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6 Businesses Win Funds to Address Coastal Flooding

By Kal Weinstein and Owen FitzGerald, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Six businesses will receive $1.5 million in funding as part of the first RISE Coastal Community Resilience Challenge.

With the winning funds, the businesses will create innovative technologies, services and workforce development programs to help communities along Virginia’s coastlines adapt to impending climate change.

The winners, which will receive between $160,000 and $310,000, were chosen from a pool of 51 applicants, Gov. Ralph Northam announced last week.

“As we continue to look at new ways to address the growing challenge of extreme weather events and sea level rise,” Northam said, “these six businesses will be leading the charge to develop, test and demonstrate cutting-edge products and tangible solutions to improve the resilience of our coastal communities and mitigate the growing risks to Virginians, especially in our Hampton Roads region.”

In 2017, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development awarded Virginia $120.5 million through the National Disaster Resilience Competition for solutions to combat sea-level rise in the Hampton Roads region. From that award, HUD provided $5.25 for the creation of RISE, a Norfolk-based nonprofit that provides resources and practical solutions for businesses in coastal communities.

The Coastal Community Resilience Challenge is the first initiative created by RISE. It received $1.5 million from the Resilience Innovation Fund.

RISE’s executive director, Paul Robinson, understands the magnitude of the work the organization is doing.

“Massive infrastructure projects take years and billions of dollars,” Robinson said. “By developing the Hampton Roads region as a hub of resilience innovation for entrepreneurs, we can accelerate investment in affordable and scalable solutions and establish Hampton Roads as ground zero for the resilience economy.”

Last November, Northam issued an executive order aimed at improving Virginia’s resilience to sea-level rise. It seeks to limit the harmful impacts of flooding, extreme weather events and wildfires.

Virginia officials have called the executive order one of the most significant actions by any state to improve resilience and provide protection and relief for natural disasters.

Adm. Ann Phillips, a special assistant to the governor for coastal adaptation and protection, praised the efforts of the RISE organization.

“Thanks to the hard work and success of RISE, these six entrepreneurs bring creative solutions across a range of today’s needs for our coastal communities, which will help make us more resilient as we prepare for our climate-changed future,” Phillips said.

RISE will continue to work with the six businesses, two of which will relocate from out of state to the Hampton Roads area.

The winners of the Coastal Community Resilience Challenge are:

  • Building Resilience Solutions, which will work on alternative flood resilience retrofit methods for older and historic structures against various flooding conditions.
  • Constructis Energy, which will facilitate the patenting of technology that harnesses kinetic energy from traffic to provide power to services that clear flooded roadways.
  • GROW Oyster Reefs, which will work on oyster reef restoration. This would improve the water quality of the Chesapeake Bay and help combat flooding by creating an organic seawall.
  • InfraSGA, which will build urban retrofit bio-retention systems that will decrease stormwater flooding while reducing design, construction, operation and maintenance costs.
  • Landscape Resilience Partnership, which will expedite the adoption of green infrastructure through the growth of its workforce training program. Its goal is ensuring that Hampton Roads has a network of skilled workers to design, install and maintain nature-based solutions.
  • Resilient Enterprise Solutions, which will provide financing, insurance and home-raising as a single source. In addition, the company will establish the Home Raising Training Academy in Hampton Roads.

More information about the winners and the next competition cycle can be found at www.riseresilience.org.

Virginia Coastal Towns Brace for Rising Sea Level

By Kal Weinstein and Owen FitzGerald, Capital News Service

WACHAPREAGUE, Va. — The tide is high, but this seaside town is holding on.

As the owner and operator of Seaside Eco-tours, Capt. Meriwether Payne ferries passengers from the Wachapreague Town Marina to the barrier islands just beyond the marshes of the shoreline village. The nature surrounding Virginia’s Eastern Shore is the heart of her business, but the rising sea level and the resulting increase in coastal flooding are threatening Payne’s excursions.

“There seems to be more and more days when we have to walk through water to get to the dock or have to move to a dock other than the town marina to pick up customers,” Payne said.

The Nature Conservancy of Virginia hosted a community event last month to discuss the impacts of sea-level rise in Accomack County, which encompasses the northern half of Virginia’s Eastern Shore and the approximately 200 residents of Wachapreague. At the meeting, Payne said it’s difficult getting customers to her boat during high tide.

