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State Sen. John Watkins, R-Powhatan, refuses to rub it in. Yes, Chesterfield County's political leadership wanted to derail his toll bill earlier this year -- the one that would have given the county more seats on the authority that controls the Powhite Parkway. No, he won't wag his finger: Blink twice and the tolls just might spike.

"My friends at the county wanted to sidetrack my bill," Watkins says, explaining that his proposed legislation required all three jurisdictions to agree before Chesterfield could gain additional seats. "I'm not going to say 'I told you so.'"

Not necessary. In the wake of the Richmond Metropolitan Authority's decision last week to raise tolls on the Powhite and the Downtown Expressway by 40 percent — from 50 to 70 cents — Watkins has a better idea. Start on Robious Road, wind down Route 60 to Forest Hill Avenue, pop right onto Semmes and - voil… — you're on Ninth Street downtown. When the General Assembly's in session, that's the route Watkins takes from his home in Powhatan to Capitol Square.

"I don't like to stand in line to pay a toll," Watkins says. "There are other alternatives to the Powhite."

Soon more drivers may start taking Watkins' lead. That the county chose not to follow along helped cement the toll hike — it was now or never — and all but guaranteed the issue will return full throttle in 2009. In addition to the 20-cent hike, construction on the Powhite is scheduled to begin in earnest in mid-April. The 14 toll lanes will drop to 11, and traffic patterns will begin to shift. It's all to make way for three high-speed Smart Tag lanes, but to get there expect a summer of stalling traffic and longer commutes.

"We are going to upset some folks, and we understand that," says Linda McElroy, the RMA's spokeswoman, standing just beyond a concrete divider south of the Powhite's main toll plaza last week. "We've tried to stay out of folks' way — until now."

History suggests the toll fight is just beginning. Long a sore topic for Chesterfield residents who work in the city — by far the most frequent users of the Powhite — the toll road has coincided neatly with white flight, annexation and all the pent-up racial tensions that have tainted regional politics since the RMA was formed in 1966.

It came back to roost in January. Chesterfield's delegation in the General Assembly began floating two bills to give the county more seats on the RMA's board. Of the 11 seats on the board, Richmond has six, Chesterfield and Henrico each have two, and the last member is appointed by the state transportation commissioner. The Powhite and Downtown Expressway are located within city limits, but make no mistake: Chesterfielders pay the lion's share of the tolls.

Art Warren, chairman of the Chesterfield Board of Supervisors, is really irked that the toll hike was approved without much input from county residents. That's precisely what state Delegate Sam Nixon, R-Chesterfield, and Watkins were hoping to correct during the session before their bills were tabled in committee.

Watkins' bill would have given Chesterfield the ability to increase its membership, but required all three jurisdictions to approve such a change. The county preferred the other bill, proposed by Nixon, which would have given the county more seats without the approval of the three jurisdictions.

The city, including Mayor L. Douglas Wilder, made no secret of its opposition to the bills, arguing that because it had invested millions, bulldozed neighborhoods and given up land to allow the road to be built, it needed to protect its investment.

"It kind of shows the danger of a regional authority having so much power that they are able to make decisions that the general public doesn't get the chance to have adequate input into the process," Warren says. "The fact that there is an issue over equal representation continues to gnaw at the county, and this just reinforces that fact that there isn't equal representation."

Making matters worse, Wilder decided to rub it in last week, inviting the RMA board to City Hall, along with television news cameras, to discuss regional issues shortly after the RMA voted to increase the tolls March 18. Wilder hasn't exactly endeared himself to his regional partners. And he's still in hot water after the Richmond Braves, which played at the RMA's second-most important property, The Diamond, slipped away to Greenville, S.C.

"That the RMA voted for a toll increase and that [a] meeting was held here, I think that gives the appearance of a message being sent," City Council President Bill Pantele says of the press conference convened at City Hall, which he equated to "waving a red cape" at a bull. "I worry."

To stave off the charge, Pantele wants to reach out to officials of surrounding jurisdictions with seats on the RMA board, which is what he did with Chesterfield Supervisor Dan Gecker. "I expressed to him that I hoped no offense would be taken that the meeting was held here rather than in [RMA's] offices," Pantele says.

If Wilder sent a message by bringing the RMA board to City Hall, apparently it wasn't loud enough to be heard on the other side of the James River, Gecker says. "I'll be honest with you," he says. "I didn't even know they'd met at City Hall. If there was a message, it was too subtle for me to get."

Regardless, Pantele worries.

Specifically, he worries about the $57 million the city is owed for its investment in the Powhite, in addition to the general obligation bonds used for construction and various improvements throughout the years.

The repayment date of that $57 million, he says, is in 2022. Should Wilder's message have been heard at least as far as Capitol Square, it could be enough to bring the bull charging — and to endanger the city's repayment. Nixon's bill, which would allow a Chesterfield-run RMA to snub the city, is guaranteed to reappear in January 2009.

If there's a shift in representation on the board to give the counties equal standing with the city, "there has to be provision made for that repayment," Pantele says. "The reason the city has a majority of that board is to protect its interests in that debt."

Luckily for Richmond, the General Assembly has adjourned for the year. But with a summer of traffic and a significant toll hike expected in September — not to mention a depressed economy fueled by impossible-to-predict gas prices — voters may be plenty ripe by the November elections.

For the average motorist living in the western part of Chesterfield County — which has the heaviest concentration of suburbs — a year's worth of tolls to get downtown and back five days a week will increase by about $200 a year, from $780 to $988.

"There are benefits to be had by all of us cooperating," Warren says, "as long as we all have a seat at the table, which isn't the case with the RMA." S



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