RVA Snapshot: Nice Vision, but the Devil’s in the Details

rva_snapshotby James A. Bacon

The Capital Region Collaborative, a not-for-profit dedicated to building a more livable, prosperous Richmond region, has just published RVA Snapshot, a set of metrics that compares Richmond to six peer metros of comparable size. The accompanying commentary summarizes the conventional wisdom regarding the region’s strengths and weaknesses, and articulates a “shared vision” for the future.

I find the aspirations particularly interesting, as they express the values of the business, political and civic leaders who influence how the region allocates resources to advance the public good.

Education: The region ensures that every child graduates from high school college or career ready.

Job creation: The region enjoys a diverse economy that is competitive in the global marketplace and provides job opportunities for all.

Workforce preparation: The region aligns workforce skills to employer needs.

Social stability: The region embraces our social diversity as a strong community asset and supports a community where all residents have the opportunity to succeed.

Healthy community: The region transforms into a metro area known for an active lifestyle.

Coordinated transportation: The region maintains its status as one of the most uncongested transportation networks in the country while supporting all modes of transportation.

James River: The region will make the James River a centerpiece for entertainment, recreation, and commerce.

Quality of place: The region is the most appealing and attractive destination for arts, culture and entertainment on the East Coast.

By necessity, these aspirations are watered down to appeal to a broad cross section of the population. It’s hard even for a curmudgeon like me to take exception to any of them. The tricky part is figuring out which tangible actions will advance these goals. And that often boils down to political philosophy — what role should government play? To what extent does the community achieve its goals by taxing, spending and regulating, and to what extent does it rely upon voluntary, bottom-up initiatives?

Needless to say, I favor voluntary, bottom-up initiatives. For example, the Capital Area Farmer Markets Association is creating a food guide listing all restaurants, farms, grocers, markets and other businesses where consumers can purchase local food. I doubt I’ll go out of my way to patronize these establishments, but if other people do, that’s great! I’m all for increasing consumer choices.

I’m less excited by the uncritical emphasis on public transit, which the document kinda, sorta endorses by noting that the Richmond region is 8th lowest ranked among its peers with regard to transit coverage and job access. That may be true, and creating affordable transportation options for the public may be desirable, but expanding mass transit is not a win-win proposition, it’s a win-lose. Money is involuntarily transferred from one group of people (taxpayers) to another group of people (transit riders), usually with little regard to economic efficiency or emerging transportation alternatives.

Regardless, all the right-thinking people in Richmond are lining up behind Richmond’s proposed bus rapid transit system. I have yet to see a discussion of appropriate land uses along the bus corridor or streetscape improvements needed to make the corridor more hospitable for passengers walking from the stations to their destination. Nor has anyone considered how the Uber revolution might be extended to privately operated vans and buses as a way to provide affordable transportation access to the poor. Having dealt with none of these issues, the City of Richmond will incur a long-term obligation to continue operating a money-losing service.

Which brings me to my final point: RVA Snapshot gives no consideration to the long-term fiscal health of local governments in the region. Apparently, is it assumed that AAA and AA bond ratings are a birthright that require no special attention. Trouble is, local governments are hard-pressed to maintain the services at current tax rates without expanding their commitments and setting themselves up for future failure. Sound finances are the bedrock of any community’s long-term prosperity. I would add the following aspiration:

Fiscal health: The region embraces sound fiscal practices that support the ability of local governments to maintain competitive tax rates and pursue excellence in core functions over the long run.

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6 responses to “RVA Snapshot: Nice Vision, but the Devil’s in the Details”

  1. LarrytheG Avatar

    I don’t see much mention of government in the doc – maybe two instances and just as few instances of words like dollars, fiscal and finance and no instances of specific advocacies for govt to pay for particular things nor spending levels.

    More of a vision and metrics – levels of service, quality, quantity.

    One would think the downstream issues involving specifics would be handled pro forma through existing governance – with the obvious proviso that this group is pursuing it’s agenda and gathering supporters to promote it.

    I don’t see anything wrong with that – I actually see it as a good thing that people in the community do care about it and want to maintain and improve it – and yes their vision sees govt in a central role.

    It leaves room for people in that group as well as outside the group to advocate for non-govt roles and involvements – but what it does do is put on the table things that some believe made a difference in a community and those that disagree or who don’t want govt paying for it and/or would prefer to not have it if only govt would pay – those folks need to be in the game, in the discussions – and providing alternatives – as opposed to opposition only.

