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2016-05-18 / Front Page

Empty Seats

As the region explores expanding bus lines, where is Chesterfield?
By Rich Griset
STAFF WRITER


Earlier this month, GRTC Express bus driver Lisa Robinson makes a late afternoon stop at Chesterfield Plaza, in the Lowe’s parking lot behind Chesterfield Towne Center. 
Ash Daniel/Chesterfield Observer Earlier this month, GRTC Express bus driver Lisa Robinson makes a late afternoon stop at Chesterfield Plaza, in the Lowe’s parking lot behind Chesterfield Towne Center. Ash Daniel/Chesterfield Observer Quietly, Chesterfield is getting off the bus. On July 1, one of the county’s two remaining bus lines – GRTC Transit System’s Route 81 Express, which runs from the Lowe’s parking lot behind Chesterfield Towne Center to downtown Richmond – will make its last stop.

Axed by a Board of Supervisors’ vote in March – the bus was carrying less than a dozen passengers daily – the change will leave the solitary Route 82 Express bus, which runs from the Commonwealth 20 movie theater off Hull Street Road to downtown.

The express buses are slowly disappearing as Richmond and Henrico are experimenting with expanded bus rapid transit, and amid increasing calls from regional business leaders and mass transit advocates to link the three largest jurisdictions – Chesterfield, Richmond and Henrico – to make the metro area more accessible.


The Route 81 Express, which connects riders from the Lowe’s parking lot behind Chesterfield Towne Center to downtown Richmond, will make its last stop on July 1. 
Ash Daniel/Chesterfield Observer The Route 81 Express, which connects riders from the Lowe’s parking lot behind Chesterfield Towne Center to downtown Richmond, will make its last stop on July 1. Ash Daniel/Chesterfield Observer While business groups in Richmond and Henrico have become vocal proponents of expanding transit, Chesterfield’s business leaders have been mostly silent.

To date, no Chesterfield business organization has advocated for mass transit in the county.

Danna Markland, president of the Chesterfield County Chamber of Commerce, says the chamber likes the idea of bus rapid transit, which uses dedicated bus lanes, and that having better access to employees and customers is better for businesses.

“Public transit is something that we’ve had as a discussion point in the past and something that we do care about,” Markland says. “There’s a desire to have it, [but] there’s not a position that’s more finite.”

Chesterfield has a long history of straddling the fence when it comes to buses. Chesterfield owns 50 percent of the GRTC Transit System and appoints three of the six board members on GRTC’s board. Still, that influence hasn’t led to more county bus lines.

Meanwhile, by late 2017, GRTC is expected to launch a new bus rapid transit service called the Pulse, which will send buses zipping down Broad Street through Richmond, running from Willow Lawn to Rocketts Landing. Transit advocates have expressed the need for greater connectivity throughout the region and have floated the idea of running Pulse lines down Hull Street Road, Midlothian Turnpike and Jefferson Davis Highway and extending the original service to Short Pump. Regular buses would connect to the bus rapid transit service to cover the region in a cobweb fashion, these advocates say.

The advocates point to research that suggests the region is grossly underserved by mass transit: In 2011, the Brookings Institution released the findings of a national study that looked at the connectivity of people to jobs via mass transit. Of the 100 metropolitan areas studied, the Richmond area ranked 92nd-worst for connectivity. The Pulse, these advocates say, is a positive step in the direction of expanding transit and closing the gap.

Where both the Richmond Business Council and the Henrico Business Council of the Greater Richmond Chamber of Commerce came out in support of the Pulse, Chesterfield’s business community has largely remained on the sidelines.

Phil Cunningham, president of the Jefferson Davis Association – a coalition of business community and residential leaders along Jefferson Davis Highway – concurs with Markland’s assessment. It’s been discussed but no affirmative position one way or another.

“We’ve had numerous discussions about mass transportation, but the JDA – neither the organization nor the board – has come out with a position, so to speak,” says Cunningham, noting the need for mass transit along the corridor. “I’m not sure if the business community has reached a position on it. I think they’re very quiet.”

Cunningham says it all comes down to money.

“The bottom line is, who’s going to pay for it?” Cunningham asks. “My hope would be, realizing the needs in the area, that we could establish some type of public private type [partnership] that could create some services along the corridor.”

