Williams: On GRTC, Chesterfield must truly buy in

When Chesterfield County pulled the plug on a GRTC Transit System route last week, it again demonstrated its utter unwillingness to buy into a service it bought decades ago.

In 1989 — a century after Richmond established the first viable electric streetcar system in the world — the Chesterfield Board of Supervisors agreed to purchase $50,000 in stock to join Richmond as equal partners in what was then the Greater Richmond Transit Co.

“It seems to me that the county bought into co-ownership of the bus company for one of three reasons: (1) make an investment, (2) be a good neighbor, or (3) use their power as half owner to control the routes,” said John Moeser, senior fellow at the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement at the University of Richmond and an emeritus professor of urban studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. “It’s just a guess, but based on what I know about city-county relationships, public transit, and self-interest, I choose No. 3.”

Last Wednesday, the Chesterfield Board of Supervisors unanimously voted to discontinue by July the Route 81 Express from Chesterfield Plaza to downtown Richmond. That will leave it with one subsidized line connecting the county to the city — Route 82 Express, which runs from the Commonwealth 20 movie theater to downtown Richmond.

“One day, I hope we can have regional transportation, but it is not sustainable right now,” Supervisor James M. “Jim” Holland said.

The puddles in the boardroom were from crocodile tears.

The supervisors gutted the budget of the Route 81 Express, creating the ridership decline they used to justify killing it. What, exactly, did the board expect from a route that offered one round-trip in the morning and a single one-way trip from downtown Richmond to Chesterfield in the afternoon, with no stops in-between? The board couldn’t have undermined the bus route more effectively if it had let the air out of the tires.

As Richmond and Henrico County embark on a bus rapid transit system that is ultimately envisioned to reach Short Pump, it’s unimaginable that GRTC Pulse — with its dedicated lanes and light-rail style stations — will find its way to Midlothian Turnpike or Hull Street Road.

Chesterfield’s steadfast reluctance to use the transit system it co-owns is like a restaurant partner refusing to patronize the establishment because he or she doesn’t like the service or the price of the entrees.

“We’re part owner, but from a service standpoint it’s no different than anyone else,” said Jesse W. Smith, transportation director for Chesterfield. “If Henrico has a line, they have to pay for it. If we have a line, we have to pay for it.”

Well, why not buy more lines?

“The county really doesn’t have the density to support traditional bus service,” Smith said.

I’m not alone in seeing the county’s approach on mass transit as the myopic byproduct of a bygone era.

“They’re shooting themselves in the foot,” said Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. He observed that in today’s competitive marketplace for corporations and employees, the suburban office park model of the late 20th Century is fading fast as companies seek to appeal to a millennial workforce that increasingly eschews the automobile and would rather walk, bike or ride mass transit to work.

From Charlotte to Phoenix to Denver to Cleveland, “elected officials and business leaders recognize that transit provides a competitive edge,” Schwartz said. And while white-collar commuters increasingly covet alternatives to the automobile, “on the lower-income side, access to jobs and affordable transportation has been studied and found to be a primary tool in enabling people to escape poverty.”

Smith notes that the county is starting to see higher-density areas such as Stonebridge, a mixed-use community at the site of the old Cloverleaf Mall, and Meadowville Technology Park, site of the Amazon Fulfillment Center. It is also studying the Jefferson Davis Highway area of North Chesterfield.

“Transit is certainly difficult to make work in what really is a suburban locality. … We’re going to take a hard look at what makes sense here,” Smith said. “Then the question is, ‘How do you fund it?’”

Mass transit lines can be had at a fraction of the millions of dollars it costs to widen roads and build interchanges. But Chesterfield’s leadership has been loath to see mass transit for what it is — a public service requiring public infrastructure and, of course, public subsidy.

For decades, then-state Sen. John Watkins, a Republican who represented Chesterfield, was an often lonely voice in the wilderness on the need for mass transit.

“I did everything I could during my tenure in the legislature to try to keep things going, to no avail,” said Watkins, who retired last year.

He noted that when he joined the legislature in the 1980s, Fairfax County was adamant about not wanting buses, “and now they’re the biggest user of transit dollars in the state.”

“I think time is going to take us there. But it just wasn’t ready when some of us who were looking forward thought we should be getting ready. But you look at the millennials, they want transit. And I just hope that at some point we come to a point in time when we can say that is a more efficient way to do it. And we just don’t seem to be there yet.”

Watkins notes that Petersburg desperately needs a better connection to Richmond. He’s happy to see the advent of local bus rapid transit. “But until it starts crossing those lines into Henrico and into Chesterfield, it’s going to be limited.”

Pulling the plug on this bus route sends the wrong signal as the city and its surrounding counties work on a Richmond Regional Transit Vision Plan. Chesterfield, despite its dramatic demographic shifts and an increasing poverty rate, continues to turn a blind eye to residents who don’t own cars due to choice, age, disability or the inability to afford one.

Unfortunately, regional mass transit doesn’t work without meaningful cooperation from Chesterfield, the region’s most populous locale.

Until the county gets on board, Greater Richmond’s mass transit will be less than the sum of its parts.

Photo courtesy of Daniel Sangjib. Click here to read the original story.