Richmond region remains the only major metro area without any dedicated transportation funding

Interstate 95 winds past Main Street Station in Richmond. (Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

Wednesday’s vote to implement a regional gas tax along the Interstate 81 corridor resolves a longstanding debate over how to pay for safety upgrades to a much-criticized, highly traveled roadway.

It also leaves the Richmond area as the only major metro area in the state without a dedicated source to address transit needs of local importance.

Virginia first started raising taxes for transportation on a regional basis in 2013, when the General Assembly approved Gov. Bob McDonnell proposal to increase the sales tax in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads by 0.7 percentage points.

The pool of funds is paying for major road and bridge projects to the east of Richmond and mass transit and road widenings to the north.

Then-Sen. John Watkins, a Republican who represented Powhatan, pushed to get Richmond included in the deal so that it, too, would have a fund to pay for important regional projects.

But the local delegation and local leaders couldn’t agree. Former Del. Manoli Loupassi, a Republican who represented portions of Richmond, Chesterfield and Henrico and also pushed for a regional approach to transit funding, blames lingering mistrust dating back to the annexation battles of the 1970s combined with the fact that there was no regional entity to accept and dole out the funding.

“For whatever reason, there has been an us versus them mentality in the local governments, and I think that dates to many, many years ago,” he said.

The region has since worked out the structural issues, equalizing representation between Richmond, Henrico and Chesterfield on the Richmond Metropolitan Transportation Authority, in which Richmond had previously held a controlling stake.

The cooperation issue still lingers in Loupassi’s view. “We are basically in the same posture right now as were eight years ago,” he said. “We don’t have our stuff together.”

That’s not for lack of wanting on the part of at least some members of the local delegation, even if the issue wasn’t raised this year as lawmakers addressed I-81’s issues.

Sen. Jenn McClellan, D-Richmond, said that while the Richmond area doesn’t face the same congestion issues, all of the localities have transit needs that are going unmet.

The region requested billions in funding this year from a broader state pool. It’s on track to get $60 million through the current round of funding.

In Chesterfield, rush-hour traffic has led leaders to pursue expensive interchange upgrades. Henrico has similar needs. And leaders in Richmond have long eyed more funding for mass transit.

“We have people who rely on the bus to get to work, and it’s not a particularly reliable or efficient way to travel,” McClellan said, citing studies which show that less than half of the region’s modest-wage jobs are accessible by transit from lower income neighborhoods.

All that said, the transportation package passed by lawmakers on Wednesday will benefit the Richmond region, even though it was primarily pushed by lawmakers along the 81 corridor, particularly the delegation from Roanoke, where improvements are expected to speed transit times by between 70 and 90 percent.

In addition to the regional fuel tax, the plan includes a statewide increase in truck registration fees, road taxes and diesel taxes.

Of the total money raised, nearly $151 million will go to the Interstate 81 Corridor Improvement Fund, according to Northam’s administration.

The rest will be divvied up around the state based on truck miles traveled:

  • $39.2 million for the Interstate 95 corridor
  • $27.6 million for the Interstate 64 corridor
  • $20 million for the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority
  • $42.6 million for other interstate corridor improvements