After five years in Richmond, GRTC Transit System's chief executive, John Lewis, is catching the bus to Orlando. Lewis takes over the Central Florida Regional Transportation Authority, one of the largest and most progressive bus companies in the country, on Dec. 1.
It's not difficult to see why he's leaving. Despite progress, true regional mass transit in Richmond is a long way off. Plans to turn Main Street Station into a multimodal hub -- a bus transfer station to go with those somewhat mythical high-speed trains -- got railroaded by Mayor Dwight Jones.
Still, Lewis patiently worked to increase suburban service, particularly in Chesterfield County, where the express bus lines have grown dramatically during his tenure. GRTC also is testing new rapid transit buses on Broad Street, and plans are under way for a new downtown transfer hub, across from CenterStage on East Grace Street.
Before he departs, Style Weekly talked with Lewis to get his thoughts on the region's future.
Style: In 2005, you took over GRTC as Richmond was undergoing a sea change politically. We had just elected a new mayor, Doug Wilder, and there was widespread hope that there would be progress for regional transportation. What were your expectations for GRTC expanding regional transit when you first came to Richmond?
Lewis: I thought we had a great opportunity to expand GRTC's footprint and its service area. I think we looked at that along with our board of directors in two specific strategies. No. 1 is our ability to expand our service offering in areas where we can control the outcome. And we've grown service throughout the area. We've added service to Fredericksburg, to Ashland, into Mechanicsville. We've also expanded service into Chesterfield County. Now those are the areas where GRTC, through its own funding and use of creative models for providing service, expanded our service offerings.
Unfortunately we've been unable to structurally change what GRTC offers. The authority itself operates predominately within the city of Richmond and Henrico County. Chesterfield, we're still working with them to get them on board from a financial standpoint. And so structurally we haven't made the changes in the infrastructure of GRTC but we have been able to significantly increase the areas that we serve.
How did that compare with the political reality?
The political reality I think … still is a question to be determined. This region still has not collectively determined how high a priority public transportation is going to be for this region. When you ask entities like the Chamber of Commerce [and] the Richmond [Region] Collaborative … transportation is always in that top two, three, four issues that come up. Whether it's with citizens, riders, business leaders, employers and employees, transportation is still a very key issue. But we haven't collectively as a region figured out how we're going to address it.
We came close two years ago when the … Richmond Regional Planning District Commission, working with the jurisdictions, was going to move forward with a regional transportation authority. We were going to ask the legislature to give the region the ability to tax itself and take … those funds derived from those taxes and create a transportation authority. The discussion went very well; we came up with a proposal. We just weren't able to move that forward in the General Assembly.
I think one of the critical challenges that we have here in this region is … the Dillon rule. Local jurisdictions have to ask permission of the General Assembly to move forward on initiatives like that. … It's a very significant challenge to overcome. Personally, I think it holds us back from being able to accomplish what many other jurisdictions have done throughout the country.
In a city with the highest rate of poverty in the state, GRTC's bus routes still don't connect the city's poorest residents with the region's job centers. What needs to happen to change that?
I think that is a critical issue moving forward … this region's ability to work cooperatively in certain areas. Transportation should be a seamless offering and the fact that … many of our routes stop at county lines, city and county lines, no other transportation mode operates like that. You don't get roads that stop at jurisdictional lines. There's no reason that public transit should follow that model.
That has been a challenge. It's been an obstacle for us. When you look at where housing is and where jobs are … it's a no-brainer when you look at means of connecting those two items or those areas. We just haven't been able to get together as a region, identify that as a goal and erase the lines on the map that have restricted us in the past.
You know you look at going up Broad Street, where a bus will stop in the middle of the corridor. You've got the seat of government downtown. You've got housing throughout the downtown area in the city and you've got jobs along the Broad Street corridor, and that's not the only corridor. You know you look at Hull Street, Midlothian and Chesterfield. We don't … serve the airport. That doesn't make much sense from a transportation standpoint. But it's still an opportunity for us to get better.
Mayor Doug Wilder and now Mayor Dwight C. Jones have spoken little publicly about the role of regional transit, and Chesterfield and Henrico leaders have both said there's no money, especially in the wake of state budget cuts. What needs to change to bring regional transportation into the public discussion?
