A state so right (but so wrong on transportation)
By Kenneth C. Alexander
June 10, 2012
Virginia often seems to be the most distinguished state in the country. Our colleges and universities are consistently ranked among the nation’s finest, not just in athletics but in academics as well.
According to Forbes Magazine, the top three wealthiest localities in America (and four of the top 10) are in Virginia. Every year we rank No. 1 or 2 as the best state to do business. Our gross state product is more than $423 billion.
If Virginia were a country, the International Monetary Fund would rank us among the world’s top 30 economies.
In the midst of worldwide financial turbulence, Virginia has maintained an AAA bond rating.
However, in spite of doing many things right, Virginia consistently gets one important thing wrong – transportation. Worse, Hampton Roads bears the brunt of this unending error.
During the most recent session of the General Assembly, I was proud to be at the forefront of the fight to redefine the way we fund and prioritize transportation initiatives. For too long our critical needs have been ignored, and this year the attention we received was cleverly cloaked in the form of a public-private partnership that has the potential to cost many area households at least $1,000 a year in additional transportation expenses.
Why should we shoulder this burden alone?
Our transportation needs are critical to the economic success of the entire state. We are home to the world’s largest shipyard and most efficient coal-loading facilities, which export more than 65 million tons of coal every year. Hampton Roads plays a vital role in global security as home to the world’s largest concentration of military bases and facilities. In total, our economic output is nearly one-fifth of Virginia’s entire economy. We deserve better.
In order for Virginia to maintain its status, real and equitable solutions for transportation are required right here. Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton predicts that in five to six years there will be zero funding for new projects, yet the McDonnell administration has promoted only burdensome public-private partnerships as a solution.
From this past session, it is clear that we cannot rely on Richmond to devise a proper solution. In my conversations with voters and business leaders, and correspondence sent to my office, it is clear that consensus is developing around comprehensive and fair solutions to funding transportation.
Recently, the Hampton Roads Transportation Planning Organization developed a formula to generate funds for a $1 billion project accommodating 50,000 daily users. It included either a $4.30 toll; a 9.6-cent regional gas-tax increase; or a 0.5 percent increase in the regional sales tax. Or, as an alternative, a combination of a $1.45 toll, 3-cent regional gas tax hike and 0.2 percent regional sales tax increase.
Why must we pay for a public good on a regional level when it provides significant benefit to the entire state? The state gas tax, the primary source for transportation funding, has not been raised in 25 years and is by far the lowest among neighboring states.
Transportation analysts have ranked traffic and infrastructure in Hampton Roads among the worst in the country.
In Norfolk, U.S. 58 through the Midtown Tunnel has been recognized as the most heavily traveled two-lane road east of the Mississippi. Newsweek magazine deemed westbound Interstate 64 from Tidewater Drive to the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel one of the worst rush-hour commutes in America. The Texas Transportation Institute concluded that we live in the 10th most congested large urban area, and that frequent gridlock results in the yearly loss of 34 hours in traffic and nine gallons of gas.
This is a far cry from the acclaim we normally hear, but it is the reality of our daily experience. Every Virginian must realize her/his stake in solving regional transportation crises. As we have not maintained investment in our statewide transportation network for more than a generation, improvements to roads connecting our major cities and counties – highways like U.S. 460 and 58 – are showing the effects..
When our transportation network experiences real decay, when firms find it too onerous to do business here, when people find the quality of life to be less than hospitable, how distinguished will Virginia be?
Kenneth C. Alexander, a Norfolk Democrat in the Virginia House of Delegates, was recently appointed to the Virginia Joint Commission on Transportation Accountability.
Democrat Rises in GOP-led House
When Republican House Speaker Bill Howell was re-nominated at the start of this year’s General Assembly session, Del. Kenny Alexander was called on to second the motion.
And when committee assignments were made, Alexander received a coveted seat on the powerful Rules panel that Howell chairs.
Those developments – minor tremors in Richmond, where every political turn causes chatter – signify the rise of Alexander, a Norfolk Democrat.
In the eight years since he came to the legislature in 2002, turnover and a knack for avoiding pitfalls have enabled Alexander to advance from back-bencher to influential member of the minority party.
