I came to know John Moeser first by reputation. He’s the professor who maps poverty’s ebb and tide in the region, who talks about the discriminatory policies and laws that built the structure of poverty in Richmond. He says a lot of things people don’t want to hear and manages to do so with none of the bombast one might associate with a Texan. Moeser, 73, taught urban studies and planning at Virginia Commonwealth University, and is now a senior fellow at the University of Richmond's Bonner Center for Civic Engagement.
Moeser sat on the transportation committee of the Mayor’s Anti-Poverty Commission and contributed the section on the roots of Richmond’s poverty to its final January 2013 report — the one I keep telling you that you must read.
Moeser spoke at last week’s City Council meeting in support of the launch of the city’s bus rapid transit system, the GRTC Pulse. He used the building-a-house analogy, calling BRT part of the foundation.
“But building the foundation is not the objective,” he said. “Rather it is to build an entire house, a big house, big enough for all of us — low income, middle income and high income. Big enough for city and suburbs. Big enough for all races and nationalities. Anything less will not work.”
I called Moeser after the City Council gave the project a green light to get his take on the criticism that Pulse does little, if anything, to benefit the poor — a stated priority of the anti-poverty commission in its support of BRT — and where the evidence lies for the argument that it will lead to regional public transportation.
I edited our conversation for brevity and clarity.
TG: Before we got to the critiques, I wanted to know how the transportation committee of the Anti-Poverty Commission came to support BRT.
Moeser: There are lots of ways to characterize the world in which the poor live. And right at the very top is immobility, and that can be described in many different ways, but certainly physically, the world that is very, very tiny, and there is a sense of confinement. We see this in practical terms just from the lack of a transit system that would enable people to go from point A to point B. We all know that Richmond has GRTC, but even that network is far from adequate.
First of all, the transit we have is a hub-spoke system. All routes head to downtown and so, many people, in order to get to work, first have to go downtown, get a transfer, which costs them extra money, and then take a second, even a third bus. So, it was normal to spend 45 minutes getting to work and 45 minutes getting back, and it was costly and time-consuming. And this is something most people who don’t live in poverty don’t think about: It’s not just a lack of money, but a lack of time. To spend an extra 45 minutes, an hour, or hour and a half just to get to work and back is crazy. So, that was the first thing. Yes, GRTC covers the city, that’s true, but it’s terribly inefficient.
TG: Efficiency in the city is one thing, a valuable thing, but the jobs are in the counties.
Moeser: Yes, So, number one is, we need to reinvent public transit in the city. But our primary focus was the utter absence of genuine, regional transportation to connect all parts of the city with all parts of suburban Richmond. As you know, historically that has been a huge problem because the suburbs, particularly the elected leaders, would simply refuse. In fact, what’s ironic is that the half-owner of GRTC is Chesterfield County (which long has blocked any effort to expand public transportation in its territory). Now, why do they want to own half of the company, if not for the reason of controlling GRTC?
TG: Given the ownership structure of GRTC, with Chesterfield owning half, was there ever a conversation that maybe GRTC was not the ...
Moeser: Yes. Oh, yes. GRTC is either going to have to reinvent itself or there will have to be another entity altogether. Right now, you have GRTC that involves only two of the three major players. Henrico County is not part of GRTC, so what do you do about that? Well, you either expand GRTC or you create a whole new regional entity, but that’s got to change. No question.
Moeser says the transportation committee asked the Richmond Regional Planning District Commission about developing a regional public transportation plan, work it was already doing. The plan given to the committee called for bus lines along four major arteries of the city: Broad Street, U.S. Route 1, Hull Street and U.S. Route 60. Those lines would extend to the outer ring formed in large part by state Route 288 and Interstate 295, dramatically increasing access to jobs for city and suburban dwellers alike.
TG: And how were you going to get buy-in?
