Photo by Jay Paul
David Green, CEO of GRTC
Ahead of the Broad Street bus rapid transit forum at the Science Museum of Virginia in mid-September, the adjacent parking lot is nearly full.
People in suits and slacks file from their cars and SUVs into the auditorium, where they hope to learn more about BRT. Their curiosity is encouraging for organizers: They, potentially, are the “choice riders” — those who take the bus despite having access to a car. No one makes this clearer than Joe Calabrese, the CEO of Cleveland’s transit authority and its highly touted BRT service, the Healthline.
“It wasn’t the riders of the No. 6 line [the local bus route replaced by the Healthline] who made BRT happen,” Calabrese tells the forum attendees of the experience in Cleveland. “It was really the Chamber of Commerce types and the business people on Euclid Avenue who saw the value of BRT, because they were seeing their investment diminishing year after year.”
Cleveland’s Euclid Avenue, along which its BRT system was built, has benefited from $5.8 billion in economic development in the six years the system has operated, as vacant properties were converted into shops, new residential projects were completed and major employers expanded. Ridership has increased nearly 65 percent — from 2.8 million to 4.6 million riders — since the Healthline replaced the No. 6. That uptick, Calabrese says, is because the service is seen as “fast, simple, safe and first-class” — words scarcely associated with a traditional bus service.
Whereas a local bus route can be discontinued at any point, a BRT route is considered permanent because transit authorities invest in more substantial infrastructure, like stations with automated fare machines that allow riders to pay before boarding. They’re able to get where they’re going faster because BRT buses operate, at least partially, in dedicated lanes, and are equipped with technology that can change stoplights as the bus approaches.
After hovering above 10 million annually for much of the past decade, GRTC ridership sunk below 9 million in 2013, according to its annual report. BRT believers are adamant that the Broad Street project, if done right, will reverse that downward trend.
Richmond’s project is estimated to cost about $50 million, and the 7.6-mile system stretching from Rocketts Landing to Willow Lawn will cost GRTC an additional $2.8 million to operate each year, according to early estimates. A $25 million federal grant awarded in September will cover half of the cost.(To cover the remaining half, the state is contributing $16.9 million, Richmond is shelling out $7.6 million, and Henrico is chipping in $400,000.) Mayor Dwight Jones called the grant a “game changer” for the region.
He and others tout the region’s return on investment as twofold: substantial economic growth spurred by developers snatching up buildings on Broad with increasing property values, and an assumed influx of riders looking to access areas along the route. “That’s key to developers,” says Dennis Hinebaugh, director of the National BRT Institute at the University of South Florida. “Bus rapid transit systems, when built, bring a permanence to that corridor so residents, business owners, developers know that bus line is going to be there forever.”
The promise of economic development, then, hinges on people actually using the service. Specifically, “choice riders” will need to embrace BRT for the investment to be truly game-changing for the region. Attracting those riders will depend on the quality of service the Broad Street line provides, says David Green, GRTC’s CEO. He predicts that young people in the Museum District, Scott’s Addition and Shockoe Slip will see the convenience of riding the Broad Street line to get to and from downtown, where parking can be inconvenient. You could arrive at a station and be on a bus in less than 10 minutes at any point in the day, he adds. “You can’t have a bus service that rides down Broad Street once an hour and expect people to ride it.”
Andrew Terry, a 32-year-old Episcopal priest, is president of RVA Rapid Transit, an advocacy group launched in March 2013 that lobbies for the improvement of the region’s public transportation system. A choice GRTC rider himself, he sees effective marketing and reliability as key to attracting more choice riders. “A healthy system has both choice and need-based riders,” Terry says. “The extent to which we are getting those people who may not be riding [GRTC] interested in [BRT] is positive.”
The possibility of a more extensive bus rapid transit system also is riding on the success of this project. There’s already talk of expanding the Broad Street line from Willow Lawn to Short Pump, and RVA Rapid Transit has mapped three additional routes on heavily trafficked roads in the area: one connecting Mechanicsville Turnpike and Hull Street Road, another joining Midlothian Turnpike and Williamsburg Road, and a third linking Brook Road to Jefferson Davis Highway. If the region established BRT on those four roadways, Terry says, transit-dependent riders would have significantly better access to jobs. The Richmond metro area’s public transportation system connects people to a mere 27 percent of the region’s jobs, according to a 2011 Brookings Institution study. Only eight metro areas in the study provided less access to jobs.
What’s stopping the region from improving its transit system? Funding, Green says. GRTC’s operation is dependent on local, state and federal subsidies. Henrico and Richmond subsidize the level of service in their respective localities. Fares account for 22 percent of the authority’s $46.7 million operational budget in 2014-15.
With transportation costs rising, Green says the transit authority has to negotiate with Henrico and Richmond “just to keep our heads above water.” Expansion is out of the question unless the city and counties determine a more sustainable funding model.
“What does the region want its system to be?” he asks. “If we want it to be better than it is, we can’t fund something like that based on the current funding model. We need a dedicated funding source.”