Saturday, January 30, 2010

TDCHR January 28, 2010

Thursday was a very busy day for the Transportation District Commission of Hampton Roads (TDCHR), the governing board of Hampton Roads Transit (HRT). Commissioners arrived early to discuss the well-publicized issues surrounding the issue in closed session. After completing the formal open monthly meeting, they returned to closed session to continue the discussion.

The independent accounting firm presented the audit for FY 2009, and it was received by the TDCHR.

The humor of the meeting was the move to establish the annual line of credit for calendar year 2010. It should have been a routine vote, but with Commissioners now hypersensitive about money issues, a discussion of over five minutes ensued. As expected, the new line was approved. Funds from it will be used to retire the previous line.

HRT ridership for December, 2009 was up 3.51% over the previous year. As had been the case for most of 2009, it was weekend ridership driving the numbers.

HRT is currently nearly $700K under it's operating budget for FY 2010, even after a recent $800K cut in state assistance. CFO Larry Davenport seemed fairly confident that the agency will finish the fiscal year under budget.

TPPC January 28, 2010

On Thursday morning the Transportation, Parking, and Pedestrian Committee (TPPC) of Virginia Beach's Resort Advisory Commission (RAC) held it's January meeting.

The big news is that 2009 was a record year for Oceanfront parking. 2009 brought in $355k more revenue than 2008, with 34.96% of those using City lots and garages Virginia Beach residents. Please note: a recurring problem is people improperly using the cluster meters on Oceanfront streets. You need to first select the space you're going to use, then insert your coins. The other way around (like most vending machines) and your money will be lost.

An accounting error may enable additional parking spaces to be built at Sandbridge for residents. The City Ordinance for Sandbridge parking lot revenue requires that first the Parking Enterprise Fund be reimbursed for all expenses, then any profit goes to the Sandbridge sand replenishment TIF fund. Instead, all parking monies were going into the TIF. Once the money is adjusted, the City may consider using an adjacent lot it owns for enlarging the parking lot. It has the potential for around 30 spaces.

The proposed waterslide known as The Hippo would now be placed at 24th Street parallel to the stage. CCO RAC representative Henry Ryto was adamant that the view from the park itself not be blocked. Given it's history, the 24th Street Park has special meaning to some grassroots activists, making the matter quite dicey.

The TPPC expressed concern about the impact of a move to form-based zoning on Resort Area parking. The committee will watch and work on the issue closely.

In advance of the RAC's March 4 strategic planning meeting, a list of top five issues for the TPPC was distributed. No immediate objections were made. After review by committee members, the list will be subject to TPPC approval at it's February meeting.

Finally, ridership for seasonal VBWave service in 2009 finished 9.3% above that for 2008.

Monday, January 25, 2010

You Gotta Love Government Form Letters

In response to the stormy December 10 public meeting on the Laskin Gateway Project, the City Manager's Office has sent out an information mailing to those who attended. The cover letter begins "Dear Oceanfront Resident".

Having gone, I received one. I live in Bayside District.

You're Not Expecting Much

57% are somewhat pessimistic about this year's General Assembly session, with 42% very pessimistic. No one at all was optimistic.

Now a fun question about this time of year: who prepares your income tax returns?

Thursday, January 21, 2010

TRAC January 20, 2010

Hampton Roads Transit's (HRT) Transit Riders Advisory Committee (TRAC) met Wednesday evening at HRT's administrative offices in Norfolk.

Noting recent events at and surrounding the agency, TRAC Chairman Henry Ryto spoke on what he felt TRAC's role should be during a possible transition to a new CEO brought in from outside the agency. He believes that TRAC will need to acclimate the new CEO to Hampton Roads' bus riding culture, and try to prevent too much of a jolt to it at once so as to not disillusion passengers.

