RICHMOND—Governor Ralph Northam announced today that the Port of Virginia was awarded a $15,500,197 federal grant through the highly competitive Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development (BUILD) transportation discretionary grants process. The U.S. Department of Transportation is investing in surface transportation infrastructure through the BUILD program. Grant applicants vied for a total of $1.5 billion in discretionary grant funding for projects supporting roads, bridges, transit, rail, ports, or intermodal transportation. The Port of Virginia project was fully funded.
Projects were evaluated based on merit criteria that included safety, economic competitiveness, quality of life, environmental protection, state of good repair, innovation, partnership, and additional non-Federal revenue for future transportation infrastructure investments.
“The Port of Virginia is a critical asset to the Commonwealth that generates jobs and serves as a gateway to global markets,” said Governor Northam. “These improvements will both enhance the safety and increase the capacity of the Virginia Inland Port, allowing the facility to receive Ultra Large Container Vessels and bringing new opportunities for international commerce to Virginia.”
The $15.5 million in BUILD grant funds will be used to build a highway bridge grade separation at the at-grade crossing on State Route 658 (Rockland Road). The project involves constructing a new bridge on State Route 658 that will run above the existing railroad tracks.
The Port is investing a total of $26 million in two projects at the Virginia Inland Port (VIP) designed to improve traffic flow and safety on a local road and expand the terminal’s overall cargo handling capabilities. The projects will be funded through two infrastructure grant programs, one federal and one state.
“The success of our multimodal transportation network depends upon the kind of collaboration that made this grant award possible,” said Secretary of Transportation Shannon Valentine. “These improvements will allow the Inland Port to more efficiently move international freight to inland markets, opening Virginia’s economy to the world.”
The VIP terminal brings The Port of Virginia 220 miles closer to inland markets and improves service throughout the Capital Region of Baltimore, Washington, and Richmond by providing rail service to the terminals in Hampton Roads. VIP also consolidates and containerizes local cargo for export. As a direct result of the VIP facility opening in 1989 to help better distribute freight inland along highways and railroads, nearly 40 manufacturing and distribution centers have located in the region, creating roughly 8,000 direct and indirect jobs.
U.S. Senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine and U.S. Representatives Barbara Comstock and Bob Goodlatte wrote to U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao in support of the BUILD grant application. The Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation and the Virginia Department of Transportation endorsed the application as well.
“This is a traffic flow and safety concern that is important to the community and we now have the funding to begin addressing this issue—we are grateful for the broad support this grant application received from members of our Congressional delegation, Virginia’s governor, regional economic development authorities, and the business community around VIP,” said CEO and Executive Director of the Virginia Port Authority John F. Reinhart. “This is an important step forward in the evolution of the Virginia Inland Port. Our container volumes are growing, and inland destinations like VIP and Richmond Marine Terminal are vital to the efficient and predictable flow of cargo. We are investing now in order to build the port of the future.”
Inside the VIP terminal, the Port is investing $3.3 million, which will be matched by $7.7 million from the state’s Rail Enhancement Fund. The $11-million project will expand capacity and improve cargo flow at VIP. The optimization project consists of building three new railroad tracks on terminal (bringing to eight the total number of railroad tracks at VIP), lengthening the existing track, and purchasing two pieces of hybrid, low-emissions cargo moving equipment.
Virginia Inland Port is located in Front Royal, which is 220 miles northwest of the Norfolk Harbor. The terminal is situated at the intersection of interstates 81 and 66 and is connected by daily train service to the Port’s deep-water terminals in the harbor. The terminal is an important inland destination for container cargo that also helps to drive significant economic investment and job creation in the surrounding community.
The Virginia Port Authority (VPA) is a political subdivision of the Commonwealth of Virginia. The VPA owns and, through its private operating subsidiary Virginia International Terminals LLC (VIT), operates four general cargo facilities: Norfolk International Terminals, Portsmouth Marine Terminal, Newport News Marine Terminal, and the Virginia Inland Port in Warren County. The VPA leases Virginia International Gateway and Richmond Marine Terminal.
A recent economic impact study from The College of William and Mary shows that The Port of Virginia helps to create more than 530,000 jobs and generated $88.4 billion in total economic impact throughout the Commonwealth on an annual basis.
