Central Virginia Municipalities Might Waste Their Chance To Invest in Clean Transportation

By Joe Rupp
Climate Advocate, Environment Virginia

A lot has been made -- rightly -- about the passage of the Virginia Clean Economy Act (VCEA) and how it positions Virginia as a leader on climate change policy. The bill puts Virginia on a path to 100% carbon-free electricity by 2045, making it one of only seven states nationwide fully committed to clean power.

But another bill that passed the legislature also promises to impact climate emissions in Virginia -- at least in the central part of the state. HB 1541 created the Central Virginia Transit Authority (CTVA) and established a revenue stream for local transportation projects by raising fuel taxes and sales taxes in Richmond and eight nearby counties and municipalities.

For anyone concerned about climate change and public health, the revenue generated by the CVTA presents a big opportunity. Forty eight percent of greenhouse gas emissions in Virginia come from the transportation sector and a recent report by Environment Virginia Research and Policy Center found that metro Richmond residents were exposed to 35 days of unhealthy air in 2018, thanks in large part to auto emissions. 

Getting more people out of cars and into transit is critical to curbing climate emissions. But it’s hard to do without a system that is comprehensive, convenient and well-funded. Unfortunately, per capita transit funding in the Richmond Metro area is well below average. The region spent $53 per capita on transit, ranking near the bottom of it’s national peers. 

This is where CVTA could play a role (emphasis on could). Fifteen percent of the funds generated by the CVTA throughout the region will be dedicated to GRTC. This new revenue stream could supplement existing sources like the City of Richmond and Henrico County General Funds. It could help GRTC build on the successes of the last two years, when they’ve seen a 17% increase in ridership after the rollout of a new Bus Rapid Transit line. Providing more frequent service, expanding routes as outlined in the GRTC Transit Vision Plan, investing in amenities (like benches and shelters) that make transit more attractive to residents, or planning for a transition to clean, electric buses all help get people out of single-occupancy vehicles and drive down emissions. 

Unfortunately, early indications are that localities are wasting their chance. 

Instead of using the new revenue stream to supplement current funding levels, they’re proposing to cut budgets in order to retain the status quo. Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney has proposed a FY21 budget that slashes funding for GRTC by 50% ($15.9M to $7.9M), instead looking to the CVTA to make up the difference. Henrico County has proposed a similar 50% cut ($7.6M to $3.8M). 

Tackling transportation emissions is going to require bold investments that transform how we move people around. Executives in Richmond and Henrico are missing an opportunity to build the transit system Central Virginia requires if it’s to address greenhouse gas emissions.

As we celebrate the passage of the Virginia Clean Economy Act, it’s important to remember that budget decisions like this are unfolding in municipalities all around the state… and they too will dramatically impact whether we’re able to get a handle on climate change.