Recruitment for TRAC was discussed, with members and Staff asking questions and sharing their perspectives. Also, there are two new possible members waiting in the wings, one each from Hampton and Portsmouth. The insider cards to promote membership to those riding the buses now await the TDCHR approving the expenditure for printing.

The backlog in answers to inquiries from TRAC members was dealt with in full. In addition discussion flowed from the questions that had been asked.

Finally, the latest report on customer complaints was distributed to TRAC members.

The next scheduled meeting for TRAC is March 17 at HRT headquarters in Hampton at 6 P.M.

Detained By NPD

On Wednesday the TPO meeting adjourned just after Noon, while the TRAC meeting wasn't until 6 P.M. Having some time to kill, I wanted to take a longer bus routing using a route I hadn't rode in awhile, also stopping at a Burger King for lunch. Since I was taking Route 15 from the TPO meeting, I decided to take it north to Evelyn Butts, there transfer to Route 8, with the 8 taking me down Tidewater Drive to the Burger King at the intersection with Virginia Beach Boulevard. The 8 is a fairly important route and I had rode that portion maybe once in the past year.

Sure enough, the 15 was running late. I missed my transfer at Evelyn Butts, so I had to wait there 30 minutes for the next Inbound 8. Within minutes, patrol cars from the Norfolk Police Department (NPD) were circling in the area. Finally, an officer came up, parked, and got out of his car.

There had been a man drunk & disorderly at the Wawa on the other side of the block and I was told I fit the description NPD had been given. I was questioned, the officer radioed in my driver's license number for a check, and he then began sobriety tests. Since I hadn't had a drink in nine days, I was making child's play of the tests. As the third test was completed, it was radioed back that all the checks on my license had come back negative. I was released and the officer drove away. No apology came from him.

As I had time to kill waiting for that Inbound 8, the stop in itself didn't really bother me. Actually, since I get a sadistic pleasure out of making idiots feel stupid, I was silently chuckling at the cop. If worst had come to worst, the security tapes from the bus would have put me on the vehicle when the incident happened.

Two young men were also waiting there: one who had been on the 15 with me, the other who had seen me get off the 15. They were incredulous at what was happening. We laughed at it once the cop left.

I now enter that category of having been unjustly accused of a crime by law enforcement. I'll be able to better grasp what others are going through when it happens to them.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

TPO January 20, 2010

Today the Transportation Planning Organization (TPO), Hampton Roads' Federally-mandated transportation planning board, held it's January meeting.

There were three speakers under Public Comment: a representative from the Sierra Club opposing funding transportation through offshore drilling revenues, a gentleman from Norfolk on light rail and high speed rail, and myself on the proposed fast ferry service. The Consent Agenda was passed unanimously.

The big issue of the day was hiring a consultant to help Hampton Roads land high speed rail service. Staff and a candidate are close on terms; Staff needed authorization to close the deal. Falling one vote short on the original tally, the James City County representative then changed his vote to allow it to pass. The sticking point was whether or not this was being railroaded (pun intended), but the region faces a looming Federal deadline.

As for fast ferry service, a private company wants to operate it as a public-private partnership. A Presentation was given to the TPO, as designation from the TPO is necessary to acquire Federal ferry-designated money. Five destinations are on the radar screen: Norfolk's Waterside, Hampton City Dock, Newport News Victory Landing, and Fort Eustis. Service would begin in 2012 with a single route (probably Norfolk - Hampton), two routes in 2013, building up to 5 in 2015. They had been looking at Naval Station Norfolk, but the Navy Liaison stated Department of Defense regulations would preclude that. (Wouldn't that drop Fort Eustis, too?) Other destinations may later be considered.

My own disappointment was looking at the photos of the vessel: a large cabin below, but I couldn't make out any seating on the deck. I'd love to be up there as the ferry crosses the harbor at 30 knots.

Finally, the TPO Retreat will be on February 10 at 11:30 A.M. (The HRPDC Retreat will be at 9:30.) Note that this will be the second Wednesday rather than the normal third Wednesday.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

HRT Regulars, Get A Laugh Out Of This!