Virginia works to mitigate evictions crisis, implement long-term solutions to increase housing stability
On March 5, 2021, Governor Ralph Northam announced the new Virginia Eviction Reduction Pilot (VERP) Program, which will award more than $2.6 million in grants to 14 localities to help build capacity and implement eviction prevention and diversion programs that address the underlying causes of evictions.
The funding will support several communities identified as having the highest eviction rates in the Commonwealth, including the cities of Hampton, Newport News, Norfolk, and Richmond. The four eviction prevention pilot programs in these cities will support local and regional initiatives in the counties of Gloucester, James City, Lee, Matthews, Scott, Wise, and York, as well as the cities of Norton, Poquoson, and Williamsburg.
“The affordable housing crisis predates the COVID-19 pandemic, and we have to address the underlying causes of evictions if we want to emerge stronger and continue moving Virginia forward,” said Governor Northam. “This pilot program will implement targeted, equitable solutions to help improve the overall resilience of our communities and strengthen local capacity to deliver eviction prevention services now and into the future.”
Governor Northam signed Executive Order Twenty-Five in November 2018 to prioritize efforts to reduce eviction rates and bolster housing stability across the Commonwealth. In 2019, as part of his historic budget to address affordable housing needs across Virginia, Governor Northam proposed $6.6 million, or $3.3 million per year, to establish an eviction prevention and diversion pilot program. During the 2020 Special Session, the General Assembly approved, and Governor Northam signed, a two-year budget that included $6.6 million for the pilot program. The Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development was directed to design and implement the pilot program using a coordinated systems approach to effectively prevent evictions and address immediate and long-term housing needs. This includes creating a collective impact model where organizations that serve as a safety-net within the community collaborate to ensure households have early access to resources to stabilize their housing situations. To learn more about the VERP, visit dhcd.virginia.gov/verp.
“Safe, stable housing is essential for public health, financial stability, and economic recovery,” said Secretary of Commerce and Trade Brian Ball. “These eviction prevention programs will develop a coordinated network of organizations that assist households facing housing instability and imminent evictions while providing a clear roadmap for future eviction relief.”
The COVID-19 pandemic and its resulting economic fallout have exacerbated housing instability and inequality in the Commonwealth and across the country, with disproportionate impacts on communities of color and low-income communities. Virginia has responded in part by providing rent and mortgage assistance through the Virginia Rent and Mortgage Relief Program. Localities have also utilized federal and local funds to administer their own rent relief initiatives. While state and local efforts seek to assist households facing eviction or foreclosure due to the pandemic, the goal of this pilot is to address systemic issues impacting housing insecurity and the high rate of evictions in Virginia.
Tenants and landlords currently in need of rental assistance through the Virginia Rent Relief Program should check their eligibility by completing the self-assessment at dhcd.virginia.gov/eligibility or by dialing 2-1-1 from their phones. Tenants may be eligible for rent arrears payments back to April 1, 2020, and up to three months of payments into the future. The Commonwealth remains focused on helping eligible households access resources to maintain housing stability during the COVID-19 pandemic and in the future. For additional housing resources, visit StayHomeVirginia.com.
2021 VERP Grant Awards:
United Way of the Virginia Peninsula
Gloucester, James City, Mathews, and York counties and the cities of Hampton, Newport News, Poquoson, and Williamsburg
The United Way of the Virginia Peninsula (UWVP) will provide eviction prevention services to the cities and counties on the Virginia Peninsula, specifically targeting the cities of Hampton and Newport News, which are priority areas with high rates of eviction. The grant will enable UWVP to enhance current information and referral systems, creating a network of housing solutions, and increasing the accessibility of eviction services. Funds will be used to cover rent, utilities, legal expenses, child care, and other necessities for individuals and families facing eviction. The grant award will fund two full-time advocates who will be responsible for navigating the overall services provided through the pilot program.
Housing Opportunities Made Equal of Virginia
City of Richmond
Housing Opportunities Made Equal of Virginia, Inc. (HOME) will serve the City of Richmond, a priority area with the highest rate of evictions in the Commonwealth. In partnership with the City of Richmond, Greater Richmond Bar Foundation, Firms in Service, and Central Virginia Legal Aid Society, HOME launched the Eviction Diversion Program in 2018, the first such program in the region. This funding will enable HOME to build upon the success of the Eviction Diversion Program by expanding outreach efforts to high-need communities, providing additional rental assistance, and expanding case management. The grant award will fund two additional eviction diversion counselors to work with clients providing intake, counseling, and rental assistance.
