Layne challenges Richmond and Hampton Roads to collaborate (2023)

Michael Martz

Before Aubrey Layne served in Richmond for eight years as secretary of both finance and transportation, he was a businessman and accountant in Hampton Roads.

Now, Layne is a senior executive at a Hampton Roads health care company and chairman of a state authority governing a system of ports that touches almost every part of Virginia’s economy.

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With a close perspective on both regions, he said this week that the Richmond and Hampton Roads areas must act with “a sense of urgency” to collaborate on big initiatives, including unified oversight of three metropolitan airports, widening the final stretch of Interstate 64, expanding passenger rail and inter-regional bike trails, and investing in offshore wind and advanced pharmaceutical manufacturing.

“Think Big. Act Boldly. Embrace Urgency” was the message Layne delivered to about 90 people at a dinner in Williamsburg on Thursday night for a conference sponsored by RVA757 Connects and the chambers of commerce for both regions to promote development of the I-64 Innovation Corridor.

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Layne served under two Democratic governors — Terry McAuliffe and Ralph Northam — and as an unpaid adviser to Gov. Glenn Youngkin, a Republican who has made economic development a top priority for Virginia.

He said it’s time for a joint authority to oversee the three airports that separately serve the Richmond area, Peninsula and Hampton Roads, just as the Metropolitan Washington Airport Authority manages Washington Dulles in Loudoun County and Reagan National in Arlington County.

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Richmond International, Norfolk International and Newport News/Williamsburg International could collaborate in the same way, instead of competing against one another within a 70-mile radius, Layne reiterated in an interview on Friday.

“Those three airports have got to be managed as a common entity,” he said. “We’re never going to get appropriate air service with those three airports unless they work together.”

Politically, it would be a daunting task for regions that generally compete against one another or among the localities that comprise them, acknowledged Brian Anderson, president and CEO of Chamber RVA and a former local elected official in Georgia.

But Anderson said combining the Richmond and Hampton Roads areas into one “megaregion” would make them “the 17th-largest economic region in the country” and make it easier to compete for big economic development projects.

“You add us together from the beach to Richmond, you’ve got something,” he said.

Layne, who was transportation secretary under McAuliffe, said Virginia also has to finish widening I-64 from two to three lanes in each direction between Richmond and Williamsburg, a $750 million project that is a top priority of Youngkin and Secretary of Transportation Shep Miller. Miller spoke earlier Thursday to 120 people gathered for the “Convergence 2022” conference.

Virginia’s new two-year budget includes $470 million in state money for the project, which also is getting financial support from transportation commissions for both regions and is awaiting a potential federal grant under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that President Joe Biden signed late last year.

But Layne also sees transportation as more than roads and airports. He also urged the two regions to work together on expanding passenger rail service, including proposed high-speed links to Raleigh, N.C., and creating a new bike trail from Richmond to Virginia Beach in time for the nation’s 250th birthday celebration in 2026.

The proposed Birthplace of America Trail would build on the popularly of the Virginia Capital Trail between Richmond and Jamestown by extending it both to the end of the Peninsula at Hampton and south of the James River through Hampton Roads to the Atlantic Ocean.

It would cost an estimated $150 million, but Layne said it — like the Fall Line Trail proposed from Ashland to Petersburg — is not about “taking away dollars from building roads.”

“We have the world looking at us [in 2026], and eco-tourism is very important,” he said in the interview.

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Layne was unsparing in the outlook if the two regions don’t work together on common priorities, especially in Hampton Roads, which he said is lagging almost every major metropolitan area in job growth, standard of living and median earnings.

“We have a choice,” he said in his presentation. “We can obsess over our past challenges, or we can focus on our future opportunities.”

One of the biggest opportunities, especially in Hampton Roads, is the development of an offshore wind industry to serve a massive wind farm proposed by Dominion Energy 27 miles off the Atlantic Coast from Virginia Beach and other offshore wind farms proposed along the East Coast.

The Dominion project currently is hung up in a dispute between the company and the State Corporation Commission over protection for monopoly electricity customers if the wind turbines don’t perform as projected, but Layne said the industry has huge potential for creating jobs and spurring economic activity.

“We need to look past the political energy discussions and focus on what do we have to do to get those folks here because it’s going to happen somewhere,” he said in the interview. “It’s already happening.”

As chairman of the board of commissioners for the Virginia Port Authority, Layne said the project also is important to support a fast-growing port that he said supports about 437,000 jobs and $100 billion in spending across the state.

Among other big opportunities he sees for the two regions is digital technology, including undersea telecommunications cables that connect Hampton Roads and the Richmond area with Europe and South America. Those cables are already driving economic development opportunities in the Richmond area, including data centers in eastern Henrico County and new manufacturing projects in Chesterfield County.

Data centers and digital networks represent one of a series of growing industry clusters, including advanced pharmaceutical manufacturing and life sciences in the Richmond and Petersburg areas.

Layne, now executive vice president of governance and external affairs at Sentara, said his company is doing its part with a health care system that incorporates both medical providers and insurers, and invests $250 million in what he called “community support.”

Sentara also is a potential investor in an advanced pharmaceutical manufacturing and research cluster in the Richmond and Tri-Cities areas to restore the nation’s stockpile of essential medicines and to make them more affordably. The players include Virginia Commonwealth University, the cities of Richmond and Petersburg, and drug manufacturers Civica, Phlow and AMPAC Fine Chemicals.

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“We are looking at it as a potential investment,” Layne said in the interview.

As a former businessman and state official, he said the regions can’t just count on state and local governments to chart their future.

“If we’re looking for government to solve our issues, that’s going to be a big mistake,” he said. “This has got to be business-led.”

mmartz@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6964

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