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"Let us not do politics as usual": Regional transit authority launches, bolstered by new tax money

"Let us not do politics as usual": Regional transit authority launches, bolstered by new tax money

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A yearslong backlog and proposed road, sidewalk, trail and public transit projects that Richmond area officials have at times struggled to address await the newly formed Central Virginia Transit Authority.

The Ashland-Petersburg trail, expansion of the GRTC Pulse rapid-transit bus line, road-widening projects and perennial pothole repairs are just a few examples of projects officials at the transit authority’s inaugural meeting on Thursday said will be completed faster with the new tax revenue and better coordination by local officials the authority aims to ensure.

“The bottom line is there’s not enough money to do all the work that needs to be done,” said Chet Parsons, director of transportation for Plan RVA, the area’s regional planning commission. “We don’t have ability to fund anything. So the presence of the authority is exciting because now we can actually see the plans we’ve developed carried out.”

While Thursday’s meeting focused largely on logistics, such as adopting bylaws and appointing officers, officials said they are looking ahead to moving projects forward after struggling for years to compete against regional transit authorities in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads for limited state dollars.

Although the COVID-19 pandemic’s economic impact dampened revenue projections of $193.1 million that the Virginia Department of Transportation predicted would come from a 0.7% increase in the sales and use tax and a 7.6-cent increase on wholesale gas in the region, officials said the new stream sets central Virginia up for success.

“As many of you know, over the last six years I have been beating the drum that Richmond and the region needs to develop its own funding source for transportation needs or else we’ll get left behind,” said Carlos Brown, a senior executive and legal counsel for Dominion Energy who represents the Richmond area on the Commonwealth Transportation Board.

Fifteen percent of new revenues are dedicated to GRTC. Transit advocates are hopeful the money could improve bus service and build on the new GRTC Pulse bus-rapid transit line, pushing public transportation farther into Richmond’s suburbs.

“It puts us in a position to have a regional transportation system that we have not had in the past,” said Ben Campbell, chairman of the GRTC board of directors. “It provides the conversation and discussion about where we need to go and looks at the possibility of doing things together for mutual benefit.”

Half of the funding would be allocated proportionally to the nine localities represented on the transit authority: Richmond, the town of Ashland and the counties of Henrico, Hanover, Chesterfield, Goochland, New Kent, Powhatan and Charles City. Each locality would decide how to spend its funds on transit-related projects, such as walking trails, bike lanes and road paving.

Development and transit interest groups also see the creation of the new government body as an opportunity to advance projects that could encourage development of affordable housing and infrastructure oriented toward pedestrians and cyclists.

“The CVTA offers tremendous promise for our region, and it can be a key to advancing a cleaner, more equitable, truly multi-modal regional transportation system,” said Trip Pollard, director of the Southern Environmental Law Center’s land-use program and a member of the Richmond Area Partnership for Smarter Growth. “We certainly hope this promise will be fulfilled.”

The remaining 35% of the funding would be held by the authority to fund regionally significant projects, such as improved highway interchanges and road safety projects that would benefit commuters throughout the region.

While officials at the meeting said they hope to work together, there were signs that there could be some differences down the road.

The authority’s representatives unanimously agreed to appoint Henrico Supervisor Frank Thornton to be their chairman, but came to loggerheads before agreeing to elect Chesterfield Supervisor Kevin Carroll as vice chair — a role that some members sought for Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney.

Del. Delores McQuinn, D-Richmond, who sponsored the bill that created the authority earlier this year, said she was concerned by that dynamic after working to bring the region together.

“We have an opportunity to create a paradigm shift ... let’s take this opportunity to check ourselves at the door and get this right,” she said. “Let us not do politics as usual.”

Hanover Supervisor Canova Peterson said he did not think the authority was getting off on the wrong foot.

“We’re starting from scratch,” he said. “Everybody’s got different opinions about what the right thing is to do.”

The authority is expected meet again either in late September or October.

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