Why Are Richmond’s Roads So Bad? Mostly Money, Officials Say
Anyone who lives in Richmond long enough is probably familiar with potholes.
They are everywhere. Sometimes they’re an unwelcome surprise on a morning commute, other times they can lead to a trip to the mechanic. Richmond’s Department of Public Works has four crews attacking this daily nuisance. They’ve filled 50,000 in the last two years.
Every neighborhood in the city is affected.
“You will not find one area that is greener than the other,” says Bobby Vincent, head of Public Works. “The blood is spilled evenly throughout our city.”
Their data shows that 65 percent of Richmond’s roads are in need of repair, and it’s getting worse. Four years ago that number was less than 50 percent.
On a recent afternoon, Vincent hopped in a work van and went out to meet the pothole crews. His first stop was Monument Avenue, where city workers poured asphalt into a gaping hole. There, Vincent described the daily search as a game of whack-a-mole.
“A hole is here one week, we come back two weeks later and there’s a hole over there that’s not there today,” he said. “You’re constantly on the same street.”
But why are Richmond’s roads in such poor condition?
One reason, Vincent said, is actually what’s underneath the roads. Old streetcar lines, brick, and cobblestone make for a poor sub-surface that can cause sinkholes and cratering. Being an old city, many of Richmond’s streets also lack space to bury things like water and sewer pipes and cable lines.
Vincent said Broad Street is a good example of this.
“You have utilities on one side of Broad and utilities on the other side of Broad, and you have laterals coming from each and every last one of these businesses going out to each one of those utilities,” he said.
Doing any work on the utility lines requires the city to dig up the roads. And how they patch it can sometimes create uneven roads.
But the biggest reason the roads have gotten so bad in Richmond comes down to money. It would cost more than $100 million to repave all the city’s poor streets. Compare that to the $1.5 to $3 million Richmond typically spends on road repaving each year.
From the City of Richmond Department of Public Works' assessment of the city's streets.
The city did get $28 million from the state last year, but that mostly goes to basic maintenance, not new roads.
Richmond City Council Member Andreas Addison says the city should also be getting significantly more money.
“We put a burden on our taxpayers to make up a gap in funding for our roads. We are put at a disadvantage and its mostly because the formula used by the state to give funding to localities in Richmond,” Addison said.
The Virginia Department of Transportation maintains all of the roads in most counties and towns. For cities, however, there’s a funding formula based on lane miles. It doesn’t include street parking and alleys, which make up about 600 miles in Richmond. Put another way, it’s a gap of around $10 million per year that the City has to fill rather than spending that money on repaving.
It’s not just Richmond that has this problem: main roads in Norfolk and Virginia Beach are in roughly the same poor shape. In each of the localities, around 40 percent of their primary roads are in need of repair.
Julie Brown, head of VDOT’s Local Assistance Division, said changing the funding formula to provide more money to cities would require an act of the General Assembly.
“Essentially it boils down to there is one pot of money,” Brown said. “You can do different things, but typically someone's going to win, someone’s going to have less money.”
The last time the funding formula was changed was in 2013 when the state legislature forced VDOT to start paying for what are called primary extensions -- where state highways become locally owned main roads. There has been no concerted effort to make further changes since then, says Neal Menkes, a transportation consultant with the Virginia Municipal League.
With state-maintained counties and towns competing with cities for limited funds, Menkes said cities are unlikely to see any major changes to the state funding formula unless the state significantly increases the funding available for roads.
“New money for the cities would likely have to come from [VDOT’s] new construction budget in order to hold state maintenance harmless, but that would further exacerbate the funding needs for new construction,” he said.
It also doesn’t help that VDOT finds itself in much the same position as Richmond. Getting all of the state-maintained roads in Virginia into good shape would cost about $5 billion. They also have their own gap in basic maintenance funding. In the 2018-2019 fiscal year, VDOT had to transfer more than $182 million from new road construction to their maintenance fund.
So what’s left is for cities to go to their own taxpayers to fund anything beyond basic maintenance. Funding for road repaving hasn’t been a top priority.
“Think of it this way: For every local dollar that you put into your road maintenance program as a city, you’re taking a dollar away from your school division,” Menkes said. “Everyone’s in that same position.”
Now, Richmond is attempting to catch up by dedicating more than $3 million to road repaving and sidewalk construction, and nearly $22 million over the next five years.
Driving around the Northside, Bobby Vincent says he hopes things will look differently in the future.
“I don't want to be here to miss anymore,” he said. “I want to be able to go out here and pave where we know streets need to be paved.”
The city plans to repave 200 miles this year. That's more than double what they typically pave, but Vincent says there will still be a lot more to do.
“There's nothing more beautiful than driving down a freshly paved street and when you see people walking down a newly installed sidewalk” he said. “I want Richmond to be beautiful. I want Richmond to be clean.”
But in order to get there, he says, Richmond will need to invest.