“He’s moving up because he’s a reasonable force, a moderate force,” said Del. John Cosgrove, R-Chesapeake. “And he’s not one who will scream from a partisan standpoint.”
Alexander, 43, credits seniority as much as temperament for his ascent.
“Being partisan, you can’t get anything accomplished,” he said during a recent chat in the House of Delegates chamber. “Things here are about governance, and my position allows me to be at the table, lobbying for public policy that will benefit my district.”
But accepting a chair also comes with some hard choices.
In the first controversial vote of his short tenure on the Rules Committee, Alexander voted with Republicans earlier this month to send an income-tax bill to the House floor – a move that forced Democrats to vote on the tax increase proposal floated by former Gov. Timothy M. Kaine.
The bill was defeated, 97-0, with one abstention.
When asked why he placed Alexander on Rules, Howell said it was an acknowledgement of his status as chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus.
“He’s a very capable member and he brings a lot to the committee,” Howell said.
Alexander makes no apologies about his committee vote, because he opposed the income tax surcharge outright.
Taking such stands, Alexander added, has always been his approach. He cites as examples his public advocacy for a 1 percent sales-tax increase to pay for transportation fixes and his rejection of per-diem pay when the legislature goes into overtime.
To date, the Norfolk native has had a workmanlike career in the General Assembly.
His key policy accomplishments have come in the human-services sector – he’s successfully sponsored bills to strengthen child care regulations and to ensure that people released from state hospitals or prisons are issued legal identification.
Tall and sturdy, Alexander is a garrulous sort whose words tend to spill out of his mouth faster as each sentence progresses.
Often clad in dark, crisply pressed suits, the married father of two sons runs a mortuary business in Norfolk founded by his family. And like many businessmen, he isn’t shy about a little self-promotion.
“I was a working man back in the ’90s,” he said, pointing to news clippings on his Web site that chronicle his career path from civic activist to state lawmaker.
That work continues today, with Alexander leading a growing cadre of African American legislators in Richmond poised to flex their new muscle.
With all that responsibility, Alexander said his focus is on his House seat. He denied speculation that he’s thinking about running for state Senate in the near term.
That doesn’t mean, however, that he’s without future ambitions.
Although Alexander declines to talk about it publicly, people close to him say he’s mulling a run for governor in a few years.
Pilot writer Alicia P.Q. Wittmeyer contributed to this article.
Back to basics for grandparents
In many cases, they’ve already been parents once.
They’re grandparents, uncles and aunts raising their grandchildren, nieces and nephews – senior citizens stepping in because the parents can’t or won’t.
It’s often a “tough, tough, tough” job, a 74-year-old Portsmouth widow raising three grandchildren told staff writer Nicole Morgan.
There’s all the parental issues, plus more. There is the matter of finances, especially for those on a fixed income, the enduring mysteries of adolescent behavior, and, in some cases, the tangled emotions of a relative incarcerated or mired in drug addiction.
Add to that the uncertainty about finding help and getting it.
It’s good news then that the Rev. Clifford Barnett, pastor of Portsmouth’s Brighton Rock AME Zion Church, and the Norfolk Department of Human Services, working with the state, are reaching out to help.
They’ve scheduled meetings this month in Portsmouth and Norfolk to help people find financial, legal and education resources and network with others similarly situated.
Consider the need: In Virginia, some 107, 602 children – 6.2 percent of the state’s youngsters — live in grandparent-headed homes, according to a 2005 AARP study. Additionally, 31,076 children live with other relatives.
“There’s just been a influx of grandparents, aunts and uncles taking care of children,” says Del. Kenneth Alexander of Norfolk. He cites myriad reasons, among them crack addiction, teenage pregnancies, even multiple overseas military deployments.
Alexander was instrumental in getting the House of Delegates to pass legislation, sponsored by Sen. Yvonne B. Miller, that requires social service boards to seek out “kinship foster care” before putting kids in foster care. Relatives selected are now eligible for payments normally provided foster care providers.
The town hall meetings, Alexander said, are vital to getting word out about assistance available to grandparents and others. Sometime next month, officials will huddle to discuss their findings. All this, we hope, will lead to greater awareness about what sort of assistance is available to help grandparents and others do such important work for the second time.
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