    Most cities essentially operate this way in general. People want services and amenities and they advocate for them – and they end up paying for them.

    perhaps this explains why most cities are Blue and most folks who are not politically Blue find themselves in conflict about the role of govt in many areas.

    I’d point out – that – per my usual – around the world – the best cities are ones where there is a high level of govt involvement – and spending and taxes and the 3rd world cities are largely much less govt and much more free market.

    I’d actually ask – again for folks who think govt is a problem – for them to name the best cities with the least govt involvement and services… what are those cities?

  2. Andrew Moore Avatar
    Andrew Moore


    I know that is unlikely that you and I are even going to even completely align on how the discussion of transportation options is framed, but I have to call you out on the tone of of your assessment of transit. Although it may be true that fiscally irresponsible transit projects could be characterized as “win-lose” or even “lose-lose,” your piece fails to make the more important point. Automobile-oriented transportation spending (i.e. building new roads) is almost always a losing proposition. Here is an equally true statement to yours: “Money is involuntarily transferred from one group of people (taxpayers) to another group of people (automobile users), usually with little regard to economic efficiency or emerging transportation alternatives.” Don’t demonize the enthusiastic exploration of alternatives when the current system is so clearly broken.

    On a related note, I am involved (as a volunteer) with the the City of Richmond’s Broad Street Corridor Study, which is looking at land use policy along the BRT route. Although I will be the first to admit that the City doesn’t have a great track record on implementing planning initiatives, there is some good work being done quietly, behind the scenes. If you want to grab a cup of coffee sometime, I would be happy to share what I know.


    1. Andrew, I think we could agree that the system for financing transportation infrastructure in Virginia is riddled with subsidies and cross subsidies, and that extends to everything from roads to bridges to bike lanes to mass transit. When the state funds boondoggle road projects, I call them out on it. (Look at my reporting on the Charlottesville Bypass, the U.S. 460 mess, and the Bi-County Parkway.) I don’t feel the need to balance my reporting with the qualification that, well, you know, mass transit funding is a mess, too. It’s all a mess. Back when Governor Bob was proposing his indiscriminate tax increases for transportation funding, I was arguing that were moving in the wrong direction. What we need is a system in which users and beneficiaries (which includes property owners) pay for projects to the greatest extent possible, and that we have the greatest possible transparency for all major projects so we can see if the project is economically justified or not.

      As for the Corridor Study, I would like to know more. If we’re going to fund that project, let’s make sure we do it right.

  3. Andrew Moore Avatar
    Andrew Moore

    Fair enough; it is all a mess. I do think, however, that for the Richmond Region to be competitive with other comparable metro regions, as well as operate in a fiscally sustainable manner, we need to test transportation systems that include non-automobile-oriented approaches. And, if our peers provide that option, we should pay attention.

    1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      Transportation system are too expensive and irreversible to “test.” They cost too much to build in a way that does not work, or only partially works. They cost to much to do wrong.

      When truly needed by a community, mass transit holds far too much promise not to do right, so as to pay its way and in so doing to generate all of their myriad potential benefits, social and financial, local and region wide, and generations deep.

      Relatively speaking, the actual building of the mass transit system is by far the easier part politically and otherwise. This often traps communities in failure as the hard part is putting in place the as built fabric of living uses around and within the mass transit route that can work together to maximize the benefits that mass transit can jump-start, sustain, and grow.

      All this requires that mass transit be done right – at the right time in the right place and done the right way that generates maximum benefit. And thus gets the city to the place of exponential benefits where 2 = 2 + 8.

      If the city is unwilling or unable to put in place the fabric of uses that allows the mass transit of work, it is pursuing a Fool’s errand, wasting its monies, that should be spend elsewhere for tangible benefit at less cost and risk.

      Hence, politicians build mass transit most always for the wrong reasons.

      Back against the wall hardship best builds successful mass transit. Arlington’s Courthouse to Ballston success was driven by the fact that Arlington County had its back against a wall, a systemically failed downtown that demanded radical change. This forced change to land use patterns that fueled the success of mass transit that jump-started and now sustains the startling success of its new downtown that’s been going on for decades now.

  4. LarrytheG Avatar

    we need to change the way we view mobility especially in terms of how we pay for it.

    right now – we have a system where people who pay fuel taxes consider money spent on non-road mobility is taken away from the purpose for which it was intended.

    we’ve often heard that people who want transit or bike trails – need to pay for them – not steal money from fuel taxes for cars and roads.

    we have a similar perception with taxes collected for K-12 public education.

    i.e that the money is not spent effectively.

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