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Flying Blind Does Not Serve Taxpayers

The Kaine and Obama Administrations are proposing costly new programs without having baseline data in place that is crucial to measuring program success and protecting taxpayers.

Many Virginians see a lot of similarities between Governor Tim Kaine and President Barack Obama. The Governor was an early and active supporter of the Illinois Senator’s candidacy for the White House and was rewarded by being named Chairman of the Democrat National Committee. Both have activist agendas that envision a significantly increased role for government in society.

But the comparison also includes an overlooked but noteworthy shortcoming shared by both – falsely presuming the existence of baseline data upon which agendas are dependent. Expensive new programs are being proposed without the tools to make good decisions and to assure that tax dollars are spent efficiently. The old adage, “you can’t manage what you can’t measure” certainly applies.

Consider the Obama agenda, including:

  • Mortgage crisis resolution
  • Climate Change
  • Cap and Trade
  • Smart Energy Grid
  • Broadband Deployment
  • SAFE TEA LU – (highways, mass transit)

A number of these issues have also been at the forefront of the Kaine Administration in Virginia.

In order for each of these issues to be successful, the United States, or Virginia, needs current, accurate mapping of its lands. These maps need to show basic framework information, such as geodetic control, cadastral (boundary), orthoimagery, elevation, hydrography, administrative (political) units and transportation.

The Clinton Administration attempted to address these needs through a National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI), initiated through Executive Order 12906. But the Government Accountability Office found the lack of a coordinated, strategic approach to the NSDI efforts “not been fully successful in reducing redundancies in geospatial investments” and “federal agencies are still independently acquiring and maintaining potentially duplicative and costly data sets and systems. Until these problems are resolved, duplicative geospatial investments are likely to persist.” The Bush Administration tried to improve federal coordination through its Geospatial Lines of Business (G-LOB) initiative, but gave up after two data calls to agencies failed to provide reliable information on agency geospatial spending.

Virginia has implemented the Virginia Geographic Information Network (VGIN), but it has not completed all the required framework data layers.

The Kaine Administration is beginning to recognize the shortcoming. In its Climate Change Commission’s report, it found:

Modeling and simulation tools already are being used to improve our understanding of how sea level rise and storm surge may affect certain areas of coastal Virginia. However, the fact that LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) elevation data does not exist for most of coastal Virginia is a major obstacle to the ability to plan effectively for these changes.

It recommended that the:

General Assembly should provide funding for the Virginia Geographic Information Network to acquire and process LiDAR data for the entire state. LiDAR data should be first acquired for the coastal zone, which will cost approximately $6 million, and then for the rest of the state.

Moreover, the commission advocated,

The General Assembly should provide funding for the acquisition of high resolution statewide land cover data to accurately assess the land use status over time. This data is critical to quantify Virginia’s land cover categories and to identify large natural sequestration areas (forests, wetlands, agricultural lands, parks, and other open space, etc.) in Virginia and monitor their change over time. Collection and compilation of this statewide land cover data should be completed by January 13, 2010, and a comprehensive survey should be conducted every four years to validate the accuracy of the inventory. In particular, wetlands inventory data for Virginia is outdated and needs to be updated.

However, funding for neither LiDAR nor land cover was approved for this biennium.

On the national level, the NSDI is not yet a reality, but policy makers in Congress and Federal agencies either assume such data already exists or are prepared to invest heavily to create such data. Here’s a brief summary of some Obama agenda items that require significant national mapping that currently does not exist —

Climate Change:
There is no U.S. national geospatial data to quantify the effects of climate change through a system that would measure, monitor, verify and validate its alleged phenomena. Data such as land use and land cover, a LIDAR layer to measure biomass, definition and delineation of the nation’s shoreline and other spatial information is needed to quantify the effects of climate change and monitor progress in abating its effects.

Cap and Trade:
Similarly, President Obama has endorsed the idea of a “cap and trade” system to limit carbon dioxide emissions. The “cap” would set a maximum amount of carbon to be emitted in the United States and by individual generators of carbon dioxide (CO2), and the “trade” would allow the low carbon emitters to trade carbon credits to those above the cap, resulting in a net, national reduction of CO2. A geospatial program to provide baseline and temporal data in order to implement and operate a “cap and trade” system, would be necessary. Current national digital ortho coverage, parcel information and other data layers will be needed to implement and enforce cap and trade.

Smart Grid:
The President has proposed a “smart grid” for new electric power and clean energy that includes wind, solar and other non-fossil, renewable energy sources. A smart grid delivers electricity generated from suppliers of new, cleaner, renewable, non-fossil sources, to consumers using digital technology. Again, just as with climate change and cap and trade, this program will require geospatial data to identify distribution and transmission systems.

Highway Bill:
The current Highway bill, the Safe, Accountable, Flexible and Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU) authorizes the Federal surface transportation programs for highways, highway safety and transit. It expires on September 30 and Congress will consider a new bill. The Transportation Research Board (TRB) has recommended that transportation organizations leverage geospatial information and tools by building and maintaining different relationships and enabling new and creative ways to do business, implementing a new model for development and use of geospatial information by the transportation system.

National Cadastre:
The Federal Land Asset Inventory Reform (“FLAIR”) Act to provide for a current, accurate inventory or cadastre of federal land ownership has been reintroduced in the U.S. House of Representatives (H.R. 1520 by Rep. Ron Kind (D-WI) and Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT). A companion bill will be offered in the Senate. On May 7, the US Government convened a summit meeting of stakeholders to explore the establishment of a multipurpose cadastre to inventory and manage the portfolio of mortgages Uncle Sam now has as a result of the foreclosure and financial institutions bailouts, and to provide an early warning system to help identify and prevent similar mortgage trends in the future. The need for a national parcel system, or multipurpose cadastre, first recommended by the National Academy of Sciences in 1980, has never been so evident.

Messrs. Kaine and Obama need to ‘think globally and act locally‘ to provide the underpinning for their agendas. Virginia and the United States have enjoyed historic economic growth in spite of the inadequacy of its mapping, not because of it. For economic, environmental and a variety of other reasons, basic geographic information of the Commonwealth and the Nation should not wait.

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