Well I think in many aspects these things aren't going to change until the public decides it's important enough to change. And I think you've got efforts like the chamber's collaborative along with the Planning District Commission that are starting to have those conversations. The Capital Region Collaborative is starting to have those conversations with the citizens.
I think many times we expect change to come from the top down. And if that's what we're waiting for, it's going to be a long time coming. Making significant change like public transit as an example, the citizens have to demand it. And I think what the [Richmond] Times-Dispatch has been doing in some of their community forums, what the Capitol Region Collaborative is doing, is taking this issue to the public and getting from the public what is important to them. Once we get a level of consensus from those who pay taxes and those who pay all of our salaries, then I think you'll see the political … change.
We know the history of Chesterfield resisting full-service buses into the county. The state funding for the express lines will end soon. Is there a future for regional transit in Chesterfield?
I think so. I think we took a different tack in regard to Chesterfield. In the past there's always been the question of does public transit work in the suburbs and, if so, where will the funding come from. Rather than trying to attack that issue we decided we were going to find the means to pay for it and we were going to prove that the model works. And we've done that through those state grants. The 82 and the 81 [bus express lines], from a ridership standpoint, have more than exceeded even our wildest expectations. We started the 82 with two buses in the morning, two in the afternoon and now we're up to six. And that's because of ridership. Every time we [added] a bus, it got full. And the riders and the citizens asked for more.
So it's clear that when you offer something, a model of public transit that's efficient and meets people's needs, that there's a market for it. And so rather than asking, you know, we sort of build it first and then they will come. Rather than asking for the funding, we decided to put a model out there, show that it will work. Again, moving towards that change from bottom up, we wanted to show the citizens of Chesterfield that GRTC could offer a service that would add value to their community. [The goal is to] show the elected officials that it can work and then leave it up to those riders and the community to make that argument when the funding runs out.
So what's the next step for those routes, what would be the process?
I think that next year my successor and our board of directors will have a very interesting conversation with Chesterfield. When you look at the ridership, the success of those routes, it is a very outspoken and well-organized group of riders. I think that they have a very good case to offer that public transit is viable and adds value to Chesterfield County. Now, it will be up to the leaders in the county to see where on their list of priorities that will fall and whether or not there will be funding for that. And I think it will. I think it will happen.
The conversations that I've had with elected officials in Chesterfield, they are supportive and they are looking for ways to make it happen. Now we all, every jurisdiction is facing financial issues, but I think we will see a difference in Chesterfield.
It wasn't that long ago, in 1999, when there was broad support among the businesses on Midlothian turnpike for full-service buses. Yet there was still political resistance. How much of the resistance in the county is race-related?
You know I've heard those stories in the past. Because I was not here I'm not going to guess on that. All I can say is that we have shown … that people will make use of transit. We've also shown that some of those scare tactics that opponents have used in the past, that it brings crime and it's unsafe and it's ineffective, we've proven that not to be the case. We've been operating along the Midlothian corridor for two years now and have not heard of any, you know, increases in crime … and the ridership proves that it is efficient and that people take it. …
You've also seen a huge change in the leadership in Chesterfield, four out of the five supervisors changed in the last election, so that old way of thinking I think was outdated. We're moving forward. We've shown that public transit is viable in the suburbs, that people will take it and I think you will see a change. I think that public transit will continue to thrive in Chesterfield in the future.
Not long ago there was big talk about turning Main Street into a regional transportation hub — a high-speed rail and bus transfer station. Unlike high-speed rail, GRTC had secured $12 million in federal funding for the bus transfer station. Why didn't City Council or the mayor support the plan?
Um, you know, that's a great question. I'm not sure. I think there was clearly some community opposition to that location. I will say that when you look nationwide and look at those systems that did receive [federal stimulus] funding, they are all looking at making seamless multimodal systems where high speed rail, bus, local bus service, light rail and others come together in one location.
We've heard issues of, you know, GRTC being there will impede the ability to bring high speed rail. That's just not the case. You know, I'm going to Orlando. Orlando got the single highest grant of $1.5 billion. They're making it all work in one location. You look at Charlotte, you look at Denver: All the places that received money are all building multimodal transportation centers. So that argument just doesn't hold water.