Residents heard from the Accomack-Northampton Planning District Commission and staff from the Nature Conservancy, who spoke about planning for and responding to climate change. However, some on the Eastern Shore are skeptical about the severity of the issue.

“You will find that there are a large percentage of people on the shore that do not think anything is going to affect them in their lifetime — particularly older folks,” Payne said.

The effects of these environmental hazards are apparent more than ever on Tangier Island, which sits in the Chesapeake Bay. It has lost 67 percent of its landmass since 1850, with much of the remaining landmass expected to be underwater within the next 50 years, forcing residents to abandon their homes.

Cedar Island, in the Atlantic Ocean just off the coast of Wachapreague, is one of many barrier islands guarding the coasts of Virginia. It is a frequent destination on Payne’s tours.

For decades, the island housed dozens of residents who built homes on the land. But like Tangier, the sea slowly claimed the beaches and surrounding marshland. Some homes were lost as well. Other homeowners took it upon themselves to uproot their houses and move them inland where they would be safe. The last house was removed from the island in 2015.

Also residing in Wachapreague is the Eastern Shore Laboratory of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. The lab acts as a station for teaching as well as a site for research. While it exists primarily to study coastal ecology and marine life, the scientists there are well aware of the changes going on around them.

Richard Snyder, the lab’s director and an Eastern Shore resident, said the rise in sea level is nothing new for coastal areas of Virginia.

“Sea level has never been static. It’s always been going up and down,” Snyder said. “Now, it’s just matter of how well we adapt to it.”

The institute is changing in response to the rise in sea level, much like the residents of Cedar Island. They’re in the beginning stages of a building campaign that would move a number of administrative and research buildings inland to an area known as the “Wachapreague Highlands” because it is slightly more elevated than the surrounding area. Other buildings will be lifted and placed on stilts so they can withstand flooding that threatens their foundations.

In 2012, VIMS completed the new Seawater Laboratory in Wachapreague. With an eye toward the future, the lab was built to withstand a 13-foot storm surge. Snyder said it’s the safest building in hundreds of miles during a flood.

Snyder acknowledged that building and development in areas that are likely to be affected by flooding and sea-level rise are still occurring at an alarming rate. While some people are preparing for the worst, others are not as mindful.

“We need to be planning, and we need to be addressing these issues,” Snyder said. “But there are people going the exact opposite direction — still promoting building and investment in infrastructure in areas that in 50 years may not be viable.”

Everyone has a stake in the issue — even if they don’t own property on the coast.

“Now we have backed and invested in development in areas that flood by providing federal flood insurance,” Snyder said. “And we all now are on the hook for billions of dollars of infrastructure that’s at risk because the government has supported it and allowed loans and development in areas where honestly, we probably should never have built.”

Besides VIMS, other researchers are tracking environmental changes. They include a federal project called the U.S. Global Change Research Program.

The program recently issued its Climate Science Special Report. The study shows that globally, sea level has risen roughly 7-8 inches since 1900, with about 3 inches occurring since 1993. The report projects that sea level will rise an additional 4 to 8 inches by 2030.

Recent projections from the VIMS Center for Coastal Resources Management approximate a possible “extreme” sea-level rise on the Eastern Shore between 4.5 and 7 feet by the year 2100. That is three to four times the expected global average.

Of the roughly 15,000 homes in Accomack County, officials estimate that more than 7,700 are less than 5 feet above sea level and are therefore at a greater risk of flooding. Nearly $900 million worth of property — including churches, schools and medical facilities — are also in the range of the estimated extreme sea-level rise, according to an analysis by Climate Central, a nonprofit research group funded by private foundations.

In 2017, Virginia received a $120.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to combat sea-level rise in Hampton Roads. The funds helped create a nonprofit group called RISE, dedicated to solving environmental problems facing coastal communities.

Last week, Gov. Ralph Northam announced $1.5 million in funding for six winners of the first RISE Coastal Community Resilience Challenge. The winners will use the money to develop innovative products, services and workforce development programs designed to aid communities in adapting to climate change.

“The commonwealth is well-positioned to create and implement innovative adaptive concepts that will ensure the viability and economic vitality of coastal areas for future generations,” Northam said.

