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Free Riders



The responses to recent events related to the Richmond Metropolitan Authority have advanced incoherence only to expose the indefensible. Several undeniable factors drove the decision to increase tolls -- only the third such increase in the past 15 years. This reasoned and prudent increase pales in comparison with the skyrocketing and ongoing increases in the cost of living in other aspects of our society during this period.

Weightless moments of disbelief emerge from those who do not recognize that an adequate level of tolls is necessary to cover operational costs, repairs, maintenance and debt service. Failure to maintain a sound and responsible financial condition would jeopardize the authority's excellent bond rating. Carping over the necessity to ensure financial stability of the RMA represents a level of gall that does not compute to common sense. The bizarre meter goes off the scale for those who spew worthless nonsense and opposition to the need for increased tolls, which are essential and imperative to prevent the RMA from heading toward an economic iceberg.

The detractors of this reality check must be disabused of any erroneous perception concerning the decision-makers in this matter. So let's not get caught up in the political nonsense that says Chesterfield County needs more members on the RMA's board of directors — currently the county has two of the 11 seats — an idea that will most certainly become a hot topic again in the 2009 General Assembly session. But make no mistake: The authority's board of directors consists of diverse individuals from the region with proven business and professional expertise and a highly competent administrative staff. Those who are charged with the responsibility of maintaining the toll road's operations must not be deterred by persons whose rationale in the matter of tolls is implausible on its face — and grows absurd upon closer examination.

Attitude adjustment is needed in another important area. The zenith of political incivility was exceeded by the dishonorable action of Delegate Samuel Nixon, R-Chesterfield, when he introduced legislation during the past session of the General Assembly to disenfranchise Richmonders of their majority representation on the RMA's board of directors. His proposal to strip Richmond of this status was unbelievable, detestable, disdainful and unfathomable. This position was mandated because Richmond, unilaterally, built the toll road and provided the initial funding for operating subsidies during the early years.

Nixon's proposal was a shocking perversion of the pain and suffering endured by the citizens of Richmond — families were displaced and entire communities were forever altered when the toll road was built. Only de facto political tyranny would deny Richmond's majority representation on the board. Those who have advanced the contemptible action against the city of Richmond care neither for the sanctity of truth nor for the relevance of history. With the majority-white counties and a majority-black city, a race subtext emerges that harkens to a dark period of history. Those who support Delegate Nixon's dangerous viewpoint and actions would exude cultural pollution that perpetuates a hemorrhaging of trust. How can anyone justify the counties controlling an asset of the city when the toll road starts and ends in the city?

Use of the toll road is optional and tolls are user fees, which do not qualify for county control of the authority no more than the use of any other municipal facility. The indisputable requirement for parity on the board of directors of the RMA is the assumption by the counties of their pro rata share of the debt owed to the city, which still stands at more than $50 million. Any approach or proposal to the contrary would compromise Richmond's reversionary right in which ownership of the toll road reverts to Richmond when all indebtedness is met in 2022.

As a former member of the RMA's board, I suspect such admonition; the obtuse and foolhardy will always exist when it comes to the toll roads. Thus Richmond must pity, resist and reject them. Their attitudes and actions are emblematic of a shameless exploitation in the pursuit of a "free lunch" at the expense of the many sacrifices the city of Richmond, and its community, was willing to make to ensure the Powhite Parkway and the Downtown Expressway became a reality. S

Roy A. West is a former Richmond mayor and former longtime member of the Richmond Metropolitan Authority.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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