June 06, 2007 News & Features » Cover Story


Mass Appeal 

Rising gas prices, dwindling road funds and growing suburban ridership. Why GRTC's new chief executive has an offer metro Richmond can't refuse.

Editors' note: As part of Style Weekly's 25th anniversary, the editorial team is devoting special coverage to significant changes under way in the Richmond region. This occasional series through 2007 on housing, transportation and shifting demographics will explore the community's new directions, opportunities and challenges.

It's the commute dreams are made of. Cresting Church Hill on East Broad Street, a majestic view of the downtown skyline unfolds: Historic homes funnel you down into Shockoe Bottom, under the interstate spaghetti works and past the tracks of Main Street Station. You'll roll up the hill past the brickworks at West Hospital and the old gothic City Hall, Virginia Commonwealth University and the Sauer's spice plant.

But forgive Goldie Miller if she's not ogling the beauty. She takes the bus. Her commute takes her from Whitcomb Court along a blue-collar stretch of Boulevard to her job at Bill's Barbecue, across from The Diamond. Five miles that takes about an hour and a half.

In good weather, she could probably walk in the same amount of time.

After riding the No. 4 bus from Church Hill to the system's main transfer center — a sheltered bench on the corner of Eighth and Broad streets — she awaits the elusive bus No. 24. It's the only bus that travels north on the Boulevard to Bill's, but runs just twice each hour during the day and once an hour at night. That schedule can leave Miller waiting on the corner for an hour if her timing is off.

On a recent Wednesday, Miller has the day off, so she's riding downtown to visit friends. Her hair's pulled back. She wears a slouchy black T-shirt and looks much younger than her 48 years. Sure, the buses are sometimes inconvenient, but her biggest complaint? She'd like an occasional suburban retreat.

"They could run better on the weekends," she says. "Maybe come to the malls."

Indeed, no city bus goes out to Short Pump Town Center. A trip to Wal-Mart or Circuit City from downtown involves time-consuming transfers. Should Miller want to run any of those errands during the week, she'd better be back within city limits before curfew.  The last buses leave Henrico County by 7 p.m.; in Chesterfield County, 6 p.m.

John Lewis, chief executive of GRTC Transit System, sees this as a big problem. GRTC, a corporation jointly owned by Chesterfield County and the City of Richmond, is slow to change, and has been for half a century.

"Our route system right now pretty much exactly follows the route systems of our old trolleys that were here 50 years ago," Lewis says. "Basically, all we did was rip out the rails and put a bus on there. Well, traveling habits have changed. People's living and commuting patterns have changed. We've got to change along with it."

And change is in the air. Lewis took the wheel at GRTC just two years ago, but since arriving, he's launched a major analysis of bus operations, with the final phase expected to be completed in December.

He's pushing for more state and local funds as both houses of the General Assembly come up for re-election in November, and a change in leadership is afoot in Chesterfield County, which has traditionally resisted bus expansion into the county. All five members on the county's Board of Supervisors are up for re-election, and longtime County Administrator Lane Ramsey is retiring later this year.

Statewide, transportation has been a hot-button topic with rising gas prices and a lack of funds for road construction, which is forcing policymakers to look at alternatives. That's not to mention Gov. Tim Kaine, a former Richmond mayor who ran for governor promising transportation reform.

In other words, the timing couldn't be better for GRTC to reinvent itself.

Transportation naturally lends itself to politics — it touches just about everyone — and it tends to attract big agendas. In Seattle, it's a focal point of that city's plan to reduce air pollution. In New York City and London, it's part of those cities' international identities.

For Richmond, public transit carries the burden of regional cooperation, or lack thereof. The politics surrounding GRTC run deep, accentuating the divide between suburban rich and urban poor and conjuring up the inverse of white flight (keeping bus-dependent black residents from breaching the county line).

The lack of regional cooperation has long made GRTC irrelevant in the counties as a true transportation alternative, failing to help Richmond's poor connect with the growing job base in the suburbs or entice suburbanites to the city for its cultural attractions and rich history.

A Baltimore native, Lewis is a relative newcomer to Richmond and wants to make riding the bus attractive to all commuters, whether or not they own a car. He envisions tearing down the walls that have kept buses from expanding into the counties by pitching GRTC as a suburban solution in a time of rising gas prices, a burgeoning and increasingly immobile senior-citizen population, and growing concern over the environment.

It's a tough sell. Especially in a region that's increasingly easy to navigate by car. Richmond City Council President William J. Pantele puts it bluntly.

"There are two classes of [bus] riders, really," he says. There are "'need riders,' people who don't have automobiles and this is how they get around, and GRTC has done an excellent job for them. The other class is what you call 'choice riders,' and they present a huge opportunity for [GRTC]."

In other words, people without cars are already on the bus, which means GRTC's future will depend on its ability to attract customers who don't really need the bus.

