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Shawn Yu illustration
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Former Richmond City Council president Bill Pantele proposed a free circulator system of trolleys with tires in 2008. The idea went nowhere. Jay Paul photo
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Founded in 2009, To the Bottom and Back, a nonprofit, runs two after-hours routes similar to the ones Pantele proposed in 2008. Jay Paul photo
As Keith Gilbert steps off Bus No. 37 on a chilly November morning, traffic whistles past on Chamberlayne Avenue, a reminder that Gilbert's lack of a car keeps him loyal to the Greater Richmond Transit Authority. The bus doors clamp shut, spitting Gilbert, an unemployed painter who's looking for work, into a haze of drizzle and diesel fumes. Gilbert rides the No. 37 daily. He walks a mile from his home on Crenshaw Avenue to this stop — the corner of Chamberlayne and Azalea avenues. His ride to and from Broad Street is fast and affordable: "In the morning, it takes exactly 14 minutes," he says. While the GRTC gets the job done for riders like Gilbert, there's another side of the region where it fails. In the suburbs, Richmonders with means have yet to be given any compelling reason to park their cars in favor of a long bus ride. GRTC is not mass transit for the masses.
Those suburbs, sprawling to the west and south, are where GRTC does not often venture, where the region's newer employment centers and subdivisions account for the bulk of the area's wealth. Politics, money and whispered class tensions have prevented GRTC's buses from penetrating Henrico and Chesterfield counties, forcing it to provide stunted service along routes that have hardly changed since Richmond's electric trolley system ceased 61 years ago. (See "Profound Loss." )
But just as the removal of the trolley system hastened the decay of the city's commercial corridors, new political and economic forces — which have leaders talking about how to win big federal money for mass-transit projects — renew the question of how public transportation might be used to reverse that decay. Mass transit is central to the plans of leaders like Mayor Dwight C. Jones who want to create a more walkable, environmentally friendly and modern city, but whether GRTC, with all its political and social baggage, is the bus to get us there is a big question.
"We should scrap it," says John Lewis, GRTC's former chief executive, fed up with his own bus system's inability to negotiate obstacles that prevent its improvement: The lack of a dedicated funding stream is top among his complaints. And then there's the lack of GRTC control over what routes it will run. And don't get him started on the regional resistance to developing a strategy for public transit.
Stymied in many of his efforts to expand GRTC's ridership and service territory, Lewis was selected earlier this fall as CEO of the Central Florida Regional Transportation Authority in Orlando. There, public transit blends almost seamlessly with Disney, a company recognized as perhaps the most efficient people movers in the world — by bus, rail and even boat. "I think the model GRTC has been operating off of the last 61 years is actually the same model, the same routes, the same structure as the old streetcars were," says Lewis, who tried for five frustrating years to turn GRTC's tires out of historical ruts.
"Our commuting patterns, work times, everything has changed over the past 60 years, and GRTC hasn't changed with it," Lewis says. "The center city is still where most of our customers want to go," but there are new places — Short Pump, Westchester Commons and other points in Hanover, Henrico and Chesterfield counties — that "are destinations for retail and jobs, and we don't adequately serve those areas." And GRTC won't, he says, until the myriad political, financial and social hang-ups that prevent GRTC from becoming transit for the entire public are resolved.
Lewis is not a lone voice for this position. The 2008 Richmond Regional Mass Transit Study, commissioned by the Richmond Regional Planning District Commission, recommended doing away with GRTC and replacing it with a regional transportation authority. Such is the norm rather than the exception in cities with successful mass-transit systems. Authorities are guaranteed revenue from some stable source like an extra penny added to the gas or sales tax, and planning is done by the authority based on ridership and need rather than by elected officials. Right now, GRTC officials annually have to ask for money from the city, Henrico and Chesterfield. The study's verdict: "GRTC in its current form is not an effective institutional structure to fund and operate a truly regional transit system."
