There’s a far, far better way to invest that money,” chirps a tanned Bryan Bostic, a local entrepreneur who sits on the Richmond Ballpark Initiative’s executive committee. “That’s why we are here today.”
That’s why Berry’s here too. In the past year, the RMA, the area’s oldest regional entity, is suddenly on the defensive. In addition to potentially losing The Diamond — if a new stadium is built, the old ballpark would likely be sold, perhaps to Virginia Commonwealth University — there’s a construction group from Lorton and Bethesda, Md., proposing to purchase the Downtown Expressway and Powhite Parkway, the original reasons for the authority’s existence.
“Everybody is interested in the RMA all of a sudden,” Berry says.
Berry, always understated, can see the forest. If either or both of these plans become reality, the authority’s role as de-facto regional government may get pushed to the curb — at a time when the region may need it most.
With ever-tightening budgets at the state and local level, the building of infrastructure such as roads is increasingly driven by the private sector. A new ballpark will happen only if a private developer foots most of the bill. The Powhite extension project is being proposed under the Public Private Transportation Act, which allows private road developers to issue bonds and build highways like Interstate 895 and Route 288 with little government funding. But both projects are going to require a healthy dose of regional cooperation at a time when county-city relations are strained.
As a political subdivision of the state, the RMA has the power to take on debt for such projects, and it forces all three jurisdictions to work together. But there’s a catch: The authority cannot initiate any new development, only jurisdictions can. The RMA localities — Henrico and Chesterfield counties, and the city — must first make a proposal, Berry says, “and then we have to have supporting resolutions from the other two.”
“We were set up that way for a very important reason,” he explains. “The idea is we will work together, but all three of us have to agree to do something.”
That might help explain why the RMA hasn’t proposed too many new projects of late. Part of the problem has to do with who controls the authority, says Sen. John C. Watkins, R-Chesterfield. Six board members are appointed by the city, two by each county and one by the Virginia Department of Transportation. That’s a problem, Watkins says.
In a Richmond Times-Dispatch editorial last week, Watkins and Sen. Benjamin J. Lambert, D-Richmond, advocated a nine-mile extension to Powhite Parkway. In it, they suggest that the RMA has failed to achieve its regional transportation goals. The authority should either be overhauled or replaced with a better-functioning regional entity, Watkins says.
“I don’t think that they have been as aggressive as they should have been addressing future transportation needs,” Watkins says. “And the makeup is such that the city now controls it. In order to truly bring itself out as a regional metropolitan authority, we’ve got to balance up the membership and give due weight to the surrounding jurisdictions.” The board’s makeup favors the city for an important reason, says James L. Jenkins, chairman of the RMA. When the authority was formed in the 1960s to construct the Downtown Expressway, which is in the city, Richmond was the only jurisdiction to take financial responsibility for the bonds used to build the roadway.
“The city is the only jurisdiction that put up money,” says Jenkins, a Henrico County resident who has served on the board since 1973. Hence, the city has six of the board’s 11 seats.
The proposal to build a Powhite extension by purchasing the expressway and Powhite Parkway and using the existing toll revenues to finance the western extension, at about $586 million, must first pass a series of hurdles. It’s one of two proposals — the other plan doesn’t involve purchasing the expressway or Powhite — that must receive the green light from VDOT to go forward.
But there is a striking difference in how private road projects are approved. The state transportation commissioner ultimately approves private road projects, instead of the RMA, appointed by localities, or the Commonwealth Transportation Board, which is made up representatives from throughout the state.
“I think that’s a strength,” Berry says of the RMA. “If the metropolitan community doesn’t want something, chances are it’s not going to happen.”
There is still the chance the authority could be tapped to operate the roadway if Powhite and the expressway fall under new ownership. Ditto for a new stadium. The RMA, which also has the power of eminent domain, may manage a new ballpark if it’s built, some have suggested.
Even if the RMA sees its role drastically reduced, it has other responsibilities. It manages four city parking garages, including the original parking deck at Ninth and Canal streets, and operates Main Street Station. All told, the agency employs 140 people.
“Most of us do it to help the city,” says Stuart G. Christian Jr., a retired executive from Universal Corp. who’s served on the RMA for 16 years. “You get sniped at a little bit every now and then, but that’s all right. If they closed The Diamond tomorrow, it wouldn’t change anything in my life except I’d have to drive further to go to a baseball game, which I probably wouldn’t do.”
Because the proposed ballpark is being considered without RMA involvement, the public has had few places to go for a debate — unlike some very public battles of the past. Jenkins refers to the first public meeting about increasing tolls in the late 1990s. The outrage that emerged at the meeting at Monacan High School came to be called the “Monacan Massacre.” But at least it was an outlet for discussion. And that raises an important question. Where will citizens take their regional concerns without the RMA?
“You’ve got to have a public agency that gives the go-ahead,” Jenkins says. S
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