Aug. 5 was a new day for development in downtown Richmond.
Mayor Levar Stoney unveiled striking plans for a $1.5 billion revival of the city’s urban core. Through a robust private sector contingent led by Dominion Energy CEO Thomas F. Farrell II, plans for an arena, a high-rise hotel, 2,500 apartments, and more than 1 million square feet of office space, retail and restaurants send a clear message: Live, work and play in the city.
How people get there — a new center for GRTC bus riders, better pathways for pedestrians and cyclists and updates to our aging infrastructure systems — must be a top priority. Strong roads, bridges, public transportation and sidewalks help customers reach and revel in the amenities of concerts, sporting events and businesses — and there’s much work to be done beyond city borders.
Every four years, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) publishes a national “Infrastructure Report Card” to give the public a sense of the condition and performance of key systems. Since 2009, the ASCE has conducted rolling report cards for Virginia to shine a light on state and local issues.
“It’s important that infrastructure needs downtown aren’t overlooked as [Richmond city] council starts looking at proposed solutions,” said Don Rissmeyer, a civil engineer and past president of the Virginia Section of the ASCE, who served as chairman for the 2015 Virginia infrastructure report card.
That year, which marked the last survey completed, the state’s roads earned a grade of D, based on three criteria — their condition, highway safety and traffic congestion. As the Richmond region prepares for sizable population growth over the next two decades, these basics are as critical as the glitz and glam of downtown plans. They’re expensive for households to fix and even more so for government.
Rissmeyer said the downtown area still battles older infrastructure, which hits our cars and our wallets. The ASCE’s most recent national report card noted in 2014, the average driver spent 42 hours in traffic. A 2018 study by TRIP, a nonprofit transportation research group, estimated a typical motorist spends $599 annually on repairs from substandard roads.
Across all categories — bridges, dams, drinking water, parks and recreation, rail and transit, roads, schools, solid waste, stormwater and wastewater — the ASCE’s projected price tag for Virginia repairs over the next 20 years was at least $40 billion. That’s without new projects like a coliseum, which can increase volume downtown.
Infrastructure was a top campaign issue in 2016, and even in a divided Congress, 2019 brought hope for federal action. In April, President Donald Trump and Democratic leaders agreed to a $2 trillion package for roads, bridges, water systems, broadband internet and improved power grids. But the deal stalled.
“The simple answer is that nobody can agree on where the money should come from,” wrote Julia Baumel, policy analyst for the New Center, a Washington, D.C., think tank, in its August report “Infrastructure Underinvestment: Closing the Funding Gap.”
Trump administration proposals were reliant on tax credits to spur private investment, while Democrats’ plans favored public funding. Moreover, the financial stream for improvements close to home is entangled in a complex system of public and private money, dispersed among federal, state and local entities. Layers and layers of approval often are necessary to get projects off the ground.
“The scale of our infrastructure needs is so big and the state of government finances isn’t so great,” said Ryan Clancy, a senior adviser at the New Center. “You’re going to need both public and private sector money.”
So for what solutions can state and local governments enact or lobby? Two instances of proactive approaches in Virginia include:
Legislation that generates revenue. In April, the state passed fuel taxes and truck user fees to support upgrades on Interstate 81, the Washington Metro transit system and other highways based on volume of truck travel.
Public-private partnerships (P3s) with sensible incentives. The Dulles Greenway, a 14-mile private toll road, has helped cut rush-hour times without any maintenance costs for Virginia until the state takes ownership in 2056. But the New Center and ASCE see P3s as an accompaniment, not a replacement, for public dollars.
Other possibilities outlined by the New Center include:
An initial short-term federal fuel tax hike, with a transition to a long-term mileage tax, where user fees are based on distance traveled.
A revival of Build America Bonds, which gave states subsidies toward interest on taxable debt issued, and Private Activity Bonds, which face taxes and caps that dissuade firms from pursuing infrastructure projects with some public good.
The next Virginia ASCE infrastructure report card also is in the works. “It’s not meant to oversimplify it,” Rissmeyer said of the grades. “It’s meant to create a dialogue.”
City and business leaders were creative with the coliseum proposal. Investments in our infrastructure warrant the same mindset and discussion, in Richmond and Washington.
— Chris Gentilviso