Commuter Megan Molique might be the prototype. Her Governor Street office provides parking for employees, but it's down a steep hill on 17th Street in Shockoe Bottom. Instead, she parks her car in the Lowe's lot behind Chesterfield Towne Center, where GRTC picks up and drops off in Midlothian, and rides in on a route that makes few stops between the county and downtown Richmond.

Riding the bus, she notes, also spared her car from getting washed away by Tropical Storm Gaston. The bus drops her off much closer to her office at the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, a blessing when she was pregnant last year with her first child, Jude.

So when she can, she takes the No. 69 Huguenot Express. Using that route, Molique's 12-mile commute takes about 30 minutes. The bus makes only three runs in the morning, all before 8 a.m. With an infant at home, however, she can't always catch it. Recently, in order to make the bus to work, she skipped breakfast, hopped in the car and dropped her baby off at day care before dashing over to Lowe's.

Between parking fees and tolls, the bus saves her money. Still,  she wishes the bus would run more frequently and add stops along her route so she could have the flexibility to pick up Jude, especially on days when he's sick or there's a minor emergency. She may soon get her wish.

"In the suburbs, what we have been finding [is that] our fastest-growing service is our express service," says GRTC's Lewis. Ridership on GRTC's express buses has increased 14 percent in the past year.

Similar services are offered in Henrico and Petersburg. Ideally, Lewis would like to see express routes that run not just between the suburbs in surrounding counties and the Tri-Cities, but also beyond the metropolitan region. Just last month GRTC added a line that goes to the train station in Fredericksburg. GRTC also plans to add to some of its express routes coach buses with wireless Internet access onboard and overhead storage.

"My personal feeling is that I'm selling a service. I'm no different than all the airlines in the airport," Lewis says. "I have the freedom to choose any airline I want — why should I choose airline A over airline B? Well, it's all the other amenities. It's convenience. It's cleanliness. It's reliability. All those things are the same for transit, except I'm competing against the individual car."

Lewis dreams of turning GRTC into a bus rapid transit system such as those available in Cleveland or Los Angeles. Such systems basically try to offer riders the speed and psychological comforts of a rail system. The buses take special lanes that run lower to the ground, giving the appearance of an above-ground subway. At stops, the floor is nearly level with the street, so customers don't have to make that step up into the bus. The buses also come with electronic devices that prompt traffic lights to remain green as the bus approaches, greatly reducing commute times.

"We can make a great-looking vehicle almost look like a rail line," Lewis says, "but it's still a bus so that you have a lot of flexibility." By designing the buses to look more trainlike, he says, "you get away from the stigma of regular buses."

As bus stigmas go, Richmond is a case in point.

There's a long history of county-city politics regarding the buses, complete with racial undertones masquerading as budget concerns.

The irony is thick. Henrico pays close to $5 million a year for the 11 routes that run into that county. Chesterfield, despite owning half of GRTC and appointing three of six members of GRTC's board of directors, pays nothing. And only in the last few years has it agreed to allow two express van routes in the county.

Local observers have long said it's no accident that Chesterfield bought into GRTC in 1989 (Henrico declined) with no intention of allowing city buses to breach its borders.

"Henrico is a big user but pays, whereas Chesterfield is an owner but runs away from it," says George Hoffer, an economics professor at Virginia Commonwealth University who specializes in transportation issues. "The old standard argument is that hoodlums ride the bus, [even though] no hoodlum would be seen on the bus."

Chesterfield's reluctance to take on bus routes has long triggered suspicion about racial motivations. In 1996, then-City Councilman Timothy Kaine told the Richmond Times-Dispatch, "Chesterfield officials have told me off the record that race is a factor."

Chesterfield has resisted expansion into the county even when there were state funds to pay for it and vocal support from the business community.  The Retail Merchants Association of Greater Richmond surveyed 18 major retailers along Midlothian Turnpike in February 1999, including Ukrop's Super Markets, Sears & Roebuck, Circuit City and Target. All 18 voted for expanding bus lines along the retail corridor on Route 60. County leaders, however, still protested.

"People need jobs, and [Chesterfield is] saying they don't want black folks, and probably Latinos as well, coming into Chesterfield in those buses," says King Salim Khalfani, executive director of the Virginia State Conference of the NAACP. "I think it's a tragedy. As Richmond city core begins to grow and develop, we still have a situation where these counties refuse to come into the 21st century. If they are saying it's not about race and class, they are in denial."

Still, the oft-cited contention that Chesterfield owns the buses in order to block them is one at which County Administrator Lane Ramsey bristles.

"I've never heard that from anyone but reporters," Ramsey says. "It's the most far-fetched idea."

