By Jimmy O’Keefe
A House committee decided last Wednesday to temporarily postpone action on a comprehensive transportation bill that, in part, establishes a governing body to purchase and manage railways, something supporters said the state has gone too long without.
The House Finance Committee, citing time constraints and the bill’s complexity, will act Monday on House Bill 1414, introduced by House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax.
The bill also amends several laws related to funds, safety programs and revenue sources.
The Virginia Passenger Rail Authority would be led by a board of directors consisting of 11 members, nine of which would be appointed by the governor, and would have the power to purchase and manage railways. Eight of the members will have voting power and would represent localities across the state. The authority would be tasked to promote, sustain and expand Virginia’s passenger and commuter rail service and to increase ridership.
Danny Plaugher, executive director of Virginians for High Speed Rail, said his organization has supported the creation of a rail authority for decades. The nonprofit advocates for frequent and fast rail service throughout the state and along the East Coast.
“It creates an entity that can own real infrastructure,” Plaugher said. “The state has not been in the business of owning rail since the state sold the Richmond to D.C. corridor in the early ’90s.”
Virginia announced plans late last year to purchase rail for passenger use from CSX.
Plaugher said that rail service in Virginia has increased by about 30% in the past decade. He noted that while Virginia has been expanding train service, trains in Virginia typically run north and south, not east and west.
He noted that the state’s four-year gubernatorial terms can limit certain initiatives and priorities can change.
“One of the benefits of a rail authority really is that you can have that long term sustaining vision for the expansion of passenger rail that supersedes the changing of any gubernatorial administration,” Plaugher said.
The authority would have the power to build and maintain rail facilities, borrow money and issue bonds to finance rail facilities. It also would make rules and regulations pertaining to railways. Local authorities would be subordinate to the rail authority.
The legislation includes the establishment of a transit incentive program, which would promote transit in areas with a population over 200,000 and “reduce barriers to transit use for low-income individuals.”
The rail authority is part of a larger transportation legislation package announced Monday by Gov. Ralph Northam and legislative leaders. Together with Senate Bill 890, HB 1414 aims to increase driver safety and modernize Virginia’s transportation system.
“Virginians should be able to get to work or to school safely, without sitting in traffic,” Northam said in a statement. “This bold package will reduce congestion, transform transit and rail service, and support economic growth across Virginia.”
Both bills would reduce vehicle registration fees to $13 for private passenger cars weighing 4,000 pounds or less and $18 for private passenger cars weighing more than 4,000 pounds. It also would allocate funding for interstates and streets to meet safety targets and raise the gas tax by 4 cents each year for the next three years. The gas tax will increase from 16 cents to 20 cents in July and will reach 28 cents by 2023. After that, the gas tax will be adjusted annually based on the United States Average Consumer Price Index.
“In November, Virginians overwhelmingly demanded we take swift, decisive action to move our Commonwealth forward,” Filler-Corn said in a statement provided to Capital News Service. “I am excited to work with the Governor and my colleagues in the General Assembly to pass this legislation that will make our roads safer, commutes shorter and transform passenger and commuter rail in Virginia.”
Plaugher sees the potential establishment of the Virginia Passenger Rail Authority as a step in the right direction for Virginia transportation.
“The Passenger Rail Authority is really positioning Virginia to take hold of their transportation destiny,” Plaugher said.
After a quick overview from the state Secretary of Transportation, Shannon Valentine, the chair moved to act on the bill Monday.
“I would invite the public to also please communicate with us any questions that you might have,” said House Finance Committee Chair Vivian Watts, D-Fairfax, who advised members to thoroughly read the bill. “Thank you very much for the overview of a very large, very complex, good look to the future.”
Majority of Virginia to enter Phase Two of reopening; Richmond to remain in Phase One for now
Richmond and Northern Virginia will remain in Phase One while surrounding localities can now ease restrictions on gatherings, indoor dining, and other uses.
Governor Ralph Northam today signed Executive Order Sixty-Five and presented the second phase of the “Forward Virginia” plan to continue safely and gradually easing public health restrictions while containing the spread of COVID-19. The Governor also amended Executive Order Sixty-One directing Northern Virginia and the City of Richmond to remain in Phase One.
Most of Virginia is expected to enter Phase Two on Friday, June 5, as key statewide health metrics continue to show positive signs. Virginia’s hospital bed capacity remains stable, the percentage of people hospitalized with a positive or pending COVID-19 test is trending downward, no hospitals are reporting PPE shortages, and the percent of positive tests continues to trend downward as testing increases. The Governor and Virginia public health officials will continue to evaluate data based on the indicators laid out in April.
“Because of our collective efforts, Virginia has made tremendous progress in fighting this virus and saved lives,” said Governor Northam. “Please continue to wear a face covering, maintain physical distance, and stay home if you are high-risk or experience COVID-19 symptoms. Virginians have all sacrificed to help contain the spread of this disease, and we must remain vigilant as we take steps to slowly lift restrictions in our Commonwealth.”