There were other issues there. The Shockoe Bottom business owners had some concerns. I still believe that that was the best place for it. I think it's a lost opportunity. But we'll move on. We desperately need to solve the issue of on-street transfers here in Richmond. It's inefficient for us from an operational standpoint and it's inefficient from our customers' standpoint. If you've got to get off a bus and wait 40 minutes for the next one to come in and you're standing on a street corner, you've probably got a very different opinion of GRTC than what I'm espousing.
We can [locate a bus transfer station] in other locations. The Sixth Street location between Grace and Franklin has been brought up. That will work. That has some details and some hurdles in and of itself, but the location is fine. If we're able to answer all the other questions … that will solve GRTC's issue. That will solve our customers' issue.
But we still lost an opportunity at Main Street Station. If you are taking a train from D.C., Boston, New York, whatever, what happens once you get to Main Street Station, you know?
I think there's a fundamental question. People who are going to take high-speed rail, higher-speed rail, whenever it comes, and you're gonna get off at Main Street Station. What happens then? You know, How do you get to a meeting at City Hall or at MeadWestvaco or at Capital One? How do you get there if we're at Sixth Street, you know? … Catching cabs and taxis in Richmond's a little difficult. It just makes someone's trip a little harder, a little more difficult. Whereas when you look at other cities [such as] D.C., you can get off a train in Union Station and go downstairs and get on the subway or go outside and get on the bus. You look at Charlotte, you look at Denver, all these other areas have been able to figure it out. It's still … a challenge for us here.
You probably just answered my next question, but why is Main Street Station the better location for the proposed GRTC hub?
Because of seamless connections. I think when you're trying to get people to take public transit you've got to make it easy for them, you know? If you look at the airline industry: Imagine if you were gonna fly into Richmond and in order to get to Atlanta you had to get off a plane and then walk or get in a taxicab to go to another airport to then get on another flight. Every other transportation industry has figured it out.
You've got to make it easy for people to make use of your system. And so for us we just still haven't gotten there. So if you're gonna take a train to Main Street Station and you have to get to your final destination, we're just adding another decision point for someone. So if somebody's sitting in New York has got to figure out well I can take a train to Richmond very quickly but then what happens when I get there, you know?
Right now you can't walk outside of this office … and catch a taxicab. You gotta call, and you gotta schedule it ahead of time. So that's a little difficult. You're not going to be able to get off of that train and get easily onto a GRTC vehicle and get there. So you're just adding another layer of decisions and questions for that traveler. Now it's not too late to solve that, but I think that's the reason why it would have been better for our transfer station to be at Main Street Station.
Apart from regional transportation what are the biggest challenges GRTC is facing right now?
I think regional cooperation is No. 1 but closely, I think Nos. 1 and 1a, is dedicated funding. We're the only system of our size in the country that doesn't have a dedicated funding source, its own funding stream that is dedicated specifically to GRTC, to public transit. We can pick, you know, portions of sales tax, gas tax, property tax, corporate, there are many different avenues. But what really impedes us is that we're an independent entity but we're treated just like a city or county department.
I have to go every year with my hat in my hand to city government, to Henrico, to eventually Chesterfield, and say, Here's how much it's going to cost us to provide that service. Do you have it? And so that … puts you in a situation where you have these incredible peaks and valleys in terms of your service offerings. We're in that situation now. State cutbacks, city and county cutbacks, we've had to cut our service.
When you have your own funding source, you're able to plan and look long-term. … In the good times you're able to save money away like governments do with their sunny day and rainy day funds and then you're able to access that during the down times and so you're able to level out your service offerings. For GRTC, in good years we offer a lot of service, in bad years like we have now, we've cut back almost 20 percent on our service offering. The person who's hurt by that is the rider. And so we've got to answer that, you know if we're looking towards regional cooperation and becoming a regional provider and offering more service into Chesterfield, Henrico and elsewhere.
Along with recent route eliminations and other cuts in service, GRTC has raised its fares. And after it did that, Mayor Dwight C. Jones set up a fund to help riders who could not afford the new fares. Are people using that fund?
