Chesterfield residents pay most in tolls, with least representation

Posted at 12:35 AM, May 03, 2013
and last updated 2013-05-03 09:55:28-04

CHESTERFIELD COUNTY, Va. (WTVR) - When it comes to paying tolls, Chesterfield drivers are hit the hardest.

“No taxation without representation.”

It is a cry that has been heard in Virginia since the days of Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry. But that phrase is resurfacing again, in Chesterfield County; this time not over taxes, but over tolls.

Morgan Jones is just one of thousands of central Virginia drivers who pass through, not one, but two tolls each day on their way to work, and on their way home.

“It’s just something we are trying to deal with and it’s just something that I hope will change,” said Jones.

From the Powhite Parkway to the Downtown Expressway, it’s a daily commute that has become a yearly expense.

“Over the course of the year we probably spend fourteen to fifteen hundred,” he said.

And after years of quarter tossing, Chesterfield residents like Dr. Anthony Giordano are asking for a different kind of change.

“Right now I would think three, three and three on the board from Chesterfield, Henrico and Richmond is appropriate,” said Giordano.

Giordano is talking about the Richmond Metropolitan Authority (RMA). The RMA is the board that runs parking decks, baseball stadiums, train stations and nearly every toll booth in the metro area; (Powhite Parkway extension in Chesterfield is run by VDOT, and Pocahontas Parkway is run by an Australian company) facilities that collect some $35 million a year.

The RMA was setup by the Commonwealth in 1966, to build expressways in and around Richmond. This was deemed necessary because of an increase in vehicle traffic, due to development west of the city and south of the river.

The agency is comprised of 11-appointed board members: six from Richmond, two from Chesterfield, two from Henrico and one from the state.

Richmond was given more board members because the city initially fronted the cash to build the toll roads. At the time, Richmond was also the largest jurisdiction in Central Virginia.

But times have changed

Chesterfield and Henrico now have larger populations than the city. And Richmond was recently paid back the money it loaned the RMA in the 60s.

The board’s representation however, has remained unchanged.

Many, like Republican Delegate Manoli Loupassi, believe that it’s an issue of no taxation without representation.

Loupassi, who represents Richmond and Chesterfield in the General Assembly, says the board’s numbers need to change, because no one uses the tolls as much Chesterfield residents do.

“If you are a Chesterfield County resident and you see if there is an imbalance and there are six Richmond city people on the board, you’re thinking every time they raise the tolls ‘Here we go the city is raising my tolls again,’” said Loupassi.

According to RMA data obtained by CBS 6, 64 percent of all toll users live in Chesterfield, three times more than Richmond.

“I think the city needs to understand it,” said Loupassi.

CBS 6 went to one of the RMA’s monthly meetings at the Bull and Bear club, on the 21st floor of one of Richmond’s skyscrapers.

Carlos Brown is the chairman of the board. Weeks ago, we requested an interview with Mr. Brown.  We were given a time and place to meet, but minutes before the interview was scheduled to take place Mr. Brown cancelled, but we were given no reason why.

But board member Darius Johnson, who represents the city, did speak on behalf of the attorneys and former government employees who make up the RMA. Johnson feels the board wants there to be an equal split.

“My gut feeling is yes,” he said. “The spirit is there yes we want to find a path to equalization.”

Mayor Dwight Jones, who appoints Richmond's RMA board members, agreed.

"The Mayor is all for it as long as the city's property rights are protected," mayor's spokeswoman Tammy Hawley said.

So the obvious question is why not change it?

Any change would have to be voted on by the General Assembly, where Richmond politicians have continued to speak out against it.

For three years Loupassi has introduced legislation to the General Assembly to equalize the board, and each year it failed. But the bill came close this year, and passed in the House.

But then Senator Henry Marsh had the legislation killed in committee.

Marsh, like Loupassi, also represents parts of Richmond and Chesterfield. At a recent lunch at Willow Oaks Country club, we asked him why he voted against the deal.

“I didn’t see the bill until the morning of the committee meeting. Apparently they had been working on it for months and they didn’t show it to me,” said Marsh.

Marsh has a vested interest in the workings of the RMA.

“The RMA was my entre into politics; I started out fighting the RMA,” he said.

When the toll roads were first built in Richmond, they cut right through the heart of several neighborhoods.

Much like what Interstate 95 had done to Jackson Ward in the 1950s, the downtown expressway tore apart neighborhoods like Randolph and Oregon Hill.

An estimated 900 families and businesses were forced to move.

“The downtown expressway came through and uprooted 45,000 people from their homes and a lot of them moved to the West End and then the RMA came in and uprooted them up again – the same people,” said Marsh.

Because the RMA seemed callous, Marsh said he was inspired to first run for Richmond City Council, and then the General Assembly to ensure Richmonders wouldn’t be divided again.

Now Marsh tells us, he’s open to changing the board

“They have time now to get their act together and when the bill comes back we can pass it,” said Marsh.

Changing numbers on the RMA won’t change the numbers Chesterfield drivers spend yearly, but it will change who hears their voice.

If that bill passes next year to equalize the RMA Board, it may be a year too late.

Delegate Loupassi says central Virginians missed out on hundreds of millions of dollars through a regional transportation package this session because the RMA was not equal and not organized.