I had just boarded the Cutback Outbound 20 at Military Circle at 4:30 this afternoon. A young woman came to the door and asked the Operator if she was going to Cedar Grove. The Operator told her that she needed the other 20 in the lineup. The woman then asked (get this!) if she could take our bus to Pembroke East, then catch the Route 1 to Cedar Grove. I was incredulous, while the Operator calmly and politely redirected her to the other 20. Here's the problem:

1. Sane routing - take the Cutback Inbound 20 in our lineup, slated to arrive at Cedar Grove at 4:59.

A simple, straight 29 minute trip.

2. What the woman wanted - take the Cutback Outbound 20 to the Pembroke East Transfer Center. There catch the Inbound 1 not scheduled to arrive at Cedar Grove until (gulp!) 6:50.

That's a 2:20 trip via Pembroke, the Little Creek Amphibious Base, Ocean View, and Wards Corner, before going to the periphery of downtown.

Why would any rational human being pass up the Cutback Inbound 20 for that bizarre routing?!? I've never even heard of anyone taking such a routing while bus joy riding. I've seen passengers do some stupid things on Hampton Roads Transit (HRT) buses, but that had to take the cake!

Friday, January 15, 2010

Only A Preacher Of The Protestant Heresy....

Yeah, plenty of people have already jumped on Pat Robertson for his nutty comments. Therefore, I'll start with a couple fresh angles before piling on his theological absurdities.

As a big history buff, his reference to "Napoleon III" stunned me. Haiti's alleged "pact with the Devil" supposedly happened in 1791. Uh...Louis Napoleon Bonaparte wasn't born until 1808, became President in 1848, then Emperor Napoleon III in 1852. What does Napoleon III have to do with something that would have happened 17 years before he was born?

Even if Pat was confusing Napoleon III with his much more famous uncle, Napoleon Bonaparte didn't become First Consul until 1799, then Emperor Napoleon I in 1804. Even that's later.

Then there's his reference to the bordering Dominican Republic as "prosperous". Only in comparison to Haiti. A jaunt to the CIA Fact Book brings the 2009 Per Capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP) figures. Yes, the Dominican Republic ($8,100) is far ahead of Haiti ($1,300). However, the world average is $10,400. The Cuban economy is portrayed in the media as imploding, but they're at $9,500. For comparison purposes, the country just ahead of the Dominican Republic is Peru at $8,400. Needless to say, Peru never comes to mind when you think about economic powerhouses.

What may be even more amusing than Pat is to watch his sidekick in the video. She sits there quietly, occasionally nodding in agreement. A pretty face, but obviously no functioning brain cells behind it.

If Haiti is contractually bound to the Devil, why in modern history has it never been a springboard for mischief? The only "evils" you can tie to it in recent decades are illegal immigrants and it's use as a springboard for drug smuggling into the U.S. If those two alone bind a nation to the Devil, I hate to point out to Pat how many other Western Hemisphere countries are in league with Hell.

Finally, the theological point. While the Book of Exodus states punishment for sins may be passed down generations in a family, where in The Bible does Pat find an entire country being so cursed? Then, Pat's own argument on his program was a contradiction: on the one hand, he has Haiti still paying for an alleged sin in 1791; on the other hand, he asks his viewers to pray for Haiti. If Haiti is ironbound for a sin 219 years ago, how would his viewers' prayers unbind it? If his viewers prayers could save Haiti, couldn't the remorse of the Haitians themselves have already done it?

In closing, it reminds me of a small poster I had on my bedroom wall as a teenager, "Be sure brain is in gear before engaging mouth."

Thursday, January 14, 2010

For A Chuckle

You'll want to check out Bill DeSteph's website at To point out the obvious, you don't put up a website unless you plan to run for reelection. There are some things I noticed:

1. Under "Photos", there's neither:

a. a picture of him in the infamous genie costume. (Don't worry, Bill: that photo will air again later in 2010.)

b. a picture of Robert Dean pulling his puppet strings. (They must have been airbrushed out.)

