Henrico Citizen: Buttigieg’s Henrico visit spotlights county’s model transportation project

HENRICO CITIZEN, TOM LAPPAS

On the heels of the U.S. Congress’s recent passage of the $1-trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act – a measure that is designed in large part to provide a comprehensive makeover to America’s transportation system – U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg visited Henrico Friday to observe the type of model project that federal officials hope the act spurs nationally.

Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana and former Democratic presidential candidate, joined a cadre of local and federal officials at the Woodman Road extension site in Glen Allen to talk about what is possible when public dollars help pave the way for private development. It was his second stop (following one Thursday in Charlotte, North Carolina) on a tour to promote the benefits of the act.

“If you make the right kinds of public investments, private investments will follow,” said Buttigieg, echoing similar comments made earlier on site by Henrico County Manager John Vithoulkas. “It’s a handshake between public and private that really makes things work in our country and in our communities.”

After first building a $4-million roundabout at Woodman Road and Greenwood Road, Henrico County officials now are extending Woodman Road north to connect with the River Mill and Virginia Center communities. Its latter connection will provide another key access point to the new indoor arena Henrico is building at Virginia Center and, ultimately, to the nearby GreenCity ecodistrict, a $2-billion project that will be the largest development in Henrico’s history.

The extension also will provide recreational space in the form of sidewalks and a portion of the Fall Line Trail, a $300-million, 43-mile paved path between Ashland and Petersburg that is expected to attract heavy usage when it is completed in several years.

“This [road], plus the intentional planned expansion of transit services up the Brook Road corridor…will help transform that area and this area into a destination for sports tourism, attracting hotels, new housing, restaurants and more,” Henrico Board of Supervisors Chairman and Brookland District Supervisor Dan Schmitt said during Friday’s event. “This is yet another example of how strategic investment in public infrastructure is being leveraged to attract private investment and opportunities.”

The core focus of the wide-reaching IIJA is to restore and upgrade the nation’s failing roads (one in five miles of which are in need of repair, according to federal officials) and bridges (some 45,000 of which need to be fixed).

But the act also earmarks money for a variety of other infrastructure enhancements – from investments to help airports and ports run more effectively and efficiently, to forward-looking initiatives like funding half a million electric vehicle charging stations, in anticipation of the coming wave of electric and emission-free vehicles. (General Motors announced earlier this year that it will stop making traditional gas-powered vehicles by 2035, and other companies are eyeing similar goals, while President Joe Biden announced this summer a target goal of making half of all new U.S. vehicles electric by 2030.)

The act promises more than $7 billion in funding for Virginia, some of which ultimately will flow to localities like Henrico, where Friday, with the setting sun behind them casting long shadows across fresh dirt, local and federal officials – including U.S. Senator Tim Kaine and U.S. Representatives Donald McEachin (4th District) and Abigail Spanberger (7th District) – dreamed out loud about the future.

The Woodman Road project “highlights how key infrastructural improvements, when implemented in support of leading-edge sustainability projects, are a model of prudent, sensible and environmentally conscious growth,” Schmitt said.

Added Vithoulkas: “As a county we’ve seen time and time again that smart investments in public facilities and infrastructure have a direct and positive impact on our community’s economic vitality and our quality of life. . . They also serve as a catalyst for private investment and growth.

“We certainly welcome all of the attention that infrastructure is getting in Washington.”

Spanberger viewed the Woodman Road extension as a singular example of what the IIJA may help replicate nationally in thousands of other communities.

“It creates bicycle space, it creates places for people to transit, it creates reasons to build neighborhoods and grow our community,” she said. “The truth of the matter is that our roads, our bridges, our internet infrastructure, our rails and our bike paths literally bring people together. They connect us, they remind us of our common future.

“Henrico County really continues to be a model for how we can deliver for our communities in a responsible, forward-looking, people-purpose way.”

Transportation projects, Buttigieg said, “should always be about connecting, never about dividing,” referencing an earlier trip Friday to Richmond, where he witnessed the way the 1955 construction of I-95 through Jackson Ward fractured the city’s vibrant Black neighborhood.

Of the IIJA funding, Buttigieg said simply: “We’ve gotta get it right” because another opportunity to do so with such an influx of funding likely won’t happen “in our lifetimes.”

Following his Glen Allen appearance, Buttigieg joined Spanberger for an hour-long roundtable discussion at the Henrico Government Center with 13 business leaders from the region and state, who described some of the transportation-related challenges they’re facing.

Those issues ranged from truckers having to find longer routes to circumvent bridges that can’t handle the weight their trucks are carrying (creating delays in the supply chain process) to firms like Performance Food Group fearing that it won’t be able to open on time the 21 new facilities it’s building, because the microchips necessary to run the technology each will incorporate aren’t likely to be arrive until well after the buildings themselves are completed.

“Nobody wants a federal government-owned and operated warehouse network or grocery store . . . that’s not how this is supposed to work,” said Buttigieg, who has asked for the creation of a new supply-chain czar position at the federal level. “But of course private sector operations count on public infrastructure, and we recognize the responsibility we have.”

Henrico Economic Development Authority Executive Director Anthony Romanello told Buttigieg that as much as 20% of Henrico County’s annual $27-billion economy is being held up because of labor and supply chain issues. He cited a phone call that morning with a local new car dealer in Eastern Henrico that normally might have 300 new cars on its lot but on Friday had just 5 because of that hold-up.

Development also is being delayed nationally because of a shortage of roofing insulation for new construction, Romanello said.

Participants disagreed at times about whether there is or isn’t a shortage of truck drivers; Brian Peyton of Teamsters Local 332 said there wasn’t one but that truckers simply are being misclassified too often, quitting, and later taking other jobs in the industry, while Dale Bennett of the Virginia Trucking Association took the opposite side, citing studies that have shown the industry must work to continue attracting new drivers.

“It’s a path to middle class for a lot of people,” since drivers can earn $60,000 a year or more without a college degree, Bennett said.

Several roundtable participants, including Jamie Stellwag of Richmond furniture retailer LaDiff, described the frustration of having no sense of whether products they ordered would arrive within a week or two or take four months or more to appear.

“You don’t know at this point,” Stellwag told Buttigieg and Spanberger, explaining that some items the store orders from U.S. suppliers take several months to arrive, while those coming from Canada may take only 10 days.

Complicating matters further: the challenge of reserving space on international shipping containers, the price of which has in some cases skyrocketed eight-fold or more (from $4,000 to $32,000 for a shipment in some cases, for example).

Buttigieg said that federal officials are attempting to ease shipping issues by working with large users (Walmart and others, for example) to ensure not only that their items are arriving expeditiously but that they are unloaded and moved quickly, too, in order to free up port space for smaller users that don’t have their own shipping networks.

“There are so many other customers and small to mid-size businesses that . . . certainly are not chartering their ships, don’t have the volume in terms of their contracts in order to be able to work through this the way that some of those big players do,” he said.

Gary Wood, the CEO of fiber-optic internet and cable provider Central Virginia Electric Cooperative and its subsidiary Firefly, described having to wait to connect new customers because necessary parts were sitting at a dock in North Carolina. A solar project being planned by the company earned all necessary approval in October, but the costs associated with it doubled from suppliers, and now the facility is on hold for two years.

Buttigieg told attendees that he also wants to help foster coordination between large and small organizations and government entities, to create opportunities for development “two-fers and three-fers,” whereby municipal projects could be timed to allow installation of various private utility lines simultaneously.

“The former mayor of me just goes nuts when I see [how]. . . we used to pave a beautiful new road, and then the next thing I know we’re cutting it up again for utility [installation],” Buttigieg said.

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