Dead End Thinking in the Richmond Region

Photo credit: Times-Dispatch
Photo credit: Times-Dispatch

by James A. Bacon

Sometimes, I despair for the transportation future of the Richmond region. If there is a problem, the first instinct of our civic leaders is to raise taxes to subsidize initiatives of unknown economic viability.

The latest case in point is a set of recommendations issued by a work panel to the Capital Region Collaborative. The panel,  headed by former Transportation Secretary Whittington W. Clement, wants to win backing from regional legislators for the same kind of deal won by Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads this year to raise local taxes and generate more money for transportation improvements.

The panel also endorsed the creation of a Downtown Circulator bus route, “bus bridges” linking Main Street Station downtown to the Staples Mill AMTRAK station and Richmond International Airport, and a Bus Rapid Transit system along Broad Street, according to Michael Martz’ reporting in the Saturday Times-Dispatch.

Wow, we’ve just raised transportation taxes in Virginia, with a significant share of $3.5 billion in statewide revenues coming our way over the next six years, and we’ve already concluded that we need more money? Well, if our transportation priority is subsidizing more bus routes that Richmonders may or may not use, maybe we do need more money.

The thought process appears to go like this.

Step One: We have a transportation problem.
Step Two: Only government can solve the problem.
Step Three: But government needs more money.
Step Four: Raise taxes.

If I assembled a group of legislators, here’s what would be on my agenda before I started talking about raising taxes.

  • Let’s talk about where we can rezone for more walkable, higher-density corridors that can support mass transit without the need for operating subsidies. The Urban Land Institute just held a “Reality Check” exercise in which the overwhelming consensus was to concentrate new development. Let’s build on that.
  • Let’s discuss how to open up the transit system to more innovation and competition. Can privately operated buses, jitneys and “e-hail” services be part of the region’s transportation solution?
  • Let’s explore how the smart-phone revolution can promote carpooling and shared car-ownership services.
  • Let’s see if we can inexpensively expand the network of bike lanes and bike paths.

Local governments in the Richmond region are under incredible fiscal stress. My home county of Henrico proposes to create a meals tax to cover the looming fiscal gap. Does it really make sense to add new infrastructure and new transit services that will only increase the ongoing cost of maintenance and subsidies? That is dead-end thinking. We must do better.

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19 responses to “Dead End Thinking in the Richmond Region”

  1. reed fawell III Avatar
    reed fawell III

    “Does it really make sense to add new infrastructure and new transit services that will only increase the ongoing cost of maintenance and subsidies? That is dead-end thinking. We must do better.”

    Of course Jim, it makes no sense at all to keep adding new infrastructure and new transit services that will only increase the ongoing cost of maintenance and subsidies. This is dead-end thinking. We must do better.

    So what is the problem. Psychology perhaps. Would you expect a “Capital Region Collaborative” and headed by a former State Transportation Secretary to come up with anything different from what they came up with – raise taxes, and spend more taxpayer money on more of the same.

    Our systems of governance are fixated on the same time worn failed solutions. Spending other peoples money is the easiest thing in the world. It requires no imagination. It demands no hard work. It takes no courage. but its boosts the ego, giving a quick jolt of personal sense of power. It’s like the Imelda Marcos’ obsessive shoe buying fetish. And about as useful.

  2. larryg Avatar

    well no… I’m sure what Jim B would tell you is that transit should be operated on farebox revenues and if the demand is strong, you expand accordingly.

    if it’s not – you don’t.

    If it is subsidized ALREADY, expanding it means even MORE subsidies.


    what’s the argument for expanding transit but funding from more subsidies?

  3. larryg Avatar

    I’d like to see transit – start to use modern cell phone technology. It may be that the day of fixed line transit is coming to an end and what’s funny – with a lot of disruptive technologies is the inability of the current providers to roll with the technology.

    I give two examples. Kodak and Blockbuster Video. You’d think the CORE of their business would lead them to not only seek to track new technologies but to forge ahead with them. instead they could not let go of the old and it doomed them.

    this is the way I see transit now days.

    It’s been pointed out more than once that the cost per rider on many transit systems is so high – that you could actually send a cab.

    well now you can with a pool of cabs linked to a database that can be accessed from a cell phone.

    If we HAVE to subsidize transit – why not just give the needy a transit EBT card and let them use it any way that they can figure out how to make it last for the month even if it is using AD HOC transit services?

  4. reed fawell III Avatar
    reed fawell III

    Spend, Spend, Spend – Tax, Tax, Tax – Charge, Charge, Charge – fee, levy, fare – fee, levy, fare – are these the sum total of modern day solutions?

  5. Ghost of Ted Dalton Avatar
    Ghost of Ted Dalton

    The real problem? Dillon’s Rule.

    Let me explain: The problem with so much of the transportation “issue” is “fairness.” And “why do the cool kids get all the cool toys and we’re left for dead?”

    While I agree that more innovative thinking is required, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to state that NoVa is in need of more transportation funding. Perhaps Hampton Roads….perhaps.