That fund was set by my board of directors. It is a common misperception. The conversation over that fund started two years ago when we were building this facility and knew that we had a diamond in the rough at our old facility. We've got seven acres in the Fan. It's worth $5.5 million dollars. My board of directors two years ago was asking, "What do we do with that money when we get it?" And they made the decision then, we need to do something that is sustainable and … benefits our riders. So at that point we were looking at you know perhaps setting up a nonprofit. And we ended up with in a conversation with the Community Foundation. Rather than setting up our own nonprofit it would be more efficient to work through them. They already have the infrastructure, they know the nonprofit community, they know how to manage that and so the goal is, and still is, that once we finalize the deal with that property it is likely then my board will then take a portion of that and put into the endowment.
Now Mayor Jones was very supportive of that concept and offered a match. And so that's where that came up. We've started the endowment with the Community Foundation. We put $50,000 in, $25,000 from GRTC, and the Community Foundation matched that.
We are working on the infrastructure right now of how do we provide those grants, and GRTC staff and Community Foundation is working as we speak on dotting the i's and crossing the t's on that. But the initial funding is there, which came from GRTC. And I anticipate some time over the next you know month or so that we'll be giving out grants to that population. And then as the future comes, I think City Council is still weighing how that … city grant or matching funds will be allocated to us. At some point they will answer that question and we'll have even more. The name of that … endowment is the GRTC Everybody Rides Endowment.
What was GRTC's biggest missed opportunity during your time?
Main Street Station, no question. I think we really had an incredible opportunity … to provide seamless transportation. [It's] an incredible facility. I think the city has done a great job on the train portion of it, but [the adjacent train] shed has been empty for a decade or more. I think we had an incredible design that would have restored that historic facility and really become a jewel for the city, particularly as people are driving down [Interstate] 95. Rather than looking at what is that ugly thing, it would have been wow. Not only from a transportation standpoint was that a missed opportunity but also from, you know, from an opportunity to recapture and really present a great gateway into the city.
What accomplishments are you most proud of?
I think the one I'm personally most proud of is two years ago in 2008 when we were chosen to be the best transit system of the year in North America. … When you get recognized nationally I think that says a lot. … GRTC has always been a great transit system but to be recognized for everyone's hard work, I think that was a really good time for us. People were really happy. And you see some of our operators to this day still wearing their pins two years later.
Despite the challenges that we've had … we're still able to provide very good service to our customers, very efficient service. When you look at our cost per mile, our cost per rider, our financial numbers meet or exceed most of our competitors. And I'm talking about competitors who have dedicated funding sources and regional cooperation and all of the things that we hope to have, we're still beating them in terms of financial efficiency. Our costs per mile, our costs are low, and our service offering is high.
Now we've had to get creative. Our service to Fredericksburg, we're using private providers in order to do that. Because they can do it cheaper than us. So we've had to use creative means of providing service but we haven't let those challenges stop us. And so I think that's what really set us apart.
Why did you decide to leave?
You know that's a great question. I will tell you I was not looking. I've been here six years; I've had a great time here. The people here at GRTC are phenomenal and I can't overstate the fact that the people who work in this organization are incredible public servants. I'm amazed. …
Orlando as I said I think into the next five to 10 years is really going to be the center of the universe in terms of public transit. Like I said, they got the largest single high-speed rail grant that was offered, $1.5 billion for rail between Tampa Bay and Orlando. It's a system that's growing. It's a larger system than GRTC. They are building a rail line right now, a commuter rail line. So the opportunity to take over a larger system that has rail and bus and is really leading the effort towards … high-speed rail, I think that was just an opportunity I couldn't turn down.
Anything you'd like to add?
The only thing I would like to add -- I think Richmond has an incredible future. I think [if] this region comes together and makes a determination, a clear determination of where public transit is, I think the sky's the limit for GRTC. This organization is primed to take off. … This is really a bittersweet thing for me, you know. I've been in other places where you sort of can't wait to get out, don't ever want to look back. That's not the case here. I'm really going to miss Richmond and I'm going to miss the employees and people here at GRTC.