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Finally, Mr. Regional Cooperation rides a van to the city. 

Over the Line

It is a perfectly normal, nice van. It is white with a purple swoosh painted on the side. It holds 20 passengers. It is clean. It is ready to run. Yet, somehow, on this day, it seems a little surreal.

That's probably because it finally exists.

At the moment it is four feet away from Republican state Sen. John C. Watkins, who has been talking about this van — or, more precisely, the need for something like it — for more than 10 years.

As a politician, Watkins has adopted regional transportation as a favorite issue. Since the late 1980s, he has pushed for public transportation to connect Richmond and Chesterfield. The idea of running buses across the city line set off years of arguments. There were grand displays of local politicking and emotional debates that included charges of racism. Back in '99, there was even a march.

Finally, in January 2000, Watkins and other local legislators sponsored an amendment to the state budget bill to funnel $5.1 million to the GRTC Transit System. With the money, the GRTC started a two-year pilot program it calls the Chesterfield Link.

Last week, for the first time, 17 GRTC vans began shuttling riders between downtown Richmond and the Chesterfield Plaza near the Chesterfield Towne Center.

It's 8:55 a.m. on Thursday. Watkins, who has parked his Chevy Tahoe in the Park 'N Ride lot at the Chesterfield Plaza near Lowe's, is about to take his first ride on the Chesterfield van. He has arrived wearing khakis, a French-blue shirt and a red-and-beige-striped tie. His forehead is sunburned after a recent D-Day memorial dedication he attended in Bedford.

He looks at the van through his sunglasses. This is it. Right here. He seems happy to see it, though he is reserved.

"I'm just extremely glad that it came to be," Watkins says.

According to Watkins' watch, it's time to go. At 9 a.m., this is the last express van to downtown for the morning. So far today, 40 other people have been picked up here between 6:40 a.m. and 8:40 a.m.

Watkins steps through the doors of the van and up a couple of steps. He pulls out a dollar bill and pushes it through a slot, which slurps it up. He adds some change. The trip to 9th and Broad streets, near City Hall, costs $1.50. He settles into an upholstered seat behind the driver, and lays his blue sports coat over the seat next to him.

He looks around. The van has huge windows, like a European tour bus. Brand-new, indigo-checked fabric covers the roomy seats. The inside walls are white and bright.

A few rows behind Watkins sits the only other passenger, other than a Style reporter and photographer. Her name is Ethel Andrews. It's her first van trip. "It's much nicer than the big bus," she tells Watkins. "And my feet touch the floor." Watkins chuckles.

The van's driver pulls out of the lot. He turns left down a street that runs beside the Koger Center and heads east on Midlothian Turnpike. By 9:09 the van is on the Powhite Parkway. Five minutes later it zips through the Smart Tag lane of the toll road.

That's another thing, Watkins points out — riders pay no tolls or parking. The whole thing is cheaper, easier and less of a burden on localities.

Of course, the program's effectiveness will be evaluated in two years. For it to survive the vans will have to be used. "You ask some of the people in local government," Watkins notes, "and they will quickly tell you, 'It's a pilot.' I'm just in hopes the ridership will pick up."

At 9:16, the van bears right off the Parkway and onto the Downtown Expressway. It goes through another toll and takes an exit for 7th Street.

Connecting Chesterfield with Richmond means much more than getting people to work, Watkins explains. "I think transportation in general — you have to look at it on a regional basis," he says.

This van, for example, will do more than carry people to work. Eventually, it can take them to what will be a new transportation hub downtown: Main Street Station. From there, they may one day be able to take high-speed rail to Washington, D.C., or catch a shuttle to the Richmond International Airport. And visitors to the new Richmond Convention Center downtown will be able to stay in hotels on the other end of the shuttle.

"There's so many possibilities," Watkins says.

But for now, it's the end of the ride. At 9:31 a.m. the van has arrived at 9th and Broad. Watkins picks up his coat, walks down the steps. He checks his cell phone. Then he wanders away down the Broad Street sidewalk that runs alongside the state Capitol, where the trip really began a decade
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