    But b/c the state controls everything, we are left with having to “get the other regions on board” to pass anything. Therefore nothing specific to Nova and/or Hampton Roads can ever pass. We must throw on the pork. And then, all these other regions look at this neat new authority and figure, “those places are prosperous, we need to follow their lead.” So, forget just Richmond, soon we’ll have the Galax Transportation Authority or something of that nature….

    If you did not have Dillon’s Rule, it would allow localities to have greater flexibility in determining their needs and how to finance them. Instead, we must make places like Danville and South Hill and Abingdon “feel good” about pork to get anything through Richmond. It’s rather ridiculous.

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      Well written, Ghost. A strict adherence to Dillon’s Rule is yet another device used by the oligopoly and their hand puppet legislature to rob the people of Virginia blind. If the strict adherence to Dillon’s Rule (especially at the county level) were reduced there would be some honestly run localities and some corrupt localities. But that is an improvement over a consistently corrupt state legislature in charge of everything.

  6. larryg Avatar

    I think Harry Byrd caused the problem by telling people that transportation was a “core” responsibility of the state no matter the tax – no matter the wants and no connection between what region generates in gas taxes – and what it expects.

    So we encourage localities to make land-use decisions as if there are no dollar consequences no matter how they make those decisions.

    In other words, a locality believes it can approve development no matter what kind or it’s impacts because transportation is a “core” responsibility of the state.

    Here’s what I think.

    I think each locality should get an accountability of how much they collect in transportation taxes and how much VDOT spends on them – with the caveat that VDOT does get some of the money to operate and deal with statewide priorities.

    People have no clue how much their county generates in gas taxes much less how much money is spent – not only on new improvements -but operations and maintenance.

    In 46 other states, it is understood that local roads are the sole responsibility of the localities and not a “core” state responsibility.

    so what I advocate is this:

    1 – all localities get back a set percentage of what they collect

    2.- if they want more than that – they have the authority to tax more to build more locally.

    this is the same way it works with schools and law enforcement. The State returns to each locality a certain amount of taxes they collected – to pay for schools and law enforcement – and the localities are free to tax more to add to that. In fact all but a couple of Virginia counties add more local money for schools and law enforcement than what the state provides.

    This puts the onus on the locality for local investments – per what voters are willing to pay for.

    It puts govt and taxation at the local level. The state provides a minimum defined level – and the locality decides how much more they want to pay for – and then that calculation will then go into how they handle land-use decisions – also

    This idea that the state is supposed to provide whatever the locality wants (what it says it needs) is totally bizarre in my view.

    33 cities and towns and 2 counties in Va function the correct way right now.

    Just tell the other counties that they have to do the same and we’re done.

    no more arguments…about “core” responsibilities – at the local level.

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      Transportation may have been a core responsibility of state government in the rural Virginia of the 1930s and 1940s (think The Waltons here). However, things evolve even if the ruling elite in Richmond doesn’t. Centralized control is no more a good idea in Virginia than it is in Moscow.

    2. Fairfax County was offered control of its local roads several times. The BoS on a 9-1 basis strongly opposes any takeover. I was talking to a good friend in business who used to work for a supervisor. I was told his boss loved to be able to push the blame for any road problems to VDOT. With power comes responsibility and blame. The Dillon Rule is the best thing that comes with the job of county supervisor.

      1. DJRippert Avatar

        Only an idiot would take responsibility for the roads while Richmond has responsibility for the distribution of funds.

        Fairfax County should be incorporated as a city. It is smaller than the city of Virginia Beach. The city charter should grant Fairfax County considerable latitude in matters of taxation and spending.

        The level of political discussion in Northern Virginia has been increasing dramatically over the last five years. The days of the lazy, do nothing county supervisor are over.

        Why is Terry McAuliffe leading Ken Cuccinelli in a number of polls? Business as usual is over in Virginia.

  7. larryg Avatar

    re: Dillion rule – a solid majority of States ARE Dillion Rule and even others operate with DILLION-like approaches to dividing up what are State level responsibilities versus Local.

    Remember, the Constitution did something similar – it left the States with powers it did not keep itself.

    but the Feds have to be responsible for things that cross state lines like Commerce and rivers, etc.

    In a similar way, the States have to retain some level of responsibility for roads that connect the state and schools, law enforcement, laws, etc.
    You cannot have 100 different Murder ordinances… or have each locality determine road standards, etc.

    Virginia actually delegates MORE LOCAL CONTROL over things like land use than Md (which is also DIllion and not home rule) does.

    the problem in Va with corruption at both levels is that Virginians do not have the right to recall elected for malfeasance but they do have the right
    for actual crimes of which corruption is one if proven.

    Virginians also do not have the right to initiate referenda which would be a significant check on officials who are veering away from what citizens are expecting.

    In their favor – we still do get Constitutional referenda – you just gotta get enough votes to have it done.

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      Larry – There is no black and white test for a state to be either “Dillon’s Rule” or “Home Rule”. All states are some combination of both. Virginia happens to be a state that favors centralized control rather than de-centralized control. In Virginia (alone among the 50 states, as usual) cities are never in counties. Cities have some substantial level of home rule. So, you can call Virginia a mixed Dillon’s Rule / Home Rule state because of the charters that cities hold.