Citizens like Snyder and Payne remain optimistic in the face of not only rising waters but also skepticism many Americans have voiced about climate change.

“I think you’ve got a lot of people that don’t believe it,” Payne said. “Fortunately, my boat floats on top of whatever the sea level rises to.”

Northam Signs Proclamation Recognizing Victims of Violent Crimes

By Owen FitzGerald, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Gov. Ralph Northam signed a proclamation Tuesday declaring April 7-13 as Crime Victims’ Rights Week. Northam emphasized that it is important to treat crime victims with fairness, dignity and respect.

“We have come a long way in understanding the needs of victims since Virginia’s Code was amended to include victims’ rights in 1995,” Northam said. “Victim advocates make it possible for those affected by crime to begin healing, and Crime Victims’ Rights Week is a tremendous opportunity to recognize the important work of the dedicated professionals that serve victims of crime, helping them to access critical support and reclaim their lives.”

Northam, joined by Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security Brian J. Moran, signed the proclamation at an event sponsored by the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services. DCJS provides more than $60 million in funding and technical support to 420 crime victims projects and agencies across Virginia.

Crime Victims’ Rights Week was established in 1981 to raise awareness of the needs of crime victims and to honor those working to assist them. This year’s theme — Honoring Our Past, Creating Hope for the Future — was chosen to recognize the progress being made in serving victims, and to thank those who have worked for years to help victims of crime.

Smaller victim assistance programs and advocacy groups work with larger organizations to expand public awareness of crime victims’ rights and available services. Those organizations include the Virginia Department of Health, the Virginia Department of Social Services, the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development, the Virginia Victims Fund, the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance, and the Virginia Victim Assistance Network.

“We continue to strive for an innovative and collaborative approach to support victims of crime in our communities,” Moran said. “Partnerships among victim advocates, public safety, and community organizations are essential to ensure the complex needs of victims are met.”

Additional information about victims’ services is available on the DCJS website at www.dcjs.virginia.gov.

Northern Virginia Road Projects Get $1 Billion Investment

By Owen FitzGerald, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Virginia and private partner Transurban will invest over $1 billion in four transportation projects in Northern Virginia andFredericksburg, state officials announced Tuesday. The projects are designed to reduce traffic congestion and improve connectivity on Interstates 495 and 95.

“Creating opportunity for all Virginians no matter who they are or where they live depends on having a safe, reliable transportation network,” Gov. Ralph Northam said. “People need good transportation — be it road, transit or other options — to get to work and businesses need it to move goods.”

Secretary of Transportation Shannon Valentine said the projects include a two-and-a-half mile extension of the express lanes of I-495 north to the American Legion Bridge and the Maryland border. The Capital Beltway Express Lanes Northern Extensions, or Project NEXT, will require no public funding from the state, Valentine said.

She said the project will address one of the “worst bottlenecks in the region” and reduce cut-through traffic in nearby McLean neighborhoods.

Valentine, who oversees the Virginia Department of Transportation, said Project NEXT will connect Virginia to Maryland by creating direct access to the American Legion Bridge, the George Washington Parkway and the Dulles Toll Road.

Officials also announced a new auxiliary lane that would seek to reduce bottleneck traffic on the Occoquan Bridge.

“The I-95 bottleneck at the Occoquan Bridge has been a source of personal frustration and time stuck in traffic—valuable time that could be spent with family,” said Sen. Jeremy McPike of Prince William County. “With funding now in place, VDOT will begin the design and construction that our community has sought for years.”

The Occoquan Auxiliary Lane will connect the southbound Route 123 ramp onto I-95 with the westbound off-ramp of Prince William Parkway.

Also announced was the addition of a new reversible ramp that would improve access Potomac Mills and Sentara Virginia Medical Center. The ramp would connect existing I-95 express lanes directly to Opitz Boulevard where the facility is located.

Lastly, a plan was finalized to extend the I-95 express lanes in Fredericksburg — a 10-mile extension expected to increase the highway’s capacity by 66 percent during peak hours. The Fredericksburg Extension Project, or Fred Ex, was initially announced in January 2018. Construction will begin later this year and is expected to be finished by the fall of 2022.

