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The Mayor’s Paradox

Why expanding mass transit, breaking up poverty and that ever-elusive regional vision will simply have to wait.

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Mayor Dwight Jones says the city’s house must be in order before he can tackle bigger regional issues. But gauging from recent mistakes, an orderly house seems a ways off. - SCOTT ELMQUIST/FILE
  • Scott Elmquist/File
  • Mayor Dwight Jones says the city’s house must be in order before he can tackle bigger regional issues. But gauging from recent mistakes, an orderly house seems a ways off.

Mayor Dwight Jones might not be a visionary, but he can see the problem.

Moments before a researcher from the Brookings Institution presents a disturbing study of Richmond’s regional transit system last week (Surprise! City buses fail miserably in connecting the unemployed with the region’s job centers) Jones, in a subdued, pastorly cadence, sums it up with a simple declaration:

“The report … underscores that land use, economic development, housing strategies have got to be coordinated with transit decisions,” he tells the members of his anti-poverty commission Sept. 15. “We need to be serious about ameliorating poverty. And that cannot happen until we deal with the transportation issue.”

Granted, that an anti-poverty commission exists at all is progress in a city with giant pockets of debilitating poverty. And it’s no less significant that Brookings put to paper one of the key reasons this poverty is so suffocating — a regionally disconnected city bus system — and was invited to share the findings with regional political leaders. (Among the guests were Chesterfield County Administrator Jay Stegmaier and Petersburg City Manager William Johnson).

During the next 45 minutes or so, Alan Berube, a senior fellow and research director at Brookings’ Metropolitan Policy Program, explains how the city ranks 95th of the 100 metro areas in a mass transit study released earlier this year.

Nearly three-fourths of the region’s jobs — 74 percent — are inaccessible by bus, the study found. The region’s bus routes have access to only 16 percent of the low-skill jobs in the metro area. A promising 100 percent of city residents have access to transit, but the majority of those low-skill employment opportunities — the jobs realistically available to the poorest Richmonders — are in the suburbs, where transit coverage is a meager 18 percent.

The problem has vexed Richmond for decades. It isn’t going to change without a vision, Berube continues. Other metro areas have found success expanding their transit systems into the suburbs, which is particularly a problem in the South, but it takes political leaders with vision: Connect the dots, explain the desperate need for regional transit as a solution to rising energy costs, economic development and, of course, access to jobs for not just city residents but suburbanites as well.

“I think it’s something that inevitably the region needs to tackle as a region, not a collection of individual jurisdictions,” Berube told the group. “It’s something that’s going to take regional vision and, in the end, regional resources.”

Jones cites the need to connect the dots. But his words belie his actions. This is the same Jones who opposed a transit hub at Main Street Station — something that former GRTC Transit System Chief Executive John Lewis not only pushed hard for, but also raised considerable federal money to accomplish. This is the same mayor who responded indifferently to the notion that he, as the city’s top elected official, had the platform to push for expanding regional transit in an interview with Style Weekly in January.

“I understand that you want a champion, you want a president for the region. You don’t have that,” Jones said. “My understanding of mayor at large is that my first responsibility is to take care of the city of Richmond. I’ve got to set this house in order.”

This is the Jones paradox. The mayor wants us take seriously the role of transportation in ameliorating poverty — just don’t expect him to lead the discussion. He has his hands full getting the city’s house in order. But it’s been almost three years since he took office, and there’s scant evidence that his house-cleaning efforts have produced the efficient, effective City Hall he promised when he started in 2008.

If anything, the dysfunction has continued. The multitude of mistakes his staff made procuring a new city jail, the city’s lack of preparedness for Hurricane Irene, despite ample warning of the storm’s path through Central Virginia, are the most recent examples. His staff also muffed two city school construction projects and has yet to begin negotiations for a new ballpark or a Richmond Coliseum.

The cautious, deliberate mayor likes to take his time, carefully analyze the issues at hand and launch developmental studies to guide policy. But at times these efforts seem never-ending — the development plan for Shockoe Bottom, for example, is nearly three years in the making and has yet to be shown to the public. Then, oddly, Jones refuses to study options for taking over the Downtown Expressway and Powhite Parkway, even though that system could be worth hundreds of millions of dollars to the city.

At last week’s anti-poverty commission meeting, Jones derides the city’s option to take ownership of the expressway system in 2023 — once the debt is paid off in 2022, the roadway would revert to city ownership — as a political quagmire.

“There are two T’s that most of us can’t stand. The first one is taxes, and the second one is tolls. And I believe that the city of Richmond taking over the RMA would set back regional cooperation probably three generations,” Jones says.

The city would have the option to lease the road to private investors after it takes ownership, which some transportation experts say could be worth at least $500 million. During a City Council Finance Committee meeting last week, Chief Administrative Officer Byron Marshall presents the city’s deal with the Richmond Metropolitan Authority, which plans to pay back $60 million in early loans the city made to the expressway system in the early 1970s. The deal would allow the authority to refinance existing debt, which means the city wouldn’t gain ownership of the toll roads for at least another 30 years. After the meeting, Marshall explains that the mayor simply isn’t interested in taking over the road. The city charging tolls to Chesterfield County residents is, in the mayor’s eyes, simply politically untenable.

“People hate tolls. He’s not interested,” Marshall says of the mayor’s views on the city taking over the expressway system. “I don’t see that as a viable option for us.”

Meanwhile, the Jones administration continues to approach economic development, job creation and poverty reduction strategies in isolation. And while he speaks to the transportation-linked-to-poverty issue last week, it’s difficult to reconcile those views with his approach to governing. In the January interview, Jones explained how “mayor at large” under the existing charter puts regional leadership on the back-burner.

“Primarily what we wanted to do is have somebody with an at-large point of view,” he said of the switch from the old city-manager form of government, in which a ceremonial mayor was selected from within City Council ranks. “And a byproduct of that would be that you have a person who could sit at the table with the counties, the other jurisdictions, and by being the capital city perhaps might have a little more sway than a mayor who was really just a district representative.” The regional mayor, the regional champion, Jones said, is merely “a byproduct of the mayor at large idea.”

It’s more difficult to see a vision for regional transportation emerging from a mayor who sees such responsibilities as a byproduct of the office. And if it’s going to occur in the future, sometime after Jones finishes getting the city’s house in order — Richmond may be waiting for some time. S

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