2. Under "Council Initiatives" he has a piece on the City Budget. While some of it might be useful, note that DeSteph includes items that are a pittance in a $1.9 billion budget but that are highly politically charged. (Can you say "political grandstanding"? I thought you could.)

3. Nothing under "About Bill" as of this evening. You can't write your own bio off the top of your head?

4. Note that among the items included in the crawling pictures at the top of the website are things that were opposed by his closest political allies.

What Are Your Expectations In Richmond?

96% supported firing Michael Townes at Hampton Roads Transit (HRT), but obviously Monday's severance deal leaves it a moot question.

The new poll: what are your expectations for this General Assembly session?

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

On Michael Townes Pending Departure

I tried to say as little as I had to publicly for as long as I could. As the outcome was uncertain, I was still going to have to work with whomever for better mass transit in Hampton Roads in the end.

By the evening of December 19 - the day the first cost overruns story went to press - I had already made the calculation that the TDCHR could have either Michael Townes as President of Hampton Roads Transit (HRT) or the Virginia Beach extension, but not both. Later statements by Virginia Beach Mayor Will Sessoms and then Councilman Glenn Davis' Resolution reaffirmed that. As the crisis dragged on, I worried about the long-term damage to chances of improved mass transit both in Virginia Beach and throughout the region.

The thing most of Michael Townes more adamant critics tend to miss is that he's extremely well-connected in Washington. That's why even those on the TDCHR who weren't his fans were willing to let him stay on previously: they knew he could bring home Federal dollars that most couldn't, aiding the cause of mass transit expansion in Hampton Roads. In turn, he'll now stay on the payroll through the end of September specifically to help land another round of Federal funding. (The Federal fiscal year begins October 1.)

There were two issues here: the cost overruns themselves, and the attempt to hide them from the TDCHR for as long as possible. The latter got short notice in the media, but might have had a bigger impact on the final outcome. FYI, each month the TDCHR is given a set of financial reports, one being the Norfolk construction report. The TDCHR was being fed reports that the Norfolk Starter Line was under it's revised budget of $288 million. For all the fingers being pointed at the TDCHR in this fiasco, the truth is that senior HRT Staff was intentionally misleading them.

Townes seemed to think he could hold on. Apparently the Virginia Beach farebox embezzlement was the turning point. As part of their monthly packet, the TDCHR gets committee reports and a report from Townes. The full Commission wasn't told about the issue at their December 10 meeting. That had enough votes wavering that everyone was willing to sign off on the deal bringing things to an end. For all those complaining about what Townes got in severance, it was a small price to pay to put this all behind us.

What next? First, the need to choose an interim CEO. It likely will be Senior Vice President of Operations Homer Carter. He's a nice and knowledgeable guy, though much more low-key publicly than Townes. Second, figuring how to cover the cost overruns. Third, selecting a permanent CEO. Finally, after all that was done, I would suggest the TDCHR hold a strategic planning meeting. Not only will the TDCHR and new CEO probably want to revise some policies, but there will be a need for a component to help restore public confidence.

I've had the opportunity over the past few years to work with Michael Townes. He's knowledgeable, can be amiable when he wants to be, and has done a few things for me. He got me started drinking Coke Zero at work. (Townes' thirst for Coke Zero is a running joke at HRT.) Once the new permanent CEO is on the job, it will be a new era for all of us.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

2010 Restaurant Week in Virginia Beach

Restaurant Week in Virginia Beach for 2010 will be held January 17-24. 52 restaurants will be participating this year, offering specials during the week.

The Virginia Beach Restaurant Association (VBRA) is partnering with the Foodbank of Southeastern Virginia to provide help for those struggling during the recession. At participating restaurants during the week, donation envelopes will be available, you may add a donation to your check, or simply bring non-perishables when you come.