Transurban President Jennifer Aument spoke about her company’s long history working with Virginia to solve “major transportation challenges.”

“With expanded capacity and new connections to commuter routes and commercial centers,” Aument said, “we are committed to delivering transportation solutions that keep travelers moving faster and safer throughout Northern Virginia.”

Live-Streaming Fosters Transparency in the General Assembly

By Owen FitzGerald, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — As legislators gather in Richmond for the 2019 General Assembly session, citizens in the far corners of the commonwealth might feel distanced from their elected representatives. But any computer or cellphone user with internet access can watch live and recorded video of state lawmakers in action.

The House and Senate each live-stream their committee meetings and floor sessions. And the advocacy group Progress Virginia broadcasts subcommittee meetings over the internet.

ProgressVA launched its Eyes on Richmond project in 2017 before the legislative session. Initially, the program live-streamed both committee and subcommittee meetings — because at the time, the House and Senate provided video only of their floor sessions. Since then, state officials have started live-streaming the committees; so ProgressVA now focuses on subcommittees.

The importance of public access to subcommittee meetings cannot be overstated, as many important pieces of legislation are often killed at that level. Anna Scholl, executive director at ProgressVA, said the results of subcommittee votes would often remain unknown to the public.

“When we started Eyes on Richmond,” Scholl said, “it was standard for bills to pass or fail on unrecorded voice votes, and it was often impossible to know how a particular legislator voted on important bills unless you were in the room when it happened.”

That is why ProgressVA has put “legislative fellows” – college interns – in the room, equipped with a cellphone and tripod to provide live online video of government meetings.

Program Director Ashleigh Crocker said live-streaming the subcommittee-level meetings allows citizens to engage with their representatives as they decide the fate of legislation.

“We thought it was really important that citizens from across the Commonwealth be able to know how legislators were voting when they were coming to Richmond to represent them,” Crocker said.

In its first year, the Eyes on Richmond program won the Virginia Coalition for Open Government’s Laurence E. Richardson’s Citizen Award. The coalition, along with ProgressVA, is a part of Transparency Virginia, a collection of advocacy groups and nonprofit organizations assembled to promote transparency in the General Assembly on every level.

Both the House and Senate began recording and archiving committee meetings during the 2018 session in response to a bipartisan effort from the Virginia Transparency Caucus, co-founded by Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria, and Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield. Likewise, the House of Delegates began recording subcommittee votes in 2018 following a push from the Transparency Caucus.

Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, said the General Assembly has done a commendable job retrofitting meeting rooms to allow for the recording and streaming of committee meetings. But the work of ProgressVA to give citizens insight into subcommittee meetings has been vital to the cause of transparency in the state government, Rhyne added.

“General Assembly transparency is important because it is the work of the people,” Rhyne said. “They are making decisions that affect us as individuals and as workers and as members of various organizations and groups.”

How to watch the General Assembly online

House floor sessions:

https://virginiageneralassembly.gov/house/chamber/chamberstream.php

House committee meetings:

https://publications.virginiageneralassembly.gov/display_publication/209

Senate committee meetings and floor sessions:

https://virginia-senate.granicus.com/ViewPublisher.php?view_id=3

Subcommittee meetings covered by ProgressVA:

https://eyesonrichmond.org/

 

Gov. Northam Backs Plan to Fund I-81 Improvements with Tolls

Gov. Northam, backed by a bipartisan group of legislators, introduces the I-81 Corridor Improvement Fund, a program that would use tolls to fund nearly $4 billion of estimated improvements to the interstate.

By Owen FitzGerald, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Flanked by a bipartisan group of state legislators, Gov. Ralph Northam announced plans Tuesday to move forward with legislation that would use tolls to fund improvements on Interstate 81.

I-81 spans 325 miles across western Virginia, connects six metro areas and links 30 institutions of higher education.

The program, known as the I-81 Corridor Improvement Fund, would be supported by tolls along the expanse of the interstate. Owners of cars and small trucks would be able to purchase an annual pass for a fixed yearly fee of $30.

“Interstate 81 is the economic engine of western Virginia, and it’s time we take decisive action to enhance the safety and improve the reliability of this key corridor,” Northam said.

