Riding the 81 

As Chesterfield prepares to nix the buses, the plaza express takes off.

The bus is bouncing.

It's packed, in fact, and way too jovial for a 25-minute commute to downtown Richmond from the Chesterfield County suburbs. The stereotypical riders — the laggard lunch-pail crowd, the lip-locked Goth kids — are somewhere else. At 7 a.m. on a Wednesday, riders of the Chesterfield Plaza Express, Route 81, are popping jokes and ribbing each other like old friends. They are black and white, mostly middle-aged. They're nurses, software developers, custodians.

“We're taking the riffraff from Chesterfield into town,” crows 66-year-old Sue Davis, a tall, attractive nursing manager atVCU Medical Center.

The only thing missing is that grating commercial jingle, “It's so easy,” with the smiling interracial harmony, dancing and twirling newlyweds. But this isn't a PR stunt. The people on the bus have received no prior warning that a reporter and photographer would be riding the bus this particular morning, a glorious morning that starts in the low 70s and promises to push 90 degrees by day's end.

The Greater Richmond Transit Co. launched the Chesterfield LINK bus service three years ago. If only the Chesterfield Board of Supervisors could see this, it might cough up the $400,000 to fund the service, now slated to end June 3.

“They have their heads under the sand,” Davis says.

Sand or not, their heads aren't here. As the bus pulls out of the parking lot at Lowe's behind Chesterfield Towne Center, there's nothing to indicate the service will soon cease. There's a sense of denial. Even the bus driver, John C. Mines, thinks the board will eventually cave in and pay to keep the express service operating in the county.

“I don't believe they are going to cut it off,” he says, adding the county threatened to pull the plug last year but eventually voted to keep it going. Mines says his patrons are more vocal than those in Henrico County, which cut three bus routes earlier this month to save money.

“They are not putting up a fight, but these people here are fighting,” he says.

Getting GRTC buses into Chesterfield at all was considered a coup when the state initiated the two-year pilot program, called Chesterfield LINK, in June 2001. And last year, the county carved out $100,000 to pay for park-and-ride bus service along U.S. Route 60 and Hull Street Road.

But long-standing animosity between Chesterfield and Richmond over public transportation has not subsided. Chesterfield has resisted buses crossing the county line for decades, spurring a debate with thinly veiled racial undertones. The county is perceived by many as not wanting residents of the majority black city, with all its violent crime, crossing the border.

Delores Moore, who is black, says the notion is foolish.

“Have you ever seen any criminals on the bus?” asks Moore, a senior accountant with the state Department of General Services.

“That's a good one!” fires back Theresa Simmons, a program analyst with the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice, who overhears Moore as she passes down the center aisle to get off the bus on Broad Street. “They don't get up early enough!” The ladies chortle.

Race simply can't be the reason for discontinuing the buses, the riders seem to be saying. Certainly money and low ridership are the real issues. At least that's the explanation the board of supervisors gives as it prepares to nix the service — which would cost $400,000 in the 2004-2005 budget.

And until recently, the numbers tend to back up the claim. Ridership was disappointing in the first two years. But since December of last year, the numbers have been improving. Since January, LINK ridership (the number of trips, not riders) has jumped from 6,339 a month to more than 8,000 in March. It dipped to 7,070 in April, says a GRTC spokeswoman, explaining that some riders are making other arrangements in anticipation of the service ending.

There's a new city voucher program offering free bus fare, and other state offices are offering similar incentives to encourage employees to ride the bus instead of taking up valuable parking space downtown. And as gas prices continue to skyrocket, pushing $1.80 last week, the timing couldn't be worse.

Codell Milby, 73, will likely quit her part-time job if the buses stop running. She commutes from Powhatan County to the Lowe's lot; from here the bus takes her to her part-time job with the Virginia Employment Commission. But she can't stomach the thought of battling city traffic herself.

“I'm not driving all the way in,” she says. “I enjoy riding the bus.”

Many of the riders say they'll take the No. 64 bus at Stony Point if, according to plan, the Chesterfield Plaza Express gets canned. Most of the riders are taking the bus into the city, but there is also the question of city residents who work in the county. There aren't many — on Wednesday, there is only one man riding the bus into the suburbs at 7:15 a.m. But with more stops, there could be.

Past surveys show most of the businesses along Midlothian Turnpike — including Ukrop's Super Markets — supported the buses because they opened up an untapped labor force of Richmonders without cars. But the express buses, which aren't allowed to make stops along the turnpike, do little to aid those businesses. It frustrates Mines, the bus driver, because heading to the Lowe's lot, he passes so many businesses. He remembers a lady who had to walk a mile and a half each way to get to her job near the Aboretum, even though he passed right by the store where she worked. She quit taking the bus.

Richmond resident Larry Lilly, a 49-year-old custodian who works at Schwarzschild Jewelers on Southlake Boulevard, makes the commute from 38th Street to his job just off the turnpike every day. He's not sure how he'll get to work when the buses stop.

“I guess they can do what they want to,” Lilly says, slumping forward in his seat. “I get on this morning and it was loaded, man. But they say they don't have the funds.”

It's a shame, says Mines, as he brings the bus to a stop across the street from Lilly's job, a half-mile from the Lowe's lot.

Mines pops open the door, and Lilly steps out into the grassy median, disappearing into the muggy morning.

The driver says, “They told us we can't let people off out here.” S

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