Does the metro area need better freeways or a rapid transit system?
The question might be moot. In the past few weeks, the region’s elected officials have shown that they disagree not only on what the region’s transportation priorities should be — but also on who should lead the debate.
It’s the latest iteration of regional discord that’s lurked in the background for years. Now it’s sparked by a little known organization that’s in the midst of a power play.
That group, the Metropolitan Planning Organization, distributes $25 million in federal transportation funds and includes elected representatives from nine localities, including Richmond, Henrico and Chesterfield. But rather than encourage policy talks among those officials, its meetings are mired in technical briefings on road projects.
The MPO wants to change that, says its executive director, Robert Crum. He’s in the midst of pitching a plan to raise the group’s profile, giving presentations at City Council and county boards of supervisors meetings. The pitch includes a call to banish longwinded, jargon-filled technical presentations from meetings and instead focus on facilitating talks about rapid transit systems and where they’d go. The group also would change its name and reach. Crum says the idea came out of talks among the elected officials sitting on the organization’s board.
“There’s a real hunger for an entity to take this leadership role,” Crum says, “and we think that as the federally designated transportation planning entity for the region, we’re well positioned to play that role.”
Not everyone is impressed by the proposition.
“I read it on the front of the paper and I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me,’” Delegate G. Manoli Loupassi says.
During the 2013 legislative session, Loupassi, a Republican whose district includes Richmond and Chesterfield County, attempted to create a similar transportation policy organization out of another entity — the Richmond Metropolitan Authority, or RMA, which operates the Downtown Expressway, the Powhite Parkway and a handful of parking garages. The RMA was created by the General Assembly in 1966, and includes appointed representatives from Richmond, Henrico and Chesterfield.
Under Loupassi’s plan, the RMA would become a bigger player in transit discussions, and funnel state and federal funds into projects. The legislation didn’t pass, but it’s likely to come up again during the coming session.
Democratic State Sen. Donald McEachin, whose district includes parts of Henrico County and Richmond, supports Loupassi’s plan. He says the localities have shown they’re incapable of addressing the issue. He favors a top-down approach that would transform the RMA.
“We have failed miserably in this community at bringing together a regional transportation authority,” McEachin says. “And we have failed in my judgment because of the localities. At this point, there are a number of us who think we need to do this at the state level.”
McEachin and Loupassi say they’re open to compromise — but say it would take some convincing to get them to believe the MPO is a better vehicle for the kind of change the region needs.
“I absolutely think they have good intentions. The framework for what they’re trying to do needs to be done,” Loupassi says. “I’m just not feeling the MPO — there are too many members. … Though, I could be convinced otherwise if the regional partners all agree.”
They don’t. At least not yet.
Richmond City Councilwoman Kathy Graziano says the RMA change “isn’t going to happen.” She’s blunt about it. “The RMA is too contentious,” she says. But the MPO plan could work, she says.
In Henrico, supervisors have responded to the MPO’s plan by making it clear that a lack of regional cooperation wasn’t something they consider a problem that bears addressing. Reports out of Chesterfield suggest supervisors there are similarly suspicious of the proposal. “I just need to know the answer to like — why?” Henrico Supervisor Richard “Dick” Glover says. “What is it we’re going to fix?”