Northam said I-81 has a “clear safety problem,” with an average of about 2,000 crashes annually, including 45 vehicular accidents that took more than four hours to clear.

The chief patrons of the legislation are Republican Sens. Mark Obenshain of Rockingham and Charles Carrico of Grayson. Three other legislators — all Republicans with districts intersected by I-81 — are also sponsoring the proposal: Sen. Emmett Hanger of Augusta, Sen. Jill Vogel of Fauquier, and Del. Richard Bell of Staunton.

A yearlong study by the Commonwealth Transportation Board concluded that the I-81 corridor needs $2.2 billion of improvements. The governor said these changes would prevent 450 crashes each year.

The improvements seek to enhance traffic safety and reliability along the interstate, where an estimated 11 million commercial trucks travel annually.

Other interstates currently have dedicated funding sources. Regional taxes and tolls are used to fund improvements to those roadways, the governor said.

The tolls implemented along the I-81 corridor, which are currently drafted at 17 cents per mile, would be among the lowest in the nation — the second cheapest east of the Mississippi River, according to Transportation Secretary Shannon Valentine. The exact price of tolls along the interstate would be determined at a later date by the Commonwealth Transportation Board.

The governor, along with Obenshain and Del. Steve Landes, R-Augusta, stressed that the program is designed to remove the “undue burden” of citizens who live along the I-81 corridor.

“The hard-working citizens in the communities on the I-81 Corridor deserve a viable, long-term solution to the challenges of travel along this route,” Landes said. “A focus on key improvements and dedicated funding for the corridor will positively affect those who rely on it every day.”

Obenshain added, “We have a tremendous opportunity to address long-standing issues on the I-81 Corridor. I will continue to work with the Northam administration and with my colleagues in the General Assembly in hope that we can find bipartisan solutions to the critical reliability and safety issues in this region of the Commonwealth.”

Members of Virginia’s congressional delegation believe that I-81 needs an additional $2 billion in improvements beyond those proposed by state officials, Landes said. He said the additional improvements would require funding from the federal government.

“It’s an interstate system, not an ‘intra-state’ system,” Landes said.

The I-81 Corridor Improvement Plan can be found at www.va81corridor.org.

Gov. Northam Touts Bills on Voting Rights and Campaign Financing

By Owen FitzGerald, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Gov. Ralph Northam introduced two legislative proposals at a press conference Monday aimed at improving voting access and transparency in the campaign finance system.

One proposal would allow Virginians to vote absentee without having to provide an excuse — legislation the governor said would reduce crowds at the polls on Election Day.  The current law, which Northam called “arbitrary,” requires citizens to give one of 20 reasons to vote absentee.

Northam said that voting in the days before an election is “just as American” as waiting in line at the polls and that similar proposals have been made since the 1990s.  Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, is sponsoring the legislation in the Senate (SB 1035) and Del. Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, is sponsoring it in the House (HB 1641).

The Democratic governor also endorsed legislation to repeal the Virginia law requiring voters to present a photo ID to be able to cast their vote.

“While photo ID laws are intended to reduce voter fraud, very little such voter fraud actually exists,” Northam said.  “Instead of fixing the problem, the photo ID law just makes it harder for people, especially minority voters or low-income voters, to lawfully vote.”

This proposal will be sponsored by Locke and Del. Kaye Kory, D-Fairfax.

The Democrats also want legislation that limits campaign donations and restricts how candidates can spend political contributions.

Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, is sponsoring legislation (SB 1146) that would limit individual donations to $10,000 per candidate during a given election cycle. Virginia is one of only 11 remaining states that have no limits on campaign contributions.

“There’s too much big money in politics,” Petersen said. “We need some reasonable limits on what people can contribute in order to keep the process honest.”

A second proposal to be sponsored by Del. Elizabeth Guzman would ban corporate and business campaign donations.  It also would ban corporations or businesses from making direct contributions to their own political action committees.

“Our Commonwealth has an opportunity to reform campaign finance laws by banning direct corporate and business donations,” Guzman stated. “Virginians want legislators who represent their interests, and this reform will foster more trust in the legislative process.”

Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, is the sponsor of a bill (HB 1699) to ban candidates from using campaign money for personal expenses.

A spokesman for the Republican Party said GOP officials would not comment on the legislation until they had read over the proposals in full.

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