All Aboard? 

If doing this one thing would instantly lift Richmond from the bottom 10 percent of American cities to the top 10 percent, then wouldn’t we do it?

click to enlarge back33_busses.jpg

Be ready for a proposal which will, believe it or not, make metropolitan Richmond one of the nation's top cities in access to jobs, commerce and entertainment by public transportation.

Right now, Richmond is at the bottom. The Brookings Institution reported in May 2011 and again last month that metro Richmond is in the bottom 10 percent of America's top 100 cities when it comes to access to jobs by public transportation. Only a quarter of Richmond's jobs are accessible if you don't have a car.

But a proposal is brewing that would place Richmond near the top. This is a medium-sized region whose industries and employment still are concentrated close to four major corridors that intersect in the center of the city. U.S. routes 1, 60, 360, and 250 actually are the arteries of our economic life. Simply adding bus lines or light rail in these four corridors would double the number of jobs accessible to more than 50 percent of the region's population. Adding simple feeder routes along such connectors as Laburnum Avenue, Courthouse and Parham roads and Route 10 would boost the percentage of jobs covered by bus to between 70 percent and 80 percent. Richmond then becomes one of the best-served communities in the nation.

The service is simple: bus rapid transit moving quickly at least every half hour, 16 hours a day, across the metropolitan city bounded by Route 288 and Interstate 295; an express to the airport; all-night connector buses on longer routes so that no one's unable to get home. You could get to Short Pump by bus. Ditto for Chesterfield Town Center and Virginia Center Commons. To Amtrak. You could ride the bus to work at the new Amazon.com facility in Chesterfield, or Capital One in Henrico.

The mechanism? A multijurisdictional authority involving at least the four major municipalities. Financing? Add half a cent to the sales tax, which would be enough to operate the whole system, keeping fares at a modest level. Almost overnight, metro Richmond would become a model for communities across the nation.

But they'll tell you it will never happen.

Surely it isn't about the money. The state and localities always find money for transportation when they think it will help. Between 1984 and 2004, the state and federal governments paid $l.077 billion to build 295 and 288 as a ring road around the city. Just last year, Chesterfield found $20 million to open a new interchange at the Meadowville office park on 295 that will help 3,000 people drive to work at Amazon and Northrop Grumman. Building roads is a much more costly alternative to taking cars off of them with public transit.

Why won't metro Richmond decide to win the day with a world-class public transportation system at bargain costs?

You have to wonder.

If the city and its suburban neighbors were one jurisdiction, we'd have done it 25 years ago. It makes sense economically. It's one of the best unrealized opportunities for a public transportation system in the United States. It instantly would lift Richmond from the bottom 10 percent of American cities to the top 10 percent. It makes Richmond able to offer its entire work force to any new company relocating to Chesterfield, Henrico or Richmond. So why wouldn't we do it? It doesn't require a new regional government, and the roads are already there.

Why not?

Before 1955, metro Richmond's public transportation system was excellent. Richmond was famous for having the first large electric street railway system in the world, the Richmond Union Passenger Railway, designed in 1887 by Frank J. Sprague.

But in 1951 Richmond's authorities commissioned a plan that drove a commuter road through nearly every black neighborhood in town. Interstate 95 and the Downtown Expressway together destroyed more than 2,000 homes. Other roads mutilated Fulton, Shockoe Bottom, Jackson Ward. Many of the displaced residents moved to the near white suburbs. And the displaced white residents moved across the county lines to new suburbs in the three surrounding counties. The new highways enabled them to come in and out of town, but Richmond's bus system stopped at the county lines.

But in the 1950s, most of the jobs were inside the city limits. Now 75 percent of the jobs are in the surrounding counties. At that time, most of the retail was downtown; but today it's in suburban shopping centers. Sixty years ago, few people in the counties needed public transportation. Today there are many who don't have cars.

The state has the authority to put a road anywhere it wants to build one. And it will pay for it. But a locality effectively can prevent public transportation from coming on those same public roads, and the state won't pay for it.

So you could say that the absence of public transportation in metro Richmond is a brutal artifact of Virginia's segregationist government in the middle of the 20th century. And you'd be right. The buses were stopped at the city line to keep the black population in the center city. Segregation by transportation.

But today, since we have renounced segregation and the heritage of racism, that could not be the reason we haven't done this good thing. Today, when we know that metropolitan Richmond wants to be known for a decent life, economic health and racial justice, that cannot be the reason. Today, when we have a chance to show the world that Virginia is about liberty, not bigotry, that will not be the reason.

It is just possible that we'll do the right thing; that we'll all profit from it; and that, for once, we'll have a right to be truly proud of what we've done. We will show ourselves that we can reverse course and surmount this alleged impossibility; that we can act as one people, as we have always known we were meant to be. We will have the power and wherewithal to build an excellent public transportation system — today.

So why not? S

The Rev. Ben Campbell is pastoral director at Richmond Hill and a member of Mayor Dwight Jones' anti-poverty commission.

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Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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