A New Hope
GRTC's flaws as pointed out in the study may hamper a planned rapid-transit line down Broad before it's even established. Richmond is in the early phases of securing a federal grant that will help bring Bus Rapid Transit — an express, high-volume bus line with dedicated lanes. If successful, the route would run along Broad Street from Willow Lawn to Main Street Station and on to Rocketts Landing. Future phases of the plan could run to Short Pump and Richmond International Airport.
But whether a Broad Street BRT line would be crippled by the same problems that hamstring GRTC is a big worry. The 2008 study highlighted the need for a unified transit strategy, rather than patchwork plans that fail to address the problem of how to make public transit an appealing option to today's drivers.
"Transit needs to remember that it's density that drives it," says former Richmond City Council president Bill Pantele, who also is frustrated with GRTC's current routes, which can't change an inch without legislative action by Richmond City Council. It is Council that line-item funds each route. And it's City Council's $11.2 million annual budget allocation to GRTC that ultimately places nine council members in one very crowded driver's seat.
Meanwhile, the counties use the opposite strategy to the same effect: No money means no routes. In Henrico, which provides about $5 million of GRTC's $33 million budget, GRTC runs routes only as far west as Willow Lawn and just north of the old Azalea Mall area. While express routes run from two commuter lots, these buses get on the interstate, make no stops, and travel straight into downtown. And though Chesterfield owns 50 percent of GRTC (the city owns the other half), it provides no money to fund what few routes run into the county. Those routes are paid for by federal grants — and the money runs out for those in 2012.
Marlene Durfee, elected to the Chesterfield Board of Supervisors in 2007, is championing a planning strategy that is higher density with more pedestrian- and transit-friendly communities as ways to control sprawl. "The fundamental question is, how are we going to make public transit a priority in this region?" says Durfee, acknowledging Chesterfield's reluctance to embrace mass transit in the past. "You now have people at the table that are willing to talk about where we need to take this," says Durfee, citing new board members and a new county administrator.
Pantele says regional leaders have a history of false starts when it comes to collaborating on transportation. He had no success getting anyone to the table when he led an effort in 2008 to create a circulator system of rubber-tire trolleys. The circulator routes, proposed to be fare-free, would have linked popular but underserved cultural/commercial areas of the city, like Carytown, Broad Street, the Fan/VCU and Shockoe.
The city took a pass on Pantele's plan, but the viability of his idea has since been vindicated. To the Bottom and Back, a nonprofit, sponsor-funded bus service, operates three routes, two of which parallel those in Pantele's plan. Those routes cater primarily to the after-hours crowd, and on any given Thursday, Friday or Saturday night, the service's bright-green-and-black recycled school buses are packed to the gills with "choice riders," automobile owners who are going downtown to spend money in Shockoe Slip, Shockoe Bottom and along the slowly revitalizing Broad Street corridor between Boulevard and CenterStage.
"We're running four buses," says Sandy Appelman, To the Bottom and Back's chief financial officer, noting the service's rapid expansion relative to its creation a little more than a year ago. "It's not hard to do what we're doing." Appelman says that what makes it easy is exactly the element missing from GRTC's system: being nimble enough to make adjustments based on customer needs. "We've never run a public transportation system before, but we can listen to customers. We can adapt," he says.
Nimble definitely doesn't describe GRTC. Lewis fought a protracted political fight in 2009 to eliminate five bus routes that clearly were running in the red. The now-defunct No. 65, which ran to Stony Point Fashion Park, was just one of the routes that Lewis wanted to ax, at one point suggesting that "it would cost less money to buy [the route's riders] a car." With fewer than 75 riders a day for a route that cost nearly a million dollars a year to run, Lewis wasn't exaggerating.
Pantele was optimistic that his Bottom-and-Back-style circulator idea might catch on when GRTC undertook its own 2008 study of the routes. "Shouldn't we look at having an exercise where we gather all of the data and assume there is no mass transit in the city and [plan as if] we were going to introduce a system, how would it look?" he says. "[The GRTC study] cost nearly $400,000, but when the report was issued, I was terribly disappointed. It wasn't taking that step back; it was just, ‘How do we tweak the existing routes?'"
