Opinion: What is the Future of Richmond? Let's Hope It's Better Infrastructure 

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How many Richmonders does it take to change a light bulb? Of course, it only takes one. But the real punch line varies. Four, nine or a hundred? How many naysayers are standing around talking about how great the old light bulb was? Why are there so many folks decrying the need to replace something that no longer works with something that does?

When I first started working here, my new colleagues tried to explain what they saw as the true nature of Richmond culture. Mostly West End folks made clear to me that the James River was analogous to the River Styx, and folks from the South Side let me know just how snooty they thought the people in Short Pump were.

But everyone agreed that the defining characteristic seen in our area was a very strong resistance to change. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it is a common refrain, but we seem to find a mindset that says even if it is broken, don’t fix it — and that’s the problem.

Coming from New England, where I’m fairly sure there’s a law mandating a Dunkin’ Donuts on every corner, I was a little taken aback when folks had to think long and hard before they could give me directions to a Dunkie’s. Fair enough. It may be my lifeblood but for others it’s just coffee. In the big picture, not really a major issue.

But where are the sidewalks?

I experienced a rather puzzling moment when I began to question the planning process by which it was decided that not having sidewalks was a good idea but that having large, unmarked, unlighted and uncovered ditches on the sides of roads was the right way to go. Once again though, it’s my personal feelings at play there and not a make-or-break situation. We’re a car culture and while walking may be healthier, who am I kidding? If I’m going for a long walk I’ll do it in a park, so I’m OK. But how about folks who are risking injury every day by walking on roads while cars streak by? I worry about good people like the late Meg Menzies who put their very lives in jeopardy even as they are jogging or running to stay healthy.

The first winter I experienced in Richmond was a real eye-opener for me. Six inches of snow paralyzed the region in a way that was absolutely amazing. I heard the spokes-flack from the Virginia Department of Transportation announce that crews were working hard and would be able to have all of the primary roads “passable” within four to eight hours after the final flake fell.

Well, that’s not exactly how fast they’d get it done in western New York, I thought, but that’s pretty good. In fact, I recall being impressed with that. Then I realized that I had heard her wrong. She had not said four to eight hours, she had said 48 hours. Forty-eight hours? I’m pretty sure that’s still two full days and that was after the last flake fell. Two full days to get major roads like interstates 95 and 64 passable? Seriously? That’s just the way it is here, I was told.

Of course with the snow came the inevitable school closures. We’ll have to plow the school parking lots. We must be sure that every school bus on every single route in every part of the county can be driven without encountering so much as a wet spot. So, the schools were closed for the entire week. You know, that’s how we do things here, folks said. What about having the kids use those taxpayer-supplied laptops to work from home, I asked. We don’t do that, was the reply.

The latest head-shaking moment for me occurred a few weeks ago, when some wind-driven thunderstorms hit Central Virginia and 200,000 people lost power for days on end. How is it possible for four or five days to go by without Dominion Virginia Power being able to restore electricity to everyone, I pondered. Our crews are working very hard, I heard the designated talkers say. I have no doubt whatsoever that they were working hard, but I had to wonder if folks higher up the ladder were working smart or just letting those tired linemen work hard. Why don’t we make sure that trees near the power lines are trimmed? How about burying more power lines? Yeah, that’s just not what we do around here, people said to me.

I get that bike races and baseball stadiums generate lots of buzz. Let’s face it, world-class racers and enthusiastic baseball teams bring a certain cachet to town. I know that infrastructure isn’t exactly sexy, but without it, well let’s just say that options become much more limited. Will we bring more world-class events here because of, or in spite of, ourselves?

Central Virginia is a beautiful area filled with wonderful people. The Richmond metro area has been blessed with amazing resources and captivating attractions. Community leaders and economic development staffers are actively working hard to bring new businesses here. Affordable housing and a pleasing environment are great draws for companies that want to have happy work forces. Ballparks and bike races are nice, but if you run a company with thousands of employees, don’t you have to seriously think about how many millions of dollars and thousands of man-hours you’ll lose each year when a minimal amount of snow or rain shuts down the entire area?

We want the “come heres” to raise children who are “from heres,” but that won’t happen until more people realize that the burned-out light bulb really does need to be changed. S

Jeff Katz is the host of NewsRadio 1140 WRVA’s afternoon talk show, which can be heard weekdays from 3-6 and on the Jeff Katz 24/7 channel on iHeartRadio. You can follow him on Twitter at @jeffkatzshow, at Facebook.com/radiokatz, and reach him by email at jeff@wrva.com.

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