Jim Bacon sketched out a menu of potential actions for the City of Richmond and Chesterfield County in “Midlothian Leviathan” the column and Bacons News Service release he previewed in the Blog post “Challenged in Chesterfield” of 28 June.

It is too bad that the loooooong Fourth of July weekend(s) seems to have sapped interest in discussion of the topic. Hopefully, governance practitioners will give attention to Jim’s ideas.

Here are some marginal notes upon a first reading of Jim’s column:


Commuter Rail is commuter rail. The heyday of commuter rail was from 1890 to the 1920s and for good reason. Commuter rail is 19th century technology that fleetingly served a need to serve transitioning late Industrial Agglomeration settlement pattern. It was not just 19th century technology it best served 19th century settlement patterns.

Even if one uses the old track in the old alignment this is 2007. Why not use new technology? How about light weight, quiet “hybrid” diesel / electric self-propelled cars?

Rebuilt locos and rebuilt coach cars are the way VA Express started. As we all know ridership is stagnate even with terrible roadway alternatives. The new section of I-66 that opened recently and the Springfield interchange completion removes incentives on both lines to put up with bad service that is in part a product of old technology.

Loco and coaches are slow to start, slow to stop and noisy going past. The reality of “commuter rail” will bring out the NYMBYs to oppose change. To generate ridership and spur quality development in the station areas, the service needs to be frequent, two way (bringing workers out as well as in), etc…


An even bigger problem than technology is the problem of a goal to serve “commuters.” Greater South Richmond / Chesterfield does not need commuter bergs. It needs Village-scale components of Balanced Communities focused at each station. Places like Andrea Epps suggested that Brandermill almost was for her in the earlier Blog comment.


Community Development Authorities are a nice idea but they probably cannot carry the load, even with major changes in the Comprehensive Plans, new regulations and incentives.

How about some new thinking on the taxation of property owners enriched by the improvements both private and public.

OK, we are talking Henry George at every station. OK, Henry was a mid-19th century guy. Not all 19th century ideas are bad, especially when the property tax is a realistic approach in an 18th century agrarian society. The property tax should reflect public and private investment and the increase in land value, not the buildings or worse vacant land.

More on these three issues in “The Commuting Problem” 17 Jan 2005, “The Problem with Mass Transit” 15 May 2006 and “Solving the Commuting Problem” 5 February 2007.

Oh yes, In 2004 (16 February) we wrote the “Shape of Richmond’s Future” based on two reports on the future of the Richmond New Urban Region. An idea like the one Jim sketches out might be a way to jump start the sort of real Regional rethinking that we advocated in that column. To work Mobility and Access solutions need to be Regional in scope, not just one or two corridors.


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  1. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    EMR, Thanks for weighing in on my column. If I couldn’t manage to inspire a comment from Larry Gross or Ray Hyde, I was beginning to think I’d done something wrong!

    I’m still coming up the learning curve on nomenclature. I used the phrase “commuter rail” only because that was the phrase used by Parsons Brinckerhoff in the Richmond rail study. The arrangement they described — a locomotive and two cars — didn’t sound very “heavy” to me. What terminology would you suggest?

    So, you see rail stations at the center of villages forming a balanced community. I would agree. Ideally, as those balanced villages emerge, people would use the rail system to travel between them — not only to commute to downtown Richmond. As the Richmond rail study pointed out, downtown Richmond probably isn’t big enough to support “commuter” rail (not as traditionally financed).

    Which brings us to your third point, which I also agree with (and briefly alluded to at the end of the column): A single rail line has limited value because it allows riders to reach a limited number of destinations. It increases in value as it is capable of reaching more destinations. The Richmond rail plan calls for five spokes radiating out of Richmond — to Ashland, Short Pump, Midlothian, Petersburg and Richmond International Airport. My thought was this: If the economic feasibility of one rail line could be proven through the financing tools I described, then the region could proceed to build the other four spokes.

    On Henry George taxation. I’ve always thought of such a taxation system being applied to development inside the “clear edge.” That would encompass 70 percent or more of Chesterfield County. Is that what you had in mind? That certainly would be a tool to drive re-development of subdivisions and shopping centers along the lines of balanced communities.

  2. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    I was sorely tempted to comment but since my posts are so numerous, I try to stay back a bit sometimes to give others and “lurkers” opportunities to weigh in.

    We have this tension between the way things really are and the way that Balanced Communities are supposed to work.

    My first thought about the Commuter Rail for Chesterfield was the cost.. about 5K per commuter if I did my math correctly.