Competing Plans Mayor Dwight C. Jones isn't prepared to abandon GRTC, and he's most certainly not interested in creating a transit authority that might further decentralize his ability to design his own strategy for the city. Jones has yet to make good on a July 2009 promise to propose an end to City Council's control over GRTC's routes. He says he still plans to end it but couldn't say when. But he recognizes that something must be done to fix the route structure, acknowledging that it's bad when critical business decisions are made based on politics rather than economics.
And Jones disagrees with the premise that GRTC is broken and with the suggestion that a transit authority board is a good alternative. "I think the neighborhoods are served by GRTC," Jones says. "The whole regional piece is the next piece. I think we're putting the pieces together." In fact, Jones sees GRTC as a piece in the overall transportation puzzle, one that his Chief Administrative Officer Byron Marshall outlines as involving "multiple modes of transportation, people being able to walk, ride bikes, use the canals, and make it less necessary to use your car."
Jones says he never received a presentation from Lewis on the departing GRTC leader's consolidated transportation plan. It's one Lewis says he's been floating around town for at least two or three years. In fact, it's a plan Lewis says he's worked closely on with Jones administration officials. And Lewis has hardly kept that plan a secret. One summer afternoon in 2009, Lewis slid into a booth at the now-defunct Taphouse Grill restaurant in Shockoe Slip. On a cocktail napkin, he sketched a detailed plan for the restaurant's owner, Mike Byrne, and a reporter.
Lewis zeroed in on the upper level of Main Street Station's train shed. There he wanted to place something that GRTC currently doesn't have: a transfer station, where buses would berth, allowing passengers to, for instance, hop from a north/south to an east/west line. Lewis' plan would have used more than $100 million in available federal grants and stimulus funds to renovate the entire train shed. The plan included a high-speed interstate rail running through the station and a fleet of no-fare circulator "trolley" buses connecting downtown to its city neighborhoods. As one more benefit, the train shed's lower level, says Lewis, also would have gotten rehabbed, serving handsomely perhaps as a visitor's center — maybe as the centerpiece of the long-talked-about slavery museum. The backbone of Lewis' plan was BRT, a solid spine running the length of Broad Street into Henrico — possibly to Short Pump — that would eventually be replaced by a European-style light-rail system that also traveled other major arteries like Hull Street or Midlothian Turnpike.
Plans by Jones to locate the transfer station near Seventh and Grace streets, one of several choices listed in the 2008 GRTC study, largely scuttled Lewis' comprehensive vision — and may well have scuttled what chance there was of Richmond winning first-round funding for high-speed rail, Lewis theorizes.
Most successful proposals that won federal high-speed-rail money integrated "multimodal transportation hubs," Lewis says, and without one, Richmond is easy to dismiss. "My fear is that it's going to be very hard to get federal [high-speed-rail] buy-in for Main Street Station," Lewis says, saying the city's chance of having Main Street Station selected over the Staples Mill Amtrak station in Henrico became less likely, since Staples Mill lacks many of the technical and parking difficulties of Main Street Station.
Which leaves BRT as yet another potentially piecemeal project, disconnected from the parts that, Lewis says, make it whole. Even BRT's grant proposal has been weakened by this lack of planning foresight — delays in choosing a location for the GRTC transfer station meant no transfer station could be included in its BRT grant application.
Can Rapid Transit Compete?
George Hoffer, a transportation economist with the University of Richmond, knows plenty about Richmond's historic tendency to do things halfway, and he isn't sold on BRT, light rail or even the need to spend all that much time contemplating public transportation in Richmond.
