Today’s Required Reading

Regional Transit: Two State Senators ‘Got It All Wrong’

Richmond Times-Dispatch May 29, 2004

Editor, Times-Dispatch: In their guest Op/Ed column, “Region Can Cooperate on Public-Private Transportation Projects,” State Senators Benjamin Lambert and John Watkins got it all wrong. The chasm between their distorted rhetoric and reality was an engraved invitation to misinformation, misdirection, and misplaced priorities.

The centerpiece of regional transportation initiatives must be sustained metropolitan mass transit, a fact omitted by the Senators. There is no validity in their blueprint of reform, which does not address the basic needs of ordinary

citizens. To do otherwise would comfort the comfortable and punish the uncomfortable.

Stating that the Richmond Metropolitan Authority “has served regional purposes in operating The Diamond,” and “a regional role in transportation has proven to be difficult,” demonstrated deficient knowledge of the RMA’s operations. A simple inquiry would have revealed that The Diamond is the least important of its successful activities.

Contrary to their incredibly inaccurate assertion, Fortune magazine’s November, 1997, issue ranked Richmond No. 10 nationally in the quality-of-life category because it had the least commute time. This has been a mark of distinction in regional transportation. For Lambert’s and Watkins’ information, “the toll road . . . stops at the city line” because of the regional mandate to do so. The RMA can only undertake projects approved by the three jurisditions and supported by their moral obligations.

The Senators’ inferential aspersion of the RMA’s cooperation in transportation matters – “if the RMA is willing to participate” – is debunked by a September, 2000, Finch Report, which stated: “Management is stable and works closely with the City of Richmond and Chesterfield and Henrico Counties.” It also stated that “this . . . working relationship has allowed management to maintain the system in good condition while keeping tolls at modest levels.”

It is difficult to suspend disbelief in the Senators’ assertion that the RMA has “not been as financially successful as [it] might have been.” This is clearly contradicted by their own comment: “The proposal [by the Powhite Parkway Partners LLC] would use the financial strength of the Downtown Expressway and the Powhite Parkway.” The RMA’s bond rating of A-minus is further evidence of its sound financial condition. In failing to search out these facts, the Senators allowed objectivity to be usurped by subjectivity at the expense of actual learning and thinking.

Disingenuousness emerges from Lambert’s and Watkins’ questioning the RMA’s potential receptiveness to a Public-Private Transportation Act (PPTA) proposal. It is bound by law to respond. Policies and procedures have been established to govern the process. Prudent action will be taken on all proposals, with no determination made until every aspect is objectively analyzed.

Among the factors that must be considered are the effects on present bondholders, the prospect for increased as well as extended tolls, and the impact on the reversionary right of Richmond. The bond indenture makes no provision for risk-taking, which would be inherent in any PPTA proposal.

One does not have to be a CPA to conclude the massive debt that would result from the proposal backed by the Senators would result in toll increases and extended tolls beyond the expiration of prsent tolls – 2023. A 20-year extension is not out of the question. In their misguided zeal to promote the interest of one entity, the Senators seem immune to the probability of vulture capitalism, which is not lurking subtly in the background but is readily apparent.

The most egregious dimension of Lambert’s and Watkins’ proposal was their silence on the irreparable harm to Richmond’s reversionary right. After all indebtedness is paid, including the subordinate obligation to the city, Richmond will own the road. This right was paid for with the unilateral pain and suffering endured by its citizens to build the road. Families were displaced and communities were disrupted. The city made the only financial investment to build the road. Membership on the board of directors of the RMA is reflective of these sacrifices.

In Lambert’s and Watkins’ comment something disturbing happened on the way from principle to practice. The Powhite Parkway Partners LLC could not have written a more self-serving commentary. Thomas Jefferson put their flawed position in its proper context: “Error of opinion can be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.” This writer ventures this reminder to the Senators: “A leader must know the last step before taking the first step.” Roy A. West, Vice Chairman, Richmond Metropolitan Authority. richmond.

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