    VRE in Fredericksburg is on the order (if you believe the numbers) of about 1K per commuter and there are strong, strong opponents who are opposed to taxpayers paying money to provide commuter rail seats to others even if each is one less car on the road.

    My other thought is that commuting is the gorilla in the closet in urban/exerban commuting areas but until recently, it has almost been ignored by planners, developers and elected officials who:

    1. – believe it is VDOT’s “problem”

    2. – don’t believe it should be a major consideration in the approval or non approval of a rezone proposal.

    So Loudoun County is going to mount a legal challenge to the Transportation Authority (which I believe should be done) but the comment from the BOS was that they wanted to send a “message” to Richmond that the GA was shirking it’s duties with regard to transportation funding.

    We hear the same from folks in TW/HR.

    What I “hear” is that local elected and developers never, ever wanted land-use decisions and transportation decisions combined.

    Remember Loudouns response to the VDOT analysis of comptemplated land-use redesignations?

    So … even the Chesterfield proposals depend on some existing right-of-way and sorry to say -no one – not the local officials and not the MPO are apparently willing to deal with the simple realities that people COMMUTE.

    Where I live – local officials and VDOT are literally AWOL when it comes to commuter lots – that are so full that people get ticketed and towed for illegal parking but there is no plan for new lots and more important – no process for dealing with the issue Institutionally. It’s always a “crisis” response and essentially “yammering” about how expensive land costs are around the interchanges that make it “difficult” to develop new commuter lots.

    I don’t know about commuter rail or light rail or distinctions between them but none of this is going to work on a per development basis – it has to be a Regional and institutional RECOGNITION that commuting is a reality and that wishing that Richmond was take responsibility for it while locals continue with their preferred “leave us alone” land-use decisions is not going to get us to where we need to be.

    I’M just incredulous that with all of these folks in elected and official positions doing this long, long dance to appear to do everything they can to avoid some simple realities with regard to commuting.

  3. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    Let me point out – I don’t begrudge the MPO or others including local and elected officials for “talking” about commuter/light/you-name-it rail.

    What grumps me is the difference between “what if” ideas – and dealing right now, on the ground with the issue.

    Commuter rail is a good example.

    This is not a discussion about how to do with commuting in a context – with commuter rail as but one of a number of options .. that will result in a strategy to deal with commuting…

    Instead – it often appears to me to be a neverending conversation that does not lead to any conclusions at all other than a “oh well”.. we’re back to the status quo again.. what a shock.

    in the meantime.. Chesterfield (and dozens of other localities) are in the business of approving more and more development.. now being promoted as “multi-use” that will “reduce auto trips” and let folks “live and work” in the same location.

    which is pure.. unadulterated poppycock and one must wonder if the conversation is anything more than a sound-bite ropa-dope ruse to convince the masses that there is indeed a “plan” from our elected leaders and the MPOs, etc.

    It’s maddening.

    It used to be that “development pays for itself”…

    now.. it is that “multi-use” is smart-growth

    which is insane from the point of view of commuting and the infrastructure needed for commuting because what multi-use does in exurban communities is that it actually ACCELERATES the consumption of whatever available capacity remains on a road like 288.

    Multi-use – as currently PRACTICED actually ENCOURAGES ..more commuting and our response to this.. is to engage in silly conversations about combining multi-use with commuter rail – as a “possible” solution… “someday”.

    Can we.. as intelligent type folks – at the least – recognize – that we are not making headway at all on the issue but even going backwards?

    The one ray of hope.. is congestion-pricing.

    No – it will not change for the most part – the commuting habits and tendancies of most but it will make it clear to all involved that there is indeed a real cost associated with commuting an

  4. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    Actually, I thought this was a good post from EMR. His comments on VRE are on target, but VRE is still more civilized than Metro, somehow.

    It’s farm season for me, and my PC got zapped by lighting, so pretty much everything is broken right now.

    “local officials and VDOT are literally AWOL when it comes to commuter lots – that are so full that people get ticketed and towed for illegal parking but there is no plan for new lots and more important – no process for dealing with the issue Institutionally.”

    If the commuter lots are overused, it must be that the price is too low. Why not charge congestion fees for overusing the lots, just as we propose for the highways? Some Metro lines are overused, too. How about raising the price until there is at least some chance of having a seat? How long before we have abuser fees for parking? How long befere we realize who is really instigating the abuse?

    Whether it is commuter rail, heavy rail, or light rail, or commuter highways, or PRT, such a plan will never succeed, locally or regionally, as long as we are carrying people essentially in one direction, just as EMR says. And, just as he says, the rail patterns of yesteryear are not applicable (or sufficient) to todays needs. Therefore, there is little reason to think that any new rail system will be applicable (or sufficient) for future needs.