Get rid of GRTC, "and replace it with what?" Hoffer asks. "I look at GRTC as part of the public infrastructure that you have to have, that you need, but that you do not use. It's a part of the fabric. It's a binder." Regardless of what replaced GRTC, Richmonders won't be switching in droves to public transit anytime soon — and a gimmick like BRT isn't going to change their minds, he says. "I see that even if gas prices go up, cars are going to get smaller. I see the elderly being bailed out by technology and being able to drive longer," says Hoffer. "I don't see the increased demand for public transit."
For Hoffer, the city of Richmond's population of 200,000 is simply too small to need expanded public transit. But proponents of public transit note that the same shortsightedness that sets false political divisions among Henrico, Chesterfield and Richmond also overlooks the 800,000 or so other people who live in the Richmond-metro area. Regions where transit works well don't delineate between cities and counties.
From behind his broad desk in an office across town in Richmond's Fan district, Sandy Appelman represents the board of To the Bottom and Back, but he also represents the other side of the city — the suburban, middle-class car owner for whom GRTC, unfortunately, holds no appeal.
"I took GRTC for a week when my car was in the shop, and I actually enjoyed it," says Appelman, a resident of the Near West End who is the exact demographic GRTC was excited to attract during the $4-per-gallon gas crunch two years ago. That GRTC's pitch has failed on him speaks volumes: He is a vocal advocate for public transportation. Which made his effort to use GRTC for a romantic night out at Bacchus, a popular Fan restaurant, that much more frustrating. The prospect of an hour-long ride and three transfers — the estimate provided by GRTC's online ride-finder — sobered him up quick. "It's easier to take a car," he says, sad about his own conclusion that GRTC is a ride of last resort.
Hoffer maintains that drivers like Appelman will need more than BRT or higher gas prices to coax them from their cars. In fact, BRT spends a lot of money to replace the perfectly serviceable buses already running Broad Street, Hoffer says. Those buses already do brisk passenger service.
Despite Hoffer's reservations about Richmond's plan, BRT has proven successful in cities throughout the United States. For the Eugene, Ore., Emerald Express (EmX) BRT line, "ridership was off the charts" during the first year of service in 2007, recounts Andy Vobora, director of service, planning, accessibility and marketing.
Cleveland's Euclid Avenue corridor, in some respects, provides the best look at what Broad Street could become with BRT. The corridor's HealthLine BRT linked two employment centers that had been separated by blighted roadway. Opened in 2008, the HealthLine has exceeded expectations, experiencing a 46 percent increase in ridership since its opening and spurring economic development. The same could happen for Broad Street, where revitalization is already occurring with limited success between Belvidere and 10th streets but where a vast expanse between the Boulevard and Willow Lawn has been in decline.
BRT planning is also land-use planning, says Larry Hagin, GRTC's planning and government affairs director. He explains that both commercial and residential destinations must exist along a BRT route in order for it to function robustly.
BRT is for certain an expensive proposition. Its multimillion-dollar price tag would be partly funded by the federal grant. Lewis says state and local money would also be required to pick up perhaps as much as 50 percent of the tab. The cost of the project remains undetermined, though at around $2.5 million per-lane-mile to construct, and with seven miles currently planned, Richmond's BRT would cost between $18 million and $30 million just to get it going, Lewis says.
While Lewis departs for sunnier climes, Hagin remains, trying to make GRTC a transit service for all Richmonders, not just those without cars. Although Hagin says GRTC and the city are working together to move forward with the transfer station, he says GRTC's status as "essentially a contractor for public transit" makes implementing any transit plan in Richmond difficult. He adds, "It's a parochial environment."
BRT could be just the ticket to break that parochial deadlock, convincing the localities that regional fast transit could attract a broader spectrum of riders — and removing the stigma nonriders have often associated with riding the bus, Hagin says. "You brand and market it as a distinctly different branch of your service."
But BRT remains a big if. And after 61 years of trolleys, and 61 more years of buses, the question of what the next 61 years brings remains wide open. "The future is still bright — the potential is still there," Lewis says. "But we've got to get rapid transit into this model, or we will never compete with the car."