An old organization is trying to forge a new identity as the leader of regional discussions about transportation priorities in the Richmond region and how to pay for them.
The Richmond Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, designated by the federal government to oversee transportation planning and distribute federal funds for priorities in the region, is trying to remake its public image.
The organization proposes to change its name, broaden its geographical footprint, elevate the role of elected officials, and spend less time on arcane reg-
ulatory standards in order to focus on the big picture for the future of transportation projects in the nine- jurisdiction region.
"There is a real hunger in this region for some entity to take the leadership role in transportation policy issues," Robert A. Crum Jr., executive director of the Richmond Regional Planning District Commission and a member of the MPO board, told the Richmond City Council in a briefing Monday.
The regional initiative comes less than three months after a landmark Virginia law took effect to raise more than $4 billion for state transportation needs and an additional $2.6 billion for regional projects in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads.
The Richmond region does not qualify for any of the taxes and fees the state will levy in those two regions of the state to raise money for transportation, but some local legislative
leaders have pushed for a regional entity to help set priorities.
"It's of interest to me," said
Sen. John Watkins, R-Pow- hatan, who was unaware of the MPO initiative. "We need to have an effective regional organization that can prioritize projects and work to get the funding that's needed to those projects."
Watkins and other legislators have looked to the Richmond Metropolitan Authority as a potential vehicle for the larger region because of its ability to issue bonds, but the authority has been crippled by an ongoing dispute among Richmond, Chesterfield County and Henrico County over equalizing political representation on a board now dominated by the city.
Regional planning officials say the best option is the organization that already is designated to allocate federal transportation
funds and oversees transportation planning for an area that encompasses all or part of the nine jurisdictions.
"We think this is a significant opportunity to take advantage of an entity that is already functioning and transform it into a leader for transportation policy questions," Crum said.
Crum briefed the Hanover County Board of Supervisors this month and is scheduled to appear before the Henrico County Board of Supervisors today as part of a series of presentations planned in all nine jurisdictions in the planning district.
Henrico County Administrator John A. Vithoulkas questioned whether the MPO is well-suited for such an expansive role.
"You have an entity with a pretty defined mission," Vithoulkas said. "Can you shoehorn that into something other than what it was intended to be?"
One proposed change that has been well-re- ceived is to change the name to the Richmond Region Transportation Planning Organization to make clear to the public what the entity actually does.
"I'm very much in favor of the name change and making it a little bit more clear what it's all about," said W. Canova Peterson IV, chairman of the Hanover board and a member of the MPO Executive Committee.
Peterson and other local officials are less sure about a proposal to broaden the area covered by the organization to encompass rural portions of the counties of Powhatan, Goochland, New Kent and Charles City.
"The issue has come up before and didn't gain any traction," said Hanover County Administrator Cecil R. "Rhu" Harris.
The concern for urban and suburban areas is the potential for increased competition for the $24 million in federal funds the organization distributes each year, in large part to ease traffic congestion and the air quality problems that come with it.