The City of Richmond officially has one year to install as many bike lanes as possible.
What’s behind the potential alternative-transit bonanza? An obscure change in the state’s local transportation funding formula that applies only to Richmond.
Under Virginia law, the amount of money a city gets from the state annually to maintain its roads is tied to how many miles of travel lanes are in that locality. So when a Virginia city converts a lane for cars to one for bikes or buses, it loses money.
A project such as the protected bike lanes planned from Monroe Park to the State Capitol take up one lane mile each way, which means the city would lose almost $40,000 every year under the formula. The potential loss caused by the construction of a planned bus rapid transit project on Broad Street, which converts 14 miles of travel lanes into bus lanes, is even greater.
Delegate Manoli Loupassi, a Republican who represents parts of Richmond, Chesterfield and Henrico, sought to change that during the General Assembly’s recently concluded session.
He was half successful. His colleagues shot down his initial proposal, which would have allowed cities to maintain full funding when they convert lanes.
But they offered him a compromise, passing a Richmond-specific exemption that expires July 1, 2016. Loupassi says he took what he could get. Enter the bike lane bonanza.
“For some reason, there’s an unwillingness to explore alternative forms of transit,” Loupassi says. “It’s hard for me to understand, but whenever you bring up bikes, it’s like, ‘Whoa, whoa — what are you trying to do here?’”
Loupassi says he thinks travel by bike is healthy and could mitigate congestion, but that cyclists shouldn’t be forced to compete with cars in general travel lanes.
State Sen. John Watkins, a Republican who represents Powhatan and parts of Richmond and Chesterfield, sits on the Senate Transportation Committee. He says he was concerned that localities might give over too much ground to bikes, riders of which he says don’t pay as much in state taxes as drivers.
He says the Transportation Committee allowed the temporary exception in deference to Richmond’s role as host of the UCI Road World Championships bike race. The exemption also will serve as a trial while lawmakers wait for a report on the subject from the state secretary of transportation.
Loupassi says he’s hopeful that the limited time period will encourage the city to move quickly on planned projects. The city is in the process of completing its bicycle master plan.
Jakob Helmboldt, Richmond’s bicycle and pedestrian coordinator, says the temporary nature of the change “will certainly lend a sense of urgency” to his work in the next year: “Anything to make sure we’re staying on task, I suppose.”