Norfolk Eviction Diversion and Support Program
City of Norfolk
This project will provide eviction prevention and diversion services to the City of Norfolk, a priority area with a high rate of evictions. The grant will allow Norfolk to fund and expand upon strategies identified in its Eviction Action Plan, developed as part of its participation in an eviction cohort sponsored by the National League of Cities in March 2020. Services will be prioritized for families with children due to the detrimental impact eviction places on children. Norfolk will work in partnership with local community organizations to provide rental assistance and other necessary services to households.
Family Crisis Support Services
Lee, Scott, and Wise counties and the City of Norton
Family Crisis Support Services Inc. (FCSS) will provide eviction prevention services for rural communities that may experience significant informal evictions not accounted for in available eviction data. FCSS will utilize their coordinated entry process in addition to working with local landlords and property managers to identify individuals and families at risk of eviction. The grant award will allow FCSS to provide case management and financial assistance to families and individuals facing eviction. As the lead agency of its local planning group, FCSS will work closely with partner organizations to reach families and coordinate services across the community.
Virginia Attorney General secures debt relief and restitution for student loan borrowers
RICHMOND (March 3, 2021) – Attorney General Mark R. Herring today announced that he has secured debt relief and restitution for 700 Virginia student loan borrowers through a settlement with Equitable Acceptance Corporation (Equitable). Under the terms of the agreement, Equitable is required to cancel over $50,000 in debt and provide $40,000 in restitution for nearly 700 Virginians. The settlement resolves allegations that Equitable violated the Virginia Consumer Protection Act (VCPA) by making loans with illegal interest rates that were used by Virginians to purchase fake student debt relief services from companies that partnered with Equitable.
“Equitable scammed Virginia student borrowers by offering them illegal loans, when they were in vulnerable positions and needed help managing their debt,” said Attorney General Herring. “Tens of thousands of Virginia student loan borrowers, like so many around the country, face enormous amounts of debt once they have finished pursuing their educations. This settlement sends a strong message that my office will not tolerate debt relief scammers like Equitable and its partners who prey on Virginians who are in tough financial situations.”
Attorney General Herring’s Complaint alleges that:
• From February 20, 2015, through August 24, 2018, Equitable offered closed-end installment loans in Virginia, but misrepresented that its loans were a form of open-end credit;
• Equitable failed to qualify for an exemption from Virginia’s general usury cap of 12% APR, but misrepresented its ability to charge interest rates exceeding 12% APR; and
• Equitable and its partners conspired to offer fake student loan debt relief services to Virginia’s student loan borrowers and misrepresented the costs associated with those services.
The settlement includes the following key terms relating to loans Equitable made during the period in question:
• Equitable remains subject to a $5.5 million civil penalty to ensure its compliance with the settlement;
• Equitable agrees to pay $40,000 in restitution for 467 Virginia consumers who paid more than their loan principal plus 12% APR;
• Equitable agrees to give up the collection of $51,657.92 in illegal interest it charged on loans with 225 Virginia consumers;
• A payment to the Commonwealth of $10,000 for its costs and fees in investigating Equitable’s alleged violations of the VCPA; and
• Permanent injunctions preventing Equitable from, among other things, financing the purchase of student loan debt relief services in Virginia.
The settlement is in the form of an Assurance of Voluntary Compliance which was filed for approval with the Circuit Court of the City of Richmond on March 2, 2021. This matter was handled by the Predatory Lending Unit of Attorney General Herring’s Consumer Protection Section. The Unit was established as a part of Attorney General Herring’s reorganization of his Consumer Protection Section, which now includes a focus on predatory lending in addition to deceptive conduct, antitrust matters, charitable solicitation, and more. During Attorney General Herring’s administration, the Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Section has recovered approximately $356 million in relief for consumers and payments from violators.
For additional information on the settlement or to file a complaint about a consumer protection matter, please contact Attorney General Herring’s Consumer Protection Section:
Dutch national affiliated with “Bugaloo Bois” arrested for illegal possession of a firearm
ABINGDON, Va.- Jaap Willem Lijbers, a Dutch national and member of the Bugaloo Bois, was arrested yesterday on a federal criminal complaint charging him with illegal possession of a firearm while being unlawfully present in the United States. Acting United States Attorney Daniel P. Bubar and Christopher R. Derrickson, Acting Special Agent in Charge of the FBI’s Richmond Division announced the arrest on March 3, 2021.