      The problem with this simple-minded division of counties and cities is that many counties in Virginia are now urban and suburban areas with more city-like properties than the so-called cities. The so-called city of Virginia Beach has a greater land area than the so-called county of Fairfax. Yet Fairfax has a much bigger population and a much higher population density.

      The so-called county of Arlington is tiny – 26 sq miles. The so-called city of Roanoke is nearly twice as big (43 sq mi). But tiny Arlington County has more than twice the population of the larger “city” of Roanoke and Arlington has 3 – 4 X the population density.

      The so-called city of Virginia Beach is almost twenty times bigger than the so-called county of Arlington.

      Granting limited home rule to cities while managing counties under Dillon’s Rule might have made sense in the Virginia of 1913. However, the state has evolved and the governance practices have not. So, as usual, we are using a 100 year old framework to govern in the modern world.

    2. I would support initiative and referendum as reasonable checks on over-reach by state and local government. I would not support recall, as it would quickly become an overused political tool.

      1. larryg Avatar

        I support both initiative and recall – but with high bars for signatures.

        we don’t want people thrown out for one hot issue but OTOH, 4 years is a long time for long series of votes counter to citizens interests. If someone votes for or against something with 75% of citizens on the other side and that guy/gal has 4 more years… citizens deserve the right to change their minds – especially if they got elected in a close race and there is major buyers remorse.

        We should want a system where the elected need to respect the voters – not just at election time.

        and I agree with DJ – we need the ability to easily have 3rd party challengers.

        but then you realize that it don’t matter what you want – because the current yahoos have such firm control of the system there is no way in hell that any of this would happen if the politicians are opposed – no matter what citizens want.

        OTOH – if you look at elections in many counties – it’s a joke. The same idiots get re-elected by voters.

  8. larryg Avatar

    re: the ruling elite. Every two years, we have the opportunity to throw out elected in the House. That’s less years that the Gov or even local BOS.

    I can only surmise from this that Virginians have no one but themselves to blame if they do have the right to throw out those that vote against citizens interests. The reason we have the “elite” is …. we keep voting them back into office.

    We’re a bunch of complainers and blamers who have the power to change govt but we apparently prefer to complain and blame.

    You’ve got a primary coming up tomorrow. The people on the ballot are people we allowed to get on the ballot and people who did not because we did not support them. But we get a chance to do something now and something come Fall.

    If enough people really believe Va was run by elites – they’d be gone, right?

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      Ballotopia rates Virginia as having the least competitive state legislative elections in the USA. Dead last. Number 50 of 50.

      There are many reasons for this and all of them have to do with the elite in Richmond wanting non-competitive state elections.

      1. Off year elections.
      2. Hardest state to get on the ballot as an independent.
      3. 5th most gerrymandered state.
      4. The RPV’s love affair with closed conventions where the final ballot for LG held only 3,750 votes.
      5. No term limits for legislators.

      Could there be some miraculous spasm of blowback that would anger everybody enough to overcome the least competitive state elections and “throw the clowns out”? Maybe. But why should we accept the rules that make Virginia the state with the least competitive legislative elections?

  9. Hokie Avatar

    Mr. Bacon, you mention the “Reality Check” done for the City of Richmond. Over the weekend I found a version done for the Hampton Roads region. The link is as follows if anyone is interested:

  10. RVAGates Avatar

    I’m pretty disappointed with your inaccurate portrayal of the meeting. If you had attended, or spoken to those that did, you would have seen that it was quite different from the narrative you’ve outlined.

    The group only spent a very short time discussing the topic of tweaking the new transportation funding law in order to make Richmond eligible for the regional components. The elected officials expressed significant concerns with hastily jumping to that conclusion, but respectfully saying they would discuss it with their constituents (i.e., the taxpayers).

    Your characterization of the group as having a “transportation priority [of] subsidizing more bus routes” is completely off base. In fact, the discussion focused on how to reduce the subsidization by improving ridership, routes, and service quality. The three routes that were advocated are those that have been analyzed as the most likely to be self-sufficient. The group talked about ways to make GRTC more efficient and self-sustaining, but they also talked about using public or private entities other than GRTC to provide the services discussed.

    As for your agenda of recommendations, they are BRILLIANT! So, I imagine you will be pleased to know that the RRPDC (which is half of the Capital Region Collaborative that you just criticized) has already begun significant work on each of those areas. In fact, the data, maps, and info provided to you during the Reality Check exercise were all created by the RRPDC.

    You know a lot about these issues. Your ideas often toe that difficult line of “progressively conservative.” Instead of throwing stones at those that are trying to push against the grain of the same-old Richmond, I urge you to get involved in the solution so you can push them to push harder.

    1. Thanks for filling in the “rest of the story.”

      As you quite rightly point out, I did not attend the meeting. I based my observations entirely upon the reporting in the Times-Dispatch. I am very glad to hear that the RRPDC is considering the alternatives that I mentioned, and I’ll be happy to follow up and write about them. Expect a call shortly.

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