Buses and jobs took center stage last week, with Mayor Dwight Jones fending off criticism that the city is moving too slowly on the economic development front and GRTC Transit System's chief, John Lewis, announcing his departure.
The mayor has made reducing poverty a top priority and GRTC is moving aggressively to expand rapid transit on Broad Street and to secure a location for a new downtown transfer hub.
But what about true regional bus service? Don't hold your breath.
“There is discussion. I'm not sure you are going to hear much publicly about it, but there is discussion about regional transportation,” Mayor Jones told a roomful of reporters last week.
The relevance of regional bus service is manifold: While gas prices continue to increase, many people see a rising demand for regional transit. And there's the giant island of poverty in Richmond that could benefit from regional buses connecting the unemployed with suburban retail and commercial jobs.
The mayor's discussions with other jurisdictions about expanding bus service, however, apparently took place in the absence of GRTC's Lewis.
“I have no knowledge of any discussions about expanded public transit service,” Lewis says, explaining that his office is in constant talks with Henrico County, and looks to increase service in the East End, but not in Chesterfield.
GRTC put together a proposal to expand full-service bus lines about a mile into Chesterfield County about two years ago, Lewis says. Shortly after James J. L. Stegmaier took over as county administrator, the county requested bus service put together a what-if proposal.
“We have had discussions about what public transportation, public transit, could look like in Chesterfield County if we had a fully regional transportation system,” Lewis says.
The county has some service already — commuter GRTC vans run express routes from downtown to suburban parking lots along Midlothian Turnpike and Hull Street Road. The bus service found enough demand to support full-service buses about a mile or so into the county along the main roads. On Midlothian Turnpike, for example, it proposed extending buses to about Powhite Parkway, near the Arboretum office park.
That proposal, however, didn't gain traction. “We have not had any further discussion,” Lewis says of the Chesterfield proposal.
Chalk it up to dwindling budgets and, perhaps, some racially tinged history: Chesterfield has long blocked buses from crossing its borders. And if there are discussions, chances are they won't advance much while GRTC searches for a new chief executive. Lewis began negotiations last week to take over as head of the Central Florida Regional Transportation Authority in Orlando.