Focus on what’s real and what’s right now. Richmonders want their government to spend more money on schools like Henrico, but Richmond’s government doesn’t bring in as much revenue per person, and its debt capacity for capital projects is tapped out.

Sometimes, it’s just this obvious: we can’t afford to do what we want because we just don’t have enough money.

How Brexit could impact Virginia trade

While an ocean separates Virginia and the United Kingdom, the 21st century world is a pretty small place for things and stuff. The UK vote to leave the European Union has economists widely predicting some pretty serious economic turmoil in the future. What could it mean for Virginia though?

The UK is one of Virginia’s biggest trading partners

According to the US Census Bureau’s Origin of Movement Series, the United Kingdom was the 4th largest importer of goods from Virginia in 2015. The US $1.05 billion worth of material exported to the UK made up about 5.8% of the commonwealth’s $18.1 billion in exports.

brexit-bar

We don’t just sell to the UK either. Virginia imported about $1.2 billion worth of goods from in the same year, or about 4.8% of the state’s total imports.

brexit-import

A word of caution about these figures: “Origin of Movement” data is designed to capture the origin of transportation for foreign-bound goods by US companies, not their point of manufacture. This figure includes products that weren’t made in Virginia, but were first packaged for transit out of the United States here, and fails to include any Virginia products that were shipped to other states before leaving the country. It certainly doesn’t match up precisely with the actual volume of goods moving out of or into the country via Virginia, a state with large and sophisticated shipping facilities and advanced logistics operations.

Even with those caveats on the actual numbers, it’s clear that the United Kingdom is one of Virginia’s most important trading partners. How could their leaving the European Union affect that?

A weaker pound means the United Kingdom can’t afford our stuff

Even before any procedural steps have been taken to physically part from the EU, the pound has massively depreciated against the dollar in the expectation that the UK could face a long, difficult road to rebuild favorable trade agreements with continental Europe.

A pound that’s weak against the dollar puts our products at a comparative disadvantage to UK customers. While sterling remains in the doldrums, importers in the United Kingdom will be searching for other suitable sources of goods that have become too pricey to purchase from the US.

We could get some bargains, but don’t count on many

Of course, the inverse – that a strong dollar could make some things we import from the UK more affordable – is also true. Unfortunately, much of what the US as a whole imports from the UK (Data: World Bank) is very specialized products like industrial machinery and medicines, which are unlikely to be repriced at retail, and refined petroleum, which is typically sold in dollar-denominated funds anyway.

Screenshot_062416_032803_PM
By the way, click through to this thing, this site is amazing

So is Virginia going to be OK?

Yeah, things are gonna be fine! Our economic fortunes are more closely tied to Old Blighty than they are to the rest of Europe, but while Virginia should be ready for some ripple effects from any trouble in their domestic market, direct international exports from the commonwealth make up a comparatively small percentage of our $480 billion gross state product. That’s because we happen to remain in our own version of the EU free trade area: the United States domestic market.

What Virginia firms sell to and buy from the UK matters, but the direct aggregate impact should be relatively small.