Considering a transportation alliance

Published 9:43 am Friday, July 6, 2012

by Jim Oliver

With little fanfare Hampton Roads Mayors/Chairs have started a conversation with four other regions — Greater Petersburg, Greater Richmond, Fredericksburg/Spotsylvania and Northern Virginia — that could grow into an overdue leadership movement.

The impetus for the initiative comes from deep frustration about the inability of the state to address its transportation funding crisis. In some ways, this idea to convene other regions is desperate.

After all, the groups have not met before, have no track record with each other and on the surface folks have assumed their transportation problems differ considerably. These folks have also assumed, and been told that, the regions compete with each other.

What is common is the shortage of money.

Hampton Roads Mayors/Chairs posed a bold big idea: what if the area between Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads was conceived of as a “Golden Crescent”. If someone drew a map along I-95 south from Northern Virginia and then via I-64 and Route 460 to Hampton Roads, what would the facts suggest?

The idea became eye opening. The area contains 24 percent of the state, 68 percent of the population, 72 percent of the employment and 79 percent of the state’s gross product — repeat, 79% of the Commonwealth’s economy.

In transportation terms, “the Golden Crescent” has 63 percent of the daily vehicle miles and yet only 38 percent of the lane miles. Sixty-three percent of the registered vehicles in Virginia reside in the crescent.

The Mayors and Chairs of the enlarged, super region met June 7 in Henrico County.

It was a good meeting. Most of these chief elected officials did not know their counterparts in other regions so the early parts of the meeting were focused on sharing information about their respective regional needs. They quickly agreed that their common needs were Multi-modal: rail and transit, as well as highways and bridges.

They also agreed strongly that the state has a transportation funding crisis.  For instance, by 2017 “the state runs out of transportation revenue”.  Period.  There will be no state construction funds; Virginia will be unable to provide even minimum match for available federal funds, and the state will have insufficient funds to maintain existing systems.

State transportation officials do not dispute these facts.

The Mayors/Chairs have agreed to put in writing their concerns and will most likely meet again.

What is also significant about the meeting is it may be the first constructive step in addressing a big public problem in a world where no one thinks they are in charge. None of these mayors or chairs has any real or official responsibility for state funding for transportation. They are desperately trying to help in an area where they have no power.

Shared-power is the “new normal” — where large public problems such as transportation funding are embedded in a complex system of diverse, interconnected parts. Many individuals, groups, and organizations have some stake in the problem, but no one of them has enough power to resolve it alone.

In such a world, leaders and the public cannot rely on hierarchic bureaucratic models to bring about needed change. While disciplined transportation planning is essential, even the very best such rational planning — on its own — is ineffective. Instead, leaders, at all levels, must increasingly focus on building and altering shared-power arrangements within and among organizations, and they must engage in political decision making. Strategies should be aimed at developing widely shared understanding of a public problem and potential solutions, and at building conditions to support proposed changes and eventually establish a regime of mutual gain.

The world has changed a lot. We readily admit how technological advances have impacted decision making; we agree the world is much more complex and we celebrate diversity. However, we have trouble admitting that applying the old ways of doing business to the new conditions has led to a decline in our ability to govern.

The Mayors/Chairs of Hampton Roads have taken an important first step. Let’s hope other stakeholders join: the business community, citizens and state officials.

JIM OLIVER is a former city manager in Norfolk, Portsmouth and Hampton, and is currently chairman of the Hampton Roads Center for Civic Engagement.  He can be contacted at