He says simply that Chesterfield's need for new roads eclipses its need for buses. Indeed, those new roads, such as Route 288, reduce the congestion that makes buses more desirable to frustrated drivers. He says that Chesterfield's part-ownership is an investment in the future and that he can see a more active relationship between GRTC and the county in another 10 to 15 years.

Lewis doesn't want to wait that long.

Lewis is banking on technology — and changing political winds — to make the hard sell. Making buses more convenient is key.

Lewis is in the process of adding global positioning system (GPS) capacity to all city buses, giving GRTC the ability to tell its customers exactly where the buses are at all times. GPS-equipped buses, or "smart buses," bring them into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Buses with GPS onboard can broadcast stops out loud for blind riders and flash them on display boards for the deaf. There's an added benefit, though: With the full fleet beaming back information about their exact whereabouts to GRTC headquarters, it's only a short jump for Lewis to be able to provide updated information to riders on their cell phones and BlackBerries. By next year, he expects the system to be capable of texting riders directly. For example, the system could alert a specific rider when the bus is five minutes from a stop close to his office, allowing him to orchestrate his schedule without having to block out waiting time.

While other public officials are hoping gas prices stay low and the storm season is mild, Lewis is doing a rain dance. He doesn't think rising gas prices are enough for people to give up their cars, but it's enough to start them exploring public transit.

"That's where the growth is," Lewis says. "The people who are transit-dependent, who don't have any other options, that's pretty much a set number."

But is GRTC ignoring its most loyal customers? Lewis expects the success of its suburban buses will embolden the old city routes and make it easier for GRTC to connect the poor inner-city residents with suburban jobs. Once the demand is there for the buses, the political sell becomes much easier.

Thad Williamson, assistant professor in leadership studies at the University of Richmond, says despite appearances, GRTC has done an admirable job serving its core customers, despite facing political obstacles to expand. GRTC is widely considered one of the best- run bus systems in the country, in terms of financial health.

Using data from the 2000 census, Williamson compared Richmond with 11 other Southern cities of approximately the same population.  He concludes that Richmond provides far more bus service to its poor residents than other Southern cities. "In that sense," he says, "the GRTC is a little-recognized success story."

But bus use in the region is concentrated in the city with about 85 percent of bus routes located in Richmond. Meanwhile, job growth is out in the suburbs.

Williamson found in his research that in neighborhoods below the median income, 37.5 percent of residents work in the suburbs.

Workers from the city's four poorest census tracts face some of the longest commutes, often more than 45 minutes. City-to-county service is anemic, and the little that does exist stops by 7 p.m.

"It seems reasonable to conclude that residents of these neighborhoods are disadvantaged in trying to find work," Williamson says. "Not only do they have less access to cars, the public transit system provides them with less convenient service (as measured by commuting time) than can be found in better-off neighborhoods."

Some argue that assisting the poor is a primary goal of a transit system. But helping those people get from home to work can be a challenge. When riders come in from a park-and-ride lot in the suburbs to downtown, the bus connects two areas where the riders are concentrated. When people commute from a high-density city block out to a diffuse network of suburban destinations, it gets trickier.

"It's virtually impossible to devise any kind of [urban-to]-suburban transportation system other than what a loony person would subsidize," VCU's Hoffer says. "You'd be running buses for one or two people. It's cheaper to subsidize them with a taxicab."

Still, Hoffer says that public transit is vital.

"Public transit is a necessary part of any locality's infrastructure," he says. "It is a means of income redistribution from higher to lower. It's a redistribution to subsidize work, since you don't pay anywhere near what it costs to run the bus to ride the bus."

The stigma re-emerges. In Chesterfield, county politicians tend to view funding the buses not unlike any other government subsidy for the poor.

This perspective gets Lewis riled up.

"Just look at our ridership," he says. "These people are paying their fares. We don't have free fares for anybody. We get almost half of our operating funds from the fare box." Last year GRTC's operating budget was about $39 million. Bus fares from riders come to about $10 million, a high percentage compared with other cities nationally. Contract fees from Henrico and VCU combined add another $7 million, meaning GRTC takes about $22 million in public money annually.

"Transit nationwide is heavily subsidized," but other things are too, argues Lewis. "Nobody's asking who pays for the firehouse, who's paying police. There are certain things that are a public service that is needed for the health and well-being of the community. Transit is part of it.

"Yes, we're subsidized," he says, "but the people who ride our system [pay] for that service every single day" — unlike, say, the commuters who travel along 288. Every taxpayer in the state helps to pay the bonds on 288 — even carless inner-city residents — but it directly benefits only a small fraction of the overall population.

Lewis might be new to Richmond, but he's a quick learner. Focusing on suburbanizing GRTC is critical to selling mass transit to a region that doesn't suffer from the typical metropolitan ailments such as congestion and long commutes.

