Sen. John Watkins, R-Powhatan, issued a call for regional leadership and unity on transportation issues in the Richmond metropolitan area on Thursday, throwing his political weight behind a new effort to raise the stature of a low-key, regional transportation planning organization.
But Watkins' words of encouragement to the Richmond Area Metropolitan Planning Organization were countered immediately by Henrico County Supervisor Patricia S. O'Bannon, who took a hard stand against giving the organization a lead role on regional transportation issues.
The exchange, during a meeting of the MPO board of directors at the Richmond Regional Planning District Commission, highlighted a sharpening debate over multiple efforts to establish a strong regional body to set transportation priorities and, potentially, allocate state-levied funds to pay for them.
Watkins played a pivotal role in passage of landmark legislation this year to raise $6 billion in new revenues for transportation improvements over the next 10 years, including $2 billion for
Seeking a change
The effort to reshape the Richmond Area Metropolitan Planning Organization was begun by its chairman.
regional initiatives in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, but none for the nine localities in the Richmond region.
He did not endorse specific proposals before the MPO, but pushed the organization to move forward on the issue of regional transportation planning.
"I want to encourage this MPO to get involved in that process to ensure that the Richmond metropolitan area is given due consideration when it comes to things like funding and planning for transportation needs," he said in a guest appearance before the MPO board in South Richmond.
"There's got to be a voice that speaks for the region," he said.
But the push to reposition the federally designated planning organization -- as well as a separate attempt to expand the mission of the Richmond Metropolitan Authority -- has been met with skepticism in Henrico, which successfully opposed a proposal by Watkins five years ago to establish a regional transportation authority in the Richmond area.
In an executive committee meeting prior to the full board meeting, O'Ban- non challenged a survey sent to members of the organization by its staff, which asked if they believed the MPO should "play a lead role in regional transportation policy and planning efforts."
The Tuckahoe District supervisor said the question had not been discussed by the MPO Executive Committee last month when it forwarded recommendations to the board for four changes in the organization's structuring and operating procedures aimed at focusing on transportation policy discussions by elected leaders in the region.
"There was no discussion of taking the lead," said O'Bannon, who added that her answer would have been "a resounding 'no.'"
O'Bannon asked Wat- kins whether he was advocating creation of a regional transportation authority with taxing powers and the ability to oversee locally administered road systems, such as Henrico's.
Watkins responded that the General Assembly -- not local governments -- imposed new taxes in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads to pay for major transportation initiatives in those regions, which include cities and one county, Arlington, that also manage their own road systems.
"It's a matter of leadership and wanting to work together," he said.
O'Bannon's husband, Del. John M. O'Bannon III, R-Henrico, was among local legislators who opposed including the Richmond region in the legislation's provisions for additional taxes to pay for regional priorities. One of his main reasons was the region's lack of consensus or readiness to handle the funding.
"I still feel pretty firmly that before we can do anything at the state level, there's got to be a lot of work done at the local and regional level," Del. O'Bannon said last spring. "We can't do this from the top down."
Watkins' message was welcomed by Chesterfield County Supervisor James Holland, who said, "Unity is what it takes."