For more information, try

RAC January 7, 2010

This afternoon Virginia Beach's Resort Advisory Commission (RAC) held it's January meeting. Given that 3 of the RAC's 6 committees (TPPC, OEC, and Communications) hadn't met in the past month due to the holidays, Preston Midgett had a fairly short first meeting as Chairman.

The big story is that the date was set for RAC to do strategic planning: at it's regular March meeting, on March 4. The RAC has not had a strategic planning meeting since April, 2008, so one had been in the pipes since last Fall. Committees were urged to work on issue submissions for the March meeting.

The Resort Investment Committee (RIC) had reviewed the 2008 priorities, and discussed what may have to be changed this time. In addition, RIC talked about establishing a website that would provide residents information on ongoing Resort Area projects. The template would be the Laskin Gateway Project website.

The GREEN Committee wanted other committees to consider green initiatives in their areas for the strategic planning meeting.

The Plan/Design Review Committee (PDRC) looked at plans for Phase II of the building project at Atlantic Avenue and 24th Street. Phase I, a Walgreen's Pharmacy, is already underway. Phase II would involve a building for restaurant or retail that could be divided in half for two merchants. The setback would allow for a sidewalk cafe should a restaurant go there. Sidewalk cafes for restaurants are strongly encouraged under Resort Area design guidelines.

Finally, two city franchises are in the process of being awarded anew. Bids are now in for an operator for the Resort Area's public parking lots and parking garages. Also the beach rentals contract will soon be open for bids.

"Aal Izz Well" In Suffolk

On Tuesday I watched 3 Idiots, an awesome Indian-made comedy. After it and Kurbaan, I'm starting to agree with the person who told me Bollywood makes better movies than we do.

On Wednesday I went to Suffolk to ride their bus system again. I had been previously to see it after it was reintegrated into Hampton Roads Transit (HRT) this Spring (Riding HRT In Suffolk,
May 11, 2009) and just after HRT made changes to standardize service there this Summer (Change Begins In Suffolk, August 19, 2009). It appears that the best case scenario has happened: not only did I hear zero serious bus service complaints, but ridership looked the best of any of my three trips there. The only problems I encountered were a couple operational issues not related to the changes. That was after riding all four Suffolk routes.

After what HRT has been through the past few weeks, great to have some good news for a change. It had me thinking of the main song from 3 Idiots, Aal Izz Well.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

VBPD Command Changes

On January 15 Captain Tony Zucaro, who has been Commander of the 2nd Precinct (which includes the Resort Area), will become Commander of VBPD Special Operations. Captain Lynn Stafford will become the new 2nd Precinct Commander.

Having had the opportunity to work with Captain Zucaro, I'm sure he'll do well at Special Operations. However, what struck me was Captain Stafford. Has a woman ever been a VBPD Precinct Commander before? Is this a first?

2009 ESPN Pigskin Pick' Em

With the 2009 NFL regular season over, so is ESPN's Pigskin Pick' Em contest for the season. The competition on their website requires you to pick the winning team in each NFL game. You can go either straight or versus the point spread.

I finished with 79.9% of picks correct, playing straight.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

DeSteph Will Be Toast

In the largest number of votes (163) ever cast in a poll on this blog, 85% of you thought Councilman Bill DeSteph is toast running for reelection this year. 11% think he has a good chance for reelection, with 1% each for Fair and Poor. I just hope I keep that large turnout as readers of this blog.

The new question: should HRT President Michael Townes be fired? Four TDCHR Commissioners (Wood, Uhrin, Wright, and West) have filed the necessary letter to attempt to terminate Townes' contract at the January 28 TDCHR meeting. There are two issues here. First, $50 million in additional cost overruns for Norfolk light rail construction. Second, the attempt by senior HRT Staff (on Townes' orders) to hide the overruns from Commissioners.