Executive Order Sixty-Five modifies public health guidance in Executive Order Sixty-One and Sixty-Two and establishes guidelines for Phase Two. Northern Virginia and the City of Richmond entered Phase One on Friday, May 29, and will remain in Phase One to allow for additional monitoring of health data. Accomack County delayed reopening due to outbreaks in poultry plants, which have largely been controlled through rigorous testing. Accomack County will move to Phase Two with the rest of the Commonwealth, on Friday, June 5.
Under Phase Two, the Commonwealth will maintain a Safer at Home strategy with continued recommendations for social distancing, teleworking, and requiring individuals to wear face coverings in indoor public settings. The maximum number of individuals permitted in a social gathering will increase from 10 to 50 people. All businesses should still adhere to physical distancing guidelines, frequently clean and sanitize high contact surfaces, and continue enhanced workplace safety measures.
Restaurant and beverage establishments may offer indoor dining at 50 percent occupancy, fitness centers may open indoor areas at 30 percent occupancy, and certain recreation and entertainment venues without shared equipment may open with restrictions. These venues include museums, zoos, aquariums, botanical gardens, and outdoor concert, sporting, and performing arts venues. Swimming pools may also expand operations to both indoor and outdoor exercise, diving, and swim instruction.
The current guidelines for religious services, non-essential retail, and personal grooming services will largely remain the same in Phase Two. Overnight summer camps, most indoor entertainment venues, amusement parks, fairs, and carnivals will also remain closed in Phase Two.
Phase Two guidelines for specific sectors can be found here. Phase One guidelines sectors are available here. Visit virginia.gov/coronavirus/forwardvirginia for more information and answers to frequently asked questions.
The full text of Executive Order Sixty-Five and Order of Public Health Emergency Six is available here.
The full text of amended Executive Order Sixty-One can be found here.
Richmond Police, Mayor Stoney apologize after tear gas deployed before curfew on protesters
Protesters took to the streets of Richmond again Monday night and were met with a forceful response and the deployment of tear gas by Richmond Police – an action for which the department and Mayor Stoney later apologized.
Hundreds of protesters took to the streets of Richmond again Monday afternoon and evening to speak out after the death of George Floyd. The group organized near both the Robert E. Lee and J.E.B. Stuart Monuments on Monument Avenue and remained mainly peaceful until police approached demonstrators at the Lee statue and deployed tear gas, as can be seen below from the below Twitter video from VPM.
— VPM (@myVPM) June 1, 2020
Around the same time, reports began coming in that protesters at the Stuart monument were attempting to bring it down. A young demonstrator scaled the base of the statue and took what appeared to be a hack saw to the leg of the monument’s horse in an effort to bring it down. Police responded by calling on protesters to stand down, citing the weight of the monuments and their potential to crush bystanders.
Richmond Police and Mayor Levar Stoney later apologized for the deployment of tear gas on peaceful protesters – well below the 8:00 PM curfew – saying it was uncalled for and inviting protesters to City Hall at noon Tuesday to “apologize in person.” For its part, RPD said the officers involved had been “removed from the field” and would be subject to disciplinary action.
Chief Smith just reviewed video of gas being deployed by RPD officers near the Lee Monument and apologizes for this unwarranted action. These officers have been pulled from the field. They will be disciplined because their actions were outside dept protocols and directions given.
— Richmond Police (@RichmondPolice) June 2, 2020
Words cannot make this right, and words cannot restore the trust broken this evening.
Only action. Only action will repair this community. Come to City Hall tomorrow at noon. I want to say sorry. I want to listen.
— Levar M. Stoney (@LevarStoney) June 2, 2020
The protesters then continued marching down Franklin Street, then W. Broad Street, where things fizzled out around 10:30 PM near 14th Street.
PHOTOS: Protests continue for third day around Richmond, tear gas deployed as marchers ignore 8PM curfew
Hundreds of protesters rallied at sites around town Sunday as the third day of protests in response to the death of George Floyd took place in Richmond.
Hundreds of protesters rallied at sites around town Sunday as the third day of protests in response to the death of George Floyd took place in Richmond. Protesters gathered at peaceful rallies on Brown’s Island and at the 17th Street Farmers Market downtown on Sunday morning.
Later in the day, another group formed at the Lee and Jackson monuments on Monument Avenue in the Fan. As dusk approached, the group made their way east on Franklin Street, turning onto W. Grace Street and then Broad Street near City Hall and Children’s Hospital at VCU.
An 8:00 PM curfew put in place by Mayor Levar Stoney did not deter most protesters, who continued marching and chanting until Richmond Police deployed tear gas and pepper spray into the crowd. Slowly, over the course of an hour, protesters dispersed.
Many businesses along W. Broad Street from Arthur Ashe Boulevard to the Arts District, already left cleaning up broken glass and graffiti Sunday morning from Saturday night’s protests, were left on edge, though there were far fewer reports of property damage Sunday. Many of the businesses affected were small or minority-owned. By Sunday, many showed their support for the protests, spray painting “Black Lives Matter” or “Small/Minority-Owned” on their window coverings to both show solidarity and deter further damage.
Photographer Dave Parrish caught much of the Fan/Downtown protest Sunday afternoon and files these photos.