I’m living proof of political risk

News source: insidebiz.com

June 1, 2012
by philip newswanger

W. Randy Wright – former Norfolk City Council member and considered the godfather of Norfolk’s light rail system The Tide – was honored as Norfolk’s Downtowner of the Year, an annual award given by the Downtown Norfolk Council to an individual who has promoted the revitalization of the city’s urban hub.

Wright will be feted at the Downtown Norfolk Council’s annual meeting June 27 at the Norfolk Waterside Marriott, starting at 11:15 a.m.

Though Wright never represented downtown Norfolk, Donna Phaneuf, chair of the Downton Norfolk Council’s board, lauded Wright for his support of programs that revitalized the city’s core, such as the city’s tax abatement program, his involvement in bringing the USS Wisconsin to the city and for his influence in getting MacArthur Center constructed.

But Wright may be best known for East Beach, an upscale neighborhood that replaced a trailer park and blighted properties, and for the first light rail system in the region, a 7.4-mile line costing $317 million.

The Virginia Transit Association lauded Wright for his involvement in the merger of Pentrans and Tidewater Regional Transit to form Hampton Roads Transit and for his role in bringing light rail to Norfolk.

Wright was also chairman of the American Public Transportation Alliance’s transit board for three years. His term ended in 2010.

Wright lost his city council seat representing Ward 5 in 2010, due in large part to his support of light rail, to Thomas “Tommy” Richard Smigiel Jr., assistant principal at Lake Taylor High School.

Wright has been busy for the past two years leveraging his experience on city council and as chairman of the city’s economic development committee.

He is president of Randy Wright & Associates and WWB Development and Consulting.

He is also president of the Hampton Roads Public Transportation Alliance, an advocacy group for public transportation in the region.

“I have just been working on business deals specializing in government relations, transportation and development,” Wright said about his time since his days on city council in an interview last week. “All the things I did for free while on city council.”

Were you surprised by the Downtowner of the Year award?

It was a pleasant surprise. It takes a lot for me to be speechless. I was extremely humbled and honored by being Downtowner of the Year. I am happy to be part of that prestigious group.

What have been your most notable achievements?

If I work off a time line, I would say that it would be the $100 million MacArthur Center. I was first chairman and then co-chair of the city’s economic development committee – for 10 years. I was in the midst of anything coming down in the city.

I inherited a mess in Ocean View. It was the challenge of all challenges. We put a face on it. Even with the recession, East Beach has continued to plow on.

Granby Street went from being a ghost town to a thriving restaurant and business community. Now with light rail, Granby Street will go to another level.

When did you champion light rail?

I took up the mantle in 1997 and was dealing with light rail in 1999 with the ill-fated referendum [in Virginia Beach]. The vote was against it 55 to 45 percent.

If the vote were held today, what do you think the vote would be?

I think it would be 55 to 45 percent the other way. In 1999, it was an advisory referendum.

There’s a political risk. I’m living proof of political risk.

How do you feel about the future of light rail today?

I feel better about it after Reality Check [a recent land-use community planning event]. I never would have thought people across the board would be talking about light rail. Everybody was talking about it.

Why is light rail and public transportation good for the region? Is it needed? Is it worth the cost?

We have got to get people out of cars. We can’t build enough roads. Everybody at Reality Check realized that we can’t solve our problems with more roads.

The city of Norfolk pays only 20 percent of the cost to move a person by bus. It’s just like road maintenance; it’s not free.

A mile of interstate highway is more than double the cost of light rail.

What do you consider your role in the furtherance of mass transit in the region?

I’m not sure. Whatever I can do, I’ll do it. Being president of the Hampton Roads Public Transportation Alliance, I have a platform.

How has your involvement with light rail and as a city council member impacted the Hampton Roads Public Transportation Alliance?

It’s fair to say that my positioning and being father of light rail hasn’t hurt HRPTA. It’s been good for HRPTA and it’s been good for Randy.

How does the Hampton Roads Public Transportation Alliance figure into the future of light rail?

It would be my hope in the near future and in the long-term HRPTA would be the voice of public transportation in the region.

Why did you make transportation your passion?

That’s a really good question. Two things, I guess. In 1996, the council’s appointee to the Tidewater Regional Transit’s board [the precursor to Hampton Roads Transit] was city council member Rev. Joe Green. Another serving on the board was John Sears. We needed someone else from council. So the mayor looked around and said who wants to be on the board and I said I did.

Growing up, my parents didn’t have a car. I rode the bus. My father was a boilermaker at the Army Terminal, which is now Virginia International Terminals, and my mother was a homemaker. I was an apprentice printer at Gatling Business Forms in Norfolk Industrial Park. I rode the bus to work every day.

I lived behind Norview Junior High School [now Norview Middle School] in Sewall’s Garden. I lived in a two-bedroom bungalow with four other children. You learned to share quickly.

Would you run for city council again?

I don’t know. I’m having fun doing what I’m doing. My family likes it.

I’ve had a good run. I’ve done things I never thought possible. I couldn’t have done anything without the support of council or Hampton Roads Transit.

There is a small component of light rail I can take credit for – the brick colored concrete embedded between the rails. It’s esthetically pleasing and good for safety.

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