He envisions larger express routes intersecting at four or five major transfer hubs, indoor facilities with ticket vending machines and restrooms instead of barely covered benches. He has his eye on Main Street Station as a possible hub location, a step up from the open-air corner of Eighth and Broad streets that most of the bus lines run through now.

But frequent scheduling is a necessity. He recognizes that people like Goldie Miller who sit on the corner for an hour are not happy customers, and he would like to see that change.

"Really, ideally, from 6 a.m. to 9 at night, buses should be running every 15 minutes," Lewis says.

Magic wands are running in short supply, however. Lewis anticipates starting a little smaller. GRTC launched a major study in June last year that involved rider surveys, analyzed routes in great detail and culled data on growth projections in Richmond, Henrico and Chesterfield. Based on that study, recommendations for improving the system are expected to be offered in November, when GRTC will begin making concrete proposals to those local governments.

The recommendations will likely include route changes and a push to improve transfer stations, with an emphasis on smaller vehicles — vans and shorter buses — along experimental routes. (Right now those are mostly used for handicapped riders and programs in which GRTC partners with the city to assist people transitioning from welfare to work.)

An 18-seat van carrying a dozen people wastes less fuel and projects an image of safety and success (big, empty buses can be intimidating to newcomers). He expects a recommendation from the study for local express routes — smaller, in-between routes. If a route attracts more riders, Lewis says, it can always be upgraded with full-sized buses.

Express routes could also be a boon to inner-city riders, Lewis says. Ultimately, he wants Miller's hour-and-a-half commute from Whitcomb Court to Bill's Barbecue to take minutes. "Our whole goal is to beat a car," he says.

Not surprisingly, the biggest hurdle GRTC faces is money. Lewis arrived in March 2005, just a few months before Hurricane Katrina demolished New Orleans and sent gas prices soaring. GRTC ridership increased almost 30 percent that summer, Lewis says, but the finance department noticed revenues remained flat.

The culprit: fake Monopoly money in the fare boxes.

"We were finding all kinds of Monopoly money that people had covered with purple pens," he says. "Coupons from other vendors, anything that was purple that they could cut down to [ticket] size, people would use."

It was difficult to tell how long it had gone on, he says, but "we figured that we probably lost on average half a million dollars a year."

That's when GRTC shifted to prepaid fare cards. Riders can prepay for several rides, and the farebox automatically deducts the cost of the ride. They're viewed as safer, more convenient and more sophisticated than the ticket books.

Miller says she hates the fare cards because they don't offer the same discount riders could get when they bought books of tickets.  Mostly,  though, she wants more buses running more places more often. Those concerns were matched by a telephone survey GRTC conducted as part of its study.

The problem with the Monopoly money highlights another issue GRTC faces. Lewis switched to prepaid fare cards, but other cities have the technology to accept credit- and debit-card payments. But because GRTC uses federal funds to buy its equipment, it must hang on to those fareboxes until the end of their prescribed lifetime, usually about 12 years. Prepaid cards were the best Lewis could do.

Riders such as Molique may represent GRTC's best hope in the suburbs.

She rides a Chesterfield express route populated by professionals whose suits and blouses are strewn with lanyards holding ID cards for a variety of city, state and university agencies and departments. It's the most expensive route in GRTC's portfolio.

After the pilot money for the Chesterfield express ran out in 2006, a group of riders petitioned the GRTC to keep it running. GRTC needed Chesterfield to throw in some cash for the route, but was rebuffed. So the riders volunteered to pay a higher fare — $2.25, compared with $1.25 for city buses. It sent a powerful message.

Another potential customer base is the aging boomer population. A Virginia Employment Commission study predicts that by the year 2030 there will be 19,000 county residents older than 65 who are unable to drive, an increase of almost 600 percent.

But the obstacles persist. Ramsey, the county administrator, references studies that show people who live along Midlothian Turnpike, Jefferson Davis Highway and Hull Street will not use bus service even if it's offered. He acknowledges that the express buses are getting riders, but from Chesterfield's perspective, it still has a minimal impact on suburban traffic congestion.

In part, Lewis agrees with Lane's arguments.

"I think there are two things with regard to Chesterfield," Lewis says. "I think there is the general perception of transit from a suburbanite perception: I have a car; transit [is] for people who don't have cars. But we're starting to break that down."

Even if Chesterfield agreed to let GRTC in, it's not dense enough to support the city-style buses, which is why Lewis is focusing on the smaller buses and express vans. He's betting that efficient, well-designed express routes will help turn the tide.

Still, GRTC must get county approval before adding buses, even when the demand calls for it. And there's plenty of bureaucracy to overcome. For example, every route has to be written into law by City Council or the Board of Supervisors.

Lewis knows full well his buses will be competing with other, more pressing needs, such as police service and overpopulated schools. In the next few weeks, GRTC will begin shopping its ideas to local governments. "Then the fun begins," Lewis says. S



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