KOH2RVA: Day 49

Ben Campbell is an Episcopal priest, but when he starts talking about transportation he sounds like a Baptist evangelist.

Ben is the Pastoral Director at Richmond Hill, where I heard him speak on Thursday during a day-long clergy convocation on the challenges facing our city. Even though Thursday is my day off, I thought, “If First Baptist Church is serious about bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, then its pastor needs to be at this convocation!” (I sometimes have to give myself little pep-talks like that).

We first heard from Mayor Dwight Jones, who introduced the report of his anti-poverty commission. And then we heard the report itself, which suggested that the very best way to get people out of poverty is to put them to work. And then Ben Campbell began to talk about how we could get poor people to the places where entry-level jobs could be found.

He talked about the need for a “Transportation Revival,” and started with a picture of a streetcar. He said that in 1887 Richmond was famous for being the first city in the world to have a large electric street railway system. Until 1955, metro Richmond’s public transportation system was excellent. But today Richmond ranks in the bottom 10 percent of America’s top 100 cities when it comes to access to jobs by public transportation. What happened? Ben explains it like this:

In 1951 Richmond’s authorities commissioned a plan that drove a commuter road through nearly every black neighborhood in town. Interstate 95 and the Downtown Expressway together destroyed more than 2,000 homes. Other roads mutilated Fulton, Shockoe Bottom, Jackson Ward. Many of the displaced residents moved to the near white suburbs. And the displaced white residents moved across the county lines to new suburbs in the three surrounding counties. The new highways enabled them to come in and out of town, but Richmond’s bus system stopped at the county lines.

But in the 1950s, most of the jobs were inside the city limits. Now 75 percent of the jobs are in the surrounding counties. At that time, most of the retail was downtown; but today it’s in suburban shopping centers. Sixty years ago, few people in the counties needed public transportation. Today there are many who don’t have cars.

Ben introduced a proposal that would put Richmond in the top 10 percent of American cities when it comes to access to jobs by public transportation, and it’s simple: extending the bus lines on Routes 1, 60, 250, and 360 would double the number of jobs accessible to more than 50 percent of the region’s population. And not only that, but the whole region would benefit. I could get to Short Pump on the bus and catch up on my reading along the way. I could take the Airport Express and save money on parking when I travel. My neighbor could take the bus to his job at the new Amazon.com facility in Chesterfield. And the whole project could be financed by adding a half cent to the sales tax.

Why haven’t we done it already? Ben puts it bluntly:

You could say that the absence of public transportation in metro Richmond is a brutal artifact of Virginia’s segregationist government in the middle of the 20th century. And you’d be right. The buses were stopped at the city line to keep the black population in the center city. Segregation by transportation.

But today, since we have renounced segregation and the heritage of racism, that could not be the reason we haven’t done this good thing. Today, when we know that metropolitan Richmond wants to be known for a decent life, economic health and racial justice, that cannot be the reason. Today, when we have a chance to show the world that Virginia is about liberty, not bigotry, that will not be the reason.

It is just possible that we’ll do the right thing; that we’ll all profit from it; and that, for once, we’ll have a right to be truly proud of what we’ve done. We will show ourselves that we can reverse course and surmount this alleged impossibility; that we can act as one people, as we have always known we were meant to be. We will have the power and wherewithal to build an excellent public transportation system — today.

So why not?

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You can read Ben’s article in its entirety by clicking HERE

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