Moeser: We knew from the very get-go that as unfortunate as it is, as sad as it is, the reality was that you can’t sell a whole new transit system simply on the basis of addressing poverty. This had to be a transit system that was for everybody, and, for sure, it needed the corporate community because that’s where the money was going to have to come from. While our intent was and is mobility for low-income people, including more efficiency in terms of time, the financial support for this wasn’t going to be coming from high-poverty neighborhoods. It would be coming from decision-makers and from the business community.
TG: A line of thought runs through the discussion — you heard it at the meeting — that, in fact, this line, particularly as it stands now, is for the rider of choice and not of necessity, and that it has been dressed up in the guise of an anti-poverty measure.
Moeser: What I failed to mention, and I need to be explicit about it, is you have the four arteries. And, yes, if that’s all there is, it doesn’t do enough. But on top of that, you have the connector buses that are circulating through the neighborhoods. You have to get into the interior of the neighborhoods, so that people do not have to walk far to get to a bus stop. And what this means is we have to redo the hub-spoke system that GRTC has. It’s not going to work. We have to build a web between the four arteries, and then we will definitely serve low-income people and everyone else.
But, yes, initially, and this was disturbing to me, there were no connectors in the East End. Thanks to [City Councilwoman] Cynthia Newbille and her leadership, we now have a connector system in the East End to the proposed BRT. And, frankly, if we had not built in the connector system, we would have failed.
TG: Had that not happened.
Moeser: Had that not happened. But from this point on there has to be two objectives: We have to, one, extend that line on Broad all the way out to Innsbrook and with more connectors, always more connectors. And then, number two, we have to start working on the other arteries, and the next one has just got to be Route 1. That’s the next artery.
TG: Which brings us to the counties. What leads you to believe Henrico and Chesterfield counties are going to see the regional transportation light?
Moeser: Those two counties are changing politically. Tyrone Nelson is now on the Henrico Board of Supervisors, and come fall, he is going to be the chair. There is a new county manager in Henrico Country. He is very forward thinking. He has a much larger vision that his predecessor. There is going to soon be a new county manager in Chesterfield County.
And then, I think the electorate itself is changing. For one thing, you’ve had more people moving to this place from all over the United States, from other parts of the world. They are coming to metropolitan Richmond, and a lot of folks are moving into the counties, and they are not bringing the baggage that has been part of Richmond for so long with them. They are seeing Richmond in a wholly different light.
Oh yeah, the counties are still hardcore; I don’t want to be Pollyannaish about it. But there have been some changes in administration in the counties and will be more. Not the changes of the magnitude we still need, but I celebrate any kind of change. I think the signs portend a much greater openness to not just public transit, but a whole array of issues that need to be addressed regionally.
I think that sense of myopia, where you simply look at the whole from the strict vantage point of your little piece, is beginning to change.
TG: So, your reasons for optimism are the changing political leadership and the changing electorate. Does that include the corporate community?
Moeser: Certainly from the corporate community. I have heard business leaders say, "How crazy is it that we don’t have regional transit?" The corporate community is furious about this. This is minor league. If we say we are going to be a major regional economy, then we gotta act like one. So, the corporate community has been behind it all along. And with the electorate, Tina, when we talk about poverty, there are more people living in poverty residing in the counties than live in the city. And they’re stuck, too. They don’t have cars. Transit is becoming just as important for low-income people in the counties as it always has been here in the city.
I think what has happened is a kind of unplanned, but fortuitous, convergence of the great need in the corporate community for an efficient transit system and this growing awareness of how poverty has grown in the entire region. There was never an alliance. Just an accidental convergence.
TG: So, a foundation is being laid. Now what?
Moeser: There needs to be a whole network of connections. We have to start on the other arteries. Simply ending the line at Willow Lawn is not enough. Simply ending it at Rocketts Landing is not enough. Simply having the East End connectors is not enough. None of this is enough, but we are on our way. And if we can demonstrate that it works, then we will build support for extending it. People need to be shown, and I’m hoping Pulse will be a good demonstration of what could happen if we really regionalize this thing.
TG: The glimmer of hope.
Moeser: Yes. I do have hope that maybe we are growing up, that maybe we are going to be adults.