    The only reason it works to the extent it does, is that it is heavily subsidized. That might be OK, if we can show the benefits outweigh the costs.

    Congestion pricing amounts to a recognition that we cannot move everyone to the same place at the same time. It is not going to reduce congestion: it is only going to charge for it. It won’t reduce congestion any more than Metro has reduced congestion. We either need fewer people, more times, or more places.

  5. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    “If the commuter lots are overused, it must be that the price is too low. Why not charge congestion fees for overusing the lots, just as we propose for the highways?”

    or .. how about we charge congestion fees for roads, Commuter Lots, METRO .. AND VRE.

    and the money would be spent to provide better level of service for everyone.

    Would you sign up for that Ray?

    that way .. there would be no inherent punative “social policy” involved . right?

    Everybody uses and everybody pays.


  6. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    “It is not going to reduce congestion: it is only going to charge for it.”

    Ray.. my man… if I was in charge of farm equipment and I decided there was too much demand for it and I decided to double the price – do you think by doing that… it would have any effect what-so-ever on demand?

    we’re not talking about right or wrong or who shot John.. just the idea of something costing more than it used to.. and what effect it might have on sales and availability.

    say .. I decide that I’m going to charge 500,000 for a home in NoVa that used to cost 250K… do you think the “demand” for houses would not be affected?

    while we’re at it.. can we define the phrases “housing glut” and “buyers market”?

  7. E M Risse Avatar
    E M Risse


    Good questions.

    We would need to know a lot more to start to answer them.

    Re rolling stock, and alternatives the first question is what does the line carry now?

    If it is three 120 car coal trains going east or 120 empty coal cars headed west (like the ones that rattle through Cville every night near the Bed and Breakfast where I often stay) that is a problem.

    If it is 15 or 20 car interconnets and local service, that is another.

    The second question is how many Balanced Communities can be supported south and west of the Richmond Zentrum? Two, three, more? (Forget municipal boundaries.)

    This is why New Urban Region – wide strategy is so important.

    As Larry says, municipal and state governance practitioners, private development interests and the transport community do not want land use and transport tied together.

    When they are the overarching economic, social and physical reality intrudes on their fifedoms and their ability to maximize short term profit.

    Another way to say this is that it informs the markets and allows citizens to make better decisios in the voting booth and in the market.

    That crimps enterprise (especially corproate) bottom lines and political clan funding sources.


  8. Anonymous Avatar

    “…and the money would be spent to provide better level of service for everyone.”

    I could go for that, if I thought that was what is going to happen, but it isn’t. That money is going into a black box and get re-prioritized politically.

  9. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    Yes – for those of us who were/are niave – toll roads and congestion pricing seemed to have potential for such willing quid-pro-quo transactions

    but of course, the same cast of characters who used to decide VDOT/State road money priorities now are preparing to happily infest the New Transportation Authorities to resume their activities preciding over the new pots of money.

    Millions for wealth enhancement activities – pennies for congestion relief or Gawd-forbid, improved mobility.

    The guys who fear the unelected and unaccoutable … have good instincts.

  10. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    oh by the way…

    I could offer something positive on the Chesterfield deal.

    Take a mixed-use proposal – ANY – mixed-use proposal and one of the requirements for approval would be mandatory CDA/HOA support for a Commuter Parking Authority – who sole job would be to develop a master plan for commuting facilities that would include – at the minimum – strategically located commuter lots AND shuttle-bus service from the mixed-use to/from the commuter lots.

    These are only two ideas.

    The point is to develop an actual plan for dealing with the realities that people WILL commute – as opposed to talk and more talk about “possibilities”, some of which are so remote and silly that they actually waste the paper they are written on – much less ever have any possibility of becoming realities.

    talk-the-talk – all you want – but at the end of the day – walk-the-walk or get your butt on the sidelines and let folks who mean to score into the game.

  11. E M Risse Avatar
    E M Risse


    I forgot about your question re what to call the new service:

    How about “Community Builder, A Shared Service.” That harkens back to Jim Hill’s Emprire Builder but focuses on what needs to be done and how.

    “Light Rail,” “Light Rail on High Steel” etc. do not have much appeal.

    Perhaps PR types could come up with a jazzy name. We thought Virginia Railway Express was jazzy when we started that service.

    For sure it should not be Commuter Rail or “Commuter” anything else.

    Recall that the only way to really help “commuters,” their households and their Communities is to assist them in becoming non-commuters.


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