Transportation and Race. Really, Are We Going through This Again?

by James A. Bacon

Transportation has been on the back burner in the Richmond metro area for a long time, but it could resurface in a debate over the future of the Richmond Metropolitan Authority (RMA), which operates the region’s two toll roads — and things could get ugly if the debate rips the scab off the region’s slowly healing racial politics.

Transportation and race? How did the two get mixed up?

You need to know the history of the RMA. The regional authority was created in 1966 for the purpose of creating the toll-financed Downtown Expressway. The city guaranteed $20 million to cover the cost of planning, designing and acquiring right-of-way for the highway, which won it six seats on the 11-person board as compared to only two seats for Henrico and Chesterfield counties and one for the Richmond regional representative to the Commonwealth Transportation Board. As typically was the case during that time, planners tried to minimize the right-of-way acquisition costs by running the route through poorer neighborhoods with less valuable land. Roughly 900 residents and businesses were displaced by the project… most of whom (though not all) were black.

In 1973, the authority opened the Powhite Parkway, which fed commuters from the fast-growing Chesterfield County to the Expressway and the then-dominant job center in downtown Richmond. Later, the authority raised toll rates to pay for introducing electronic tolls, adding lanes to keep up with surging demand, and utilizing surface materials that would prolong the life of the underlying assets. (The RMA also handled a number of other projects of a regional scope, from the ball park to the flood wall and downtown train station.)

Fast forward to 2010. Richmond Mayor Dwight Jones cut a deal for the RMA to repay the City of Richmond its loan, which had an accumulated value of $62 million, by means of refinancing the toll roads. If Richmond got its money back, county residents argued, then Henrico and Chesterfield should be entitled to greater representation on the board. Del. G. Manoli Loupassi, R-Richmond, who also represents part of Chesterfield, introduced a bill at the end of December that would give Richmond, Henrico and Chesterfield three seats a piece on the RMA board. The issue is particularly important to Chesterfield residents who account for 60% of the toll revenues and think they ought to have a greater say in how the organization is run.

Loupassi’s bill didn’t play well, however, with former Richmond Mayor Roy A. West, who had served on the RMA board. According to Michael Martz with the Times-Dispatch, the veteran African-American politician called the proposal part of a “perpetual agenda to dispossess the city of Richmond of its rightful control of this asset, which was paid for with ‘blood, sweat and tears.’ ” West blasted Mayor Jones for striking the deal, but he saved the harshest words for Loupassi. Reported Martz:

West, in an email message, accused Loupassi of a “racist agenda” because the proposal would “take from a black-majority city for the benefit of a white-majority county.”

Hopefully, there are enough statesmen in the Richmond region to resolve the issue without it turning into another national, race relations-suck-in-Richmond story like the Arthur Ashe statue or the Lee mural on the flood wall. That would be an entirely preventable tragedy.

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7 responses to “Transportation and Race. Really, Are We Going through This Again?”

  1. DJRippert Avatar

    Richmond politics are always entertaining. A couple of questions:

    1. If Loupassi was following a “racist agenda” then why did current mayor Roy West, an African – American, agree? Are we once again seeing the race card played in what should be a simple political debate?

    2. You just have to love Dillon’s Rule in Virginia. A transportation question which is entirely within the Richmond Metropolitan Area requires a bill to be introduced in the state legislature. The next step is for a committee of legislators from all around the state to consider the bill.


    Is it reasonable to believe that Northern Virginia’s Scott Surovall will know more about transportation problems in Greater Richmond than the local governments in Richmond?

    3. Robert E. Lee grew up in Alexandria. We don’t paint his likeness on public murals and he’s one of ours. We request that Richmond stop building statues of Lee, painting murals of Lee and generally deifying Robert E. Lee. However, in the interests of state-wide harmony, those of us from Alexandria will offer those from Richmond a trade. You guys adopt Robert E. Lee as being from Richmond and we’ll adopt Arthur Ashe as being from Alexandria. We’ll even take that controversial statue of Arthur Ashe off your hands. It would like great right in downtown Alexandria.

  2. Raised tolls to pay for electronic tolling?

    You are kidding, right?

    Remember when banks charged extra to use a teller?

  3. Remember how they laughed when I suggested paying people to use car pools? Check out what is happening at the mark center.

  4. At which end of a road does it serve the surrounding citizens best?

  5. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Don the Ripper,
    West is not the current Richmond mayor. Dwight Jones is.

    1. DJRippert Avatar


      Good catch. I actually looked at Dwight Jones’ biography before mistyping the old mayor’s name. My bad. However, the point remains the same. If the old mayor thinks Loupassi is part of a racist agenda then I have to assume that he believes the new mayor who agreed to the deal (also an African-American) is part of that racist agenda. Given that Mayor Jones is the pastor of the First Baptist Church of South Richmond I am guessing that this must be a widespread racist conspiracy. Here is a photograph of Mayor Jones and his henchmen at the First Baptist Church:

      Former Mayor West (anybody ever see Family Guy?) really ought to think before he speaks. Nobody is operating on a racist agenda here.

  6. not only the Powhite but folks might recall that I-95 used to be the Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike and to this day as you travel that road – on either side of it you can see that it split a community that was not exactly upscale housing stock.

    there is an abundant history of siting roads, powerplants, and other intrusive infrastructure that richer communities can rebut that were then put where minority communities were.

    but what is going on right now is just something that has boiled to the surface that is still bubbling actively but less obvious as I’m sure most folks familiar with Richmond are aware..there is still a divide and while this issue seems inexplicable to some.. it’s symbolism to the minority community is discounted at one’s own peril.

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