Ray Birk, president of the Greater Southport Business Association, says mass transit would be very beneficial for employers in the county, but he hasn’t heard any business group come out to endorse it.

“It’s going to take some business background, some organization to get that rolling,” Birk says.

Kim Marble, a business owner and vice president of the Jefferson Davis Association, has seen people take cabs to get to medical appointments and parent-teacher conferences.

“I would say there’s definitely a great need,” says Marble, who has lived in the Bensley area for more than two decades. “I feel like people in the county are becoming more open to the idea. I don’t feel like there’s a lot of progress that’s been made there, but I feel that they are recognizing the need because it’s being documented and talked about.”

David Green, GRTC’s chief executive officer, says that companies they’ve surveyed have been favorable to mass transit, with some 82 percent hoping it will play a role in the future of their businesses.

“Businesses see the value of transit more than anyone, so it’s absolutely critical for that community to be part of the discussion,” Green says via email. “It ultimately boils down to funding that’s approved by the jurisdiction’s elected body, but there are lots of conversations that need to occur before that can happen. The community needs to get involved to indicate they support transit in the first place, and then there has to be a good understanding of where it’s needed and what the goals are.”

While some point to the lack of ridership on the Route 81 Express as an indicator of the lack of interest in mass transit in the county, Charles Merritt with the advocacy group RVA Rapid Transit says that argument is a red herring. He points out that the route was a success when it debuted in 2008, but ridership dropped after the Chesterfield Board of Supervisors cut several daily trips and raised the fare from $3.50 to $6 per ride in 2014.

“That basically makes the system harder to use, if you provide fewer [runs] and then you make it cost more,” Merritt says. “Transit works best when it’s regular and evenly or predictably priced.”

John Moeser, senior fellow at the University of Richmond’s Bonner Center for Civic Engagement and professor emeritus of urban studies and planning at Virginia Commonwealth University, says the county needs greater connection to mass transit and that Chesterfield residents are more willing to get behind buses than officials may realize.

He recalls a public meeting in the county he attended a few years ago during which he gave a presentation about the spread of poverty into Chesterfield.

“What was really amazing was that a person in one of the breakout sessions said, ‘It’s about time that Chesterfield County developed mass transit,’” Moeser recalls. “Huge round of applause and cheers. That was fairly fascinating because I had never experienced that before. Chesterfield has been kind of the poster child of absolute resistance to any extension of GRTC [into the county].”

In the past, the issue has always come down to money. During the Board of Supervisors meeting in March, the decision to cut the express route on Midlothian Turnpike was simple economics: not enough riders to justify spending an additional $76,000 to keep it going.

Moeser says it’s unfair to compare the express service – which he says was used primarily by people who owned cars and wanted to carpool – with a regular bus service that would help those in poverty get to jobs, especially on the eastern side of the county.

“It was one trip out, one trip back,” says Moeser of the express service. “That wasn’t even designed to address what I was talking about: those who don’t have cars, need to find work, have to either ride with someone else [or walk].”

Furthermore, Moeser says the argument that mass transit is too costly or doesn’t support itself doesn’t hold water.

“I don’t know of any public transit system in the United States that pays for itself,” Moeser says. “For some reason, public transit is not considered a public service anywhere near as important as police, fire, ambulances, so on. … It really is a commentary of how backward this metropolitan area is compared to comparable metropolitan areas of the same size that we don’t have a regional transit system already. It’s just crazy.”

Moeser has recently studied poverty trends in Central Virginia and says that Chesterfield can’t ignore the growing poverty in its own backyard.

“As long as the city had all the poverty and the county had all the wealth, then the county could easily keep the city at arm’s length, but that is not the case [anymore],” Moeser says. “Population is going into the city; income is going into the city; poverty is increasing in the counties. In fact, there are more people who are in poverty who reside in the suburbs – either in Chesterfield or Henrico – than in the city.”

Buses can play a critical role in opening up job opportunities, Moeser says, particularly in lower-income communities. In one of Chesterfield’s proudest recent achievements – bringing the Amazon fulfillment center to the county four years ago – Moeser sees a missed opportunity to bring buses to Chesterfield.

“That is just plain stupidity, not making it possible for people who live in Chesterfield – Chesterfield County residents who pay taxes – to have a way to get to good jobs like Amazon,” Moeser says. “That’s where business leaders will join the chorus for public transit. They need workers to be able to get out where they are located.”

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