Lijbers, 26, was living in the United States on an I-94 Visa that expired on May 20, 2014. A review of immigration records showed that Lijbers never applied for adjustment or readmission.
According to court documents, Lijbers, who was residing in Raven, Virginia, frequently coordinated and communicated online with members of the Bugaloo Bois, a loosely connected group of individuals espousing violent anti-government sentiments. During some of these interactions, court documents allege that Lijbers encouraged other members of the Bugaloo Bois group to attend political rallies and commit acts of violence, including taking over government buildings. Lijbers also encouraged others to participate in violent conduct against law enforcement officers in a “pig roast.”
The investigation of the case was conducted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI). The Assistant United States Attorney Christopher Kavanaugh is prosecuting the case for the United States.
A criminal complaint is merely an accusation. The defendant is presumed innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.
Virginia Department of Elections announces completion of statewide post-election risk-limiting audit for the November 2020 election
The Virginia Department of Elections’ (ELECT) Commissioner Christopher Piper announced today that Virginia’s elections administrators have successfully completed the state’s risk-limiting audit (RLA). The audit confirmed that the original count of the votes accurately portrayed the winners of the election in Virginia for the United States President and Senate.
Pursuant to Va. Code §24.2-671.1, ELECT is required to coordinate an annual post-election RLA of ballot scanner machines used in the Commonwealth of Virginia. ELECT collaborated with VotingWorks, a non-profit organization that assists with RLAs across the country. All 133 localities in Virginia participated in the audit.
“The success of Virginia’s first statewide audit reaffirms our dedication to ensuring secure and accurate elections for our voters,” said Christopher Piper, Virginia’s Commissioner of Elections. “I am proud of the hard work that our election administrators do in the Commonwealth, and this audit further exemplifies the integrity and validity of the 2020 November General Election results”.
The statewide audit provided opportunities for all localities and the public to participate. The audit results were reported today during a meeting with Virginia’s general registrars and electoral board members. You can find a copy of the audit results on our website: www.elections.virginia.gov.
Virginia restaurants grapple with plastic foam container ban
From vermicelli bowls to crispy chicken, Pho Luca’s, a Vietnamese-owned Richmond restaurant, uses plastic foam containers to package takeout meals. That may soon change after the General Assembly recently passed a bill banning such packaging.
After negotiations on a Senate amendment, the House agreed in a 57-39 vote last week on an amendment to House Bill 1902, which bans nonprofits, local governments, and schools from using polystyrene takeout containers. The Senate passed the amended bill in a 24-15 vote.
“We’re just leveling the playing field,” said Del. Betsy B. Carr, D-Richmond, about the amendment. “So not only do restaurants, but nonprofits and schools will be subject to this ban in 2025.”
Food chains with 20 or more locations cannot package and dispense food in polystyrene containers as of July 2023. The remaining food vendors have until July 2025. Food vendors in violation of the ban can receive up to $50 in civil penalty each day of violation.
Carr said she is glad Virginia is taking the lead to curb plastic pollution and that the measure will “make our environment cleaner and safer for all of our citizens (by) not having styrofoam in the ditches and in the water and in the food that we consume.”
This is the second year the bill was sent to a conference committee. Last year’s negotiation resulted in a reenactment clause stipulating the bill couldn’t be enacted until it was approved again this year by the General Assembly.
The COVID-19 pandemic loomed over this year’s bill dispute as businesses shift to single-use packagings, such as polystyrene, to limit contamination.
Lawmakers skeptical of the polystyrene ban spoke out on the Senate floor, arguing the ban will hurt small businesses who rely on polystyrene foam containers, which are known for their cheaper cost.
“The places that give me these containers are the places that are struggling the most right now,” said Sen. Jen A. Kiggans, R-Virginia Beach.
The pandemic has financially impacted the restaurant industry. In 2020, Virginia’s food services sector lost more than 20% of its employees from 2019, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Like many small businesses, Pho Luca’s has relied on polystyrene foam takeout packaging because it is affordable and functional.
Dominic Pham, the owner of the Pho Luca’s, said he has been in contact with several vendors that sell polystyrene alternatives, but it has been a challenge for Pham to find suitable alternatives.
Pho Luca’s currently uses plastic foam containers that cost about a nickel per container, Pham said. The alternatives will cost about 55 cents more. However, Pham said he is willing to make the change, recognizing that polystyrene containers are detrimental to the environment.
