Midlothian Leviathan

Chesterfield County is the last place on the planet you’d expect to see commuter rail. Characterized by scattered, disconnected, low-density development and communities designed around the movement of automobiles, Richmond’s southern suburb epitomizes the autocentric society that destroyed mass transit in the 20th century.

Ironically, Chesterfield enjoyed a vibrant commuter rail scene at the turn of the 20th century — before local government mandated “suburban” style zoning and state government began subsidizing leapfrog development. Some 100 years after commuter rail’s hey-day, developers are trying to revive the idea. Two large planned communities, Roseland and Watkins Centre, would like to see commuter rail running along an underutilized Norfolk Southern railway track from downtown Richmond out to their projects near the Rt. 288 circumferential highway.

The Richmond Metropolitan Planning Organization sketched the outlines of Midlothian commuter rail project in a 2003 study, which should be updated this fall. But the study was none too optimistic: An up-front capital investment of $81 million plus ongoing operating deficit of $1 million annually would take only 170 passengers per workday off the roads. Not a very good return on investment. Judged by the study’s ridership metrics, Midlothian commuter rail is a poor candidate for state and federal funding.

But, as I outline in today’s column, “Midlothian Leviathan,” there may be a way to establish commuter rail as a profit-driven enterprise. Readers of this blog will find the key concepts familiar: (1) Set up Community Development Authorities around the rail stations, (2) pay for the capital improvements by issuing CDA bonds, (3) pay back the bonds through tax-increment financing on property owners in the CDA, (4) overlay the CDA districts with Transit Oriented Development districts, (5) incentivize property owners to re-develop their properties by increasing densities around the stations, and (6) require developers to set up Transportation Demand Management programs to mitigate the impact of localized congestion on nearby residential neighborhoods.

Under the Bacon schema, Midlothian commuter rail would require no government funding whatsoever. It would require no government coercion, no exercise of eminent domain to strong-arm anyone into participating. It would put into place measures to offset negative impacts on neighbors. And the rail line would fly, so to speak, only if it constituted a win-win-win for Chesterfield County, the City of Richmond, property owners, neighbors and commuters.

Sound like a tall order? You bet. I fully acknowledge that I may have set the bar so high that the project would never work. But I lay out a developer-driven strategy that has never been tried before, at least not in Virginia, and not in recent history. Please check it out and point out any flaws you might see — or any possibilities that I might have overlooked.

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5 responses to “Midlothian Leviathan”

  1. Ambivalent Richmonder Avatar
    Ambivalent Richmonder


    I love your proposal, and promoted it on my blog, Urban Richmond. You solicited feedback, and so here’s mine:

    “Theoretically, some landowners could be incorporated into a CDA against their will. I would argue that participation should be purely voluntary, and that unwilling landowners should be exempt from participation.)”

    I doubt the feasibility of the opt-in tax strategy. What benefits would there be for those who opt-in which wouldn’t be there for those who didn’t? With a project designed to help a region, and specifically residents and landowners who live nearby, opting out would carry no penalties but all the benefits, functionally asking those who opt-in to simply pay money out of pocket for rail. At that point, you may as well solicit individual donations instead of asking for a complicated tax district which has no actual geographic ties since folks in the geographic area are only voluntarily participating.

    “Local governments could help landowners offset costs by sweetening the pot as needed by granting higher densities around the rail stations.”

    While an intriguing idea, I don’t know how many individual homeowners would find this enough “sweetener” to accept higher densities in their neighborhood. This tends to work for owners of large plots of land- farmers, developers, etc., but I can’t think of a single-family neighborhood that would be thrilled at the opportunity to increase density, since practically it would destroy the character of the neighborhood. And you can’t really benefit from increasing density when you own a .5 acre lot in a subdivision, which it seems to be that many of the areas along the route would be.

    That said, I like the way you think, and though I disagree that eminent domain and gov’t “coercion” (a term so vague I find it hard to pin down) should necessarily be ruled out, I think the less gov’ts here can tax and take land the more political capital they’ll have for the less palatable changes necessary for making commuter rail viable, like increased density.

  2. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Ambivalent, You raise two excellent points. Let me address both in turn.

    The opt-in strategy. You are correct in noting that it will be difficult to assemble a sufficient amount of land around the stations on a purely voluntary basis to make the project work. However, “difficult” does not mean “impossible.” Here’s why. First, you place the stations in areas already dominated by commercial development. Owners of commercial land are far more likely to take a steely eyed, return-on-investment approach to any offer, as opposed to an, I’ve-lived-here-for-30-years-and-I-don’t-want-to-move aproach. If you offer them good terms, they are likely to cooperate.

    Still, there is the “free rider” problem in which someone refuses to share in the burdens of making the project work while reaping the benefits of having a rail station nearby. How do you coax these individuals into cooperating? My scheme offers two carrots. First, if you don’t participate in the CDA, you don’t get any density increases. Second, if you don’t participate in the CDA, and shoulder your share of the bond obligation, you don’t get to share in any of the money raised for streetscape and other improvements. That means your property will not mesh as well with the station and neighboring properties. Most commercial landowners, I believe, would choose to participate.

    Residential density. I agree with you that it will be difficult to coax homeowners into a CDA. But, again, not impossible. The key is to find someone willing to consolidate the residential properties — work patiently to buy them one by one. Knowing that density approvals await him, the property consolidator would be willing to pay higher-than-market rates for peoples’ homes. The risk is that the consolidator won’t succeed in consolidating a cohesive block of property. But that’s capitalism. There are no guarantees.

    The alternative to consolidation of properties through voluntary transactions in the marketplace is government coercion — i.e. employing eminent domain to purchase the property against the owner’s will. Unless there is a direct public use for the property, I am philosophically opposed to such use of eminent domain. But that’s just me. I agree, though, it would be easier to make the project work if you could acquire peoples’ land against their wishes.

    I also agree with the remark on you blog, “Urban Richmond,” that this project probably will never see the light of day. I doubt there’s anyone in the private sector who would be willing to take on the risks of trying to make it happen — for the very reasons you cite. The column was really more of an intellectual exercise to show how such a thing might be done.

  3. Anonymous Avatar

    If Amtrack can’t make it profitable, what makes you think this would be? Trains work well in major metropolitian cities like New York, not Midlothian, VA!

    Really I don’t get this idea at all.

  4. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Anonymous 10:28, Surely you jest. Amtrak is a government entity. Its employees are government employees. It must answer to the whims of Congress. How could anyone expect it to make money under any circumstances?

  5. Anonymous Avatar

    Why should Amtrak be asked to profitable and highways not?

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