Pham said he distributed surveys to consumers on the possibility of raising prices to offset the cost of polystyrene alternatives. The results were overwhelmingly positive.
“Even if we have to upcharge them a dollar for the recyclable, reusable containers, people (are) happy to do that, they don’t mind,” Pham said.
The use of plastic foam containers has risen during the COVID-19 pandemic. Several states and cities have reversed or delayed restrictions and bans on single-use plastics since April 2020, according to a USA Today report.
The pandemic also has resulted in an increase in single-use plastics, such as plastic bags and personal protective equipment. A 2020 report in the Environmental Science & Technology journal estimated plastic packaging to increase 14% as consumers seek out prepackaged items due to sanitary concerns.
Although the COVID-19 pandemic sparked renewed interest in single-use plastics, environmental organizations and businesses have spoken against the use of plastic foam containers. Polystyrene biodegrades slowly and rarely can be recycled, posing a risk to wildlife and human health, according to Environment Virginia.
MOM’s Organic Market, a mid-Atlantic grocery chain, has used compostable containers and cups since 2005.
“I think that it’s the right thing to do for the environment, for communities, for our residents,” said Alexandra DySard, the grocery chain’s environment, and partnership manager.
DySard said purchasing compostable takeout containers instead of polystyrene foam containers has not financially hurt the chain. She said using a plastic lid that can be recycled locally is a better alternative than using polystyrene foam.
Polystyrene alternatives will become more affordable and accessible the more businesses use those products, DySard said.
“If it’s a statewide change, that’s kind of the best-case scenario because everybody makes the change at once,” Dysard said. “And it’s driving demand for the product up and costs down.”
The bill now heads to the governor’s desk. If signed, Virginia will join states such as Maryland and Maine to ban polystyrene foam containers.
By David Tran
Capital News Service
Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.
Virginia lawmakers pass COVID-19 Workers’ Compensation bills
The Virginia General Assembly passed multiple bills allowing health care workers and first responders to receive workers’ compensation benefits if they are disabled or die due to COVID-19.
“We did it!” Del. Chris Hurst, D-Blacksburg, said in a Twitter post. “Health care heroes who got COVID on the job will get the retroactive workers’ comp presumption they deserve!”
Hurst’s House Bill 1985 expanded workers’ compensation benefits for health care workers “directly involved in diagnosing or treating persons known or suspected to have COVID-19,” including doctors and nurses. The bill provides coverage from March 12, 2020, until Dec. 31, 2021.
The health care worker must have been treated for COVID-19 symptoms and been diagnosed by a medical provider to qualify for compensation before July 1, 2020. The individual must have received medical treatment and a positive COVID-19 test to be eligible for compensation after July 1, 2020.
The bill also said health care workers who refuse or fail to get vaccinated for COVID-19 will not be eligible for workers’ compensation. The aforementioned rule doesn’t apply if a physician determines vaccination will risk the worker’s health.
“This is how we honor our brave health care heroes that put themselves in harm’s way to treat those infected with this horrible virus,” Hurst said in a press release. “They sacrifice for us and deserve our utmost praise and admiration, but they also deserve our help.”
There were concerns about the bill’s costs, according to Hurst. The Senate tried to remove the bill’s retroactive clause, but the bill passed the House and Senate with bipartisan support following negotiations.
The Virginia Nurses Association said the bill will make it easier for nurses to access benefits.
“Unfortunately, too many Virginia nurses caught COVID-19 while treating patients,” the association said in a Facebook post. “For those that got very sick, there is no easy way to file for workers’ compensation, and many have suffered not only physically, but financially.”
Senate Bill 1375 and HB 2207 cover workers’ compensation for first responders who are diagnosed or died from COVID-19 on or after Sept. 1 of last year. The measures include firefighters, police officers, correctional and regional jail officers, and emergency medical services workers. The bills require an official diagnosis through a positive COVID-19 test and symptoms of the disease.
The House bill, sponsored by Del. Jay Jones, D-Norfolk, originally included a retroactive clause that compensated cases going back to March 2020, but that was taken out of the legislation’s final version.
“We fought tooth and nail to provide our first responders – the real heroes of the pandemic – coverage under workers’ compensation for COVID, and we got it done,” Jones said in a Twitter post.
By Sam Fowler
Capital News Service
Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.