Economic buses? New study may shift debate
Researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University are wrapping up a study looking at the economic impact of expanding GRTC bus lines deep into the county. The study, commissioned by the city of Richmond, comes on the heels of recommendations by Mayor Dwight Jones’ anti-poverty commission, which made expanding mass transit into the surrounding counties – to connect the city’s poorest residents with more job opportunities – a key tenet.
“We have done an extensive [literature] review, trying to understand, ‘What is the relationship with public transportation and the regional economy?’” said Fabrizio Fasulo, research associate and economist for Virginia Commonwealth
University’s Center for Urban and Regional Development. “What is the effect on the regional economy?”
Nearly a year in the making, the study is expected to be complete this fall, Fasulo said. As part of the study, the Chesterfield County Chamber of Commerce has helped organize three focus groups of local businesses (one each for the businesses on Routes 60, 360 and 10) to gauge support for expanding bus lines.
Earlier this month, 15 people who own businesses in the Route 60 corridor sat around a table in the community room at Chesterfield Towne Center and discussed the potential impact of additional bus service in western Chesterfield.
“There were definitely people there who felt it would be beneficial to their businesses from a business standpoint,” said Ashley York Venable, senior manager of property management for Chesterfield Towne Center. “Overall, it was very positive. We’re all interested to see what the study says.”
Expanding bus lines into Chesterfield – the county already has limited express lines that pick up and drop off riders behind Chesterfield Towne Center, in the Lowe’s parking lot, and at Commonwealth Centre Parkway off Hull Street Road – has long been a hotly debated topic. Historically, the county’s resistance to bus lines has been a political issue, but in recent years the debate has centered more on economics.
Expanding full-service bus lines into the county is difficult because of the sprawling nature of the population. It’s difficult to find clusters of residential housing close enough to create efficient bus stops with enough traffic to make the buses self-sustaining. In other words, to expand bus lines into Chesterfield, someone is going to have pay for it.
State Sen. John Watkins (R-10th), a longtime supporter of regional transit, said his recent attempt at including a funding source in Gov. Bob McDonnell’s transportation package was shot down, ironically, by Richmond’s mayor.
Multiple sources, some even within his own party, blamed Dwight Jones for scuttling at the 11th hour a Virginia Senate bill that would’ve equalized representation on the Richmond Metropolitan Authority’s board of directors between the city and the counties of Chesterfield and Henrico. Jones, for his part, has maintained that he didn’t pull his support.
As part of a compromise brokered by Watkins, the passage of that bill also would’ve made it possible to include a dedicated revenue stream for Richmond region mass transit in the transportation bill that passed earlier this year.
Instead, the RMA bill’s unexpected failure brought discussion about regional mass transit, Watkins said, to a halt.
“The city was going to benefit from that deal more than anybody else and the mayor shot it down,” Watkins said, adding that he plans to reintroduce the bill next year. “There were plenty of people who were willing to stand up and push for it. It just makes you scratch your head.”
How the RMA issue plays out in 2014 remains to be seen. But there is some indication that regional buses are gaining traction. Recent research, for starters, has heightened awareness of the metro area’s transportation deficiencies.
A July 2012 report from the Brookings Institution found that metro Richmond is in the bottom 10 percent of America’s 100 largest cities for creating access to jobs through the use of public transportation.
The Washington-based think tank’s study also concluded that only 27 percent of the jobs in the Richmond region are accessible by bus, seriously limiting employment opportunities for those living in extreme poverty.
Still, the issue of expanding transit in the region will come at a cost. During public meetings of the mayor’s anti-poverty commission more than a year ago, the Rev. Ben Campbell, pastoral director of Richmond Hill, highlighted the issue in pushing for change.
He said then that creating true regional transit in Chesterfield County could cost upward of $60 million. But if the money were there, he said, it could be accomplished within six months.
Larry Hagin, director of planning and scheduling for GRTC Transit System, acknowledged that the bus company has consulted with Jones’ commission. Economic issues long have been the most significant roadblock to any expansion of mass transit in the Richmond area, Hagin said. Because the region is so spread out, particularly in the suburbs, it’s difficult to connect residents with bus lines efficiently.
“The city’s anti-poverty commission has a transportation element. We were part of that discussion of where it would go, the relationship to jobs,” said Hagin, whose first impression was that the commission’s recommendations were fairly ambitious.
Hagin remembers thinking to himself: “This is a lot of transit and it’s really expensive.”
Indeed, full-service buses are a lot more expensive than what is currently in place. Henrico County, which contracts with GRTC to provide local and express bus service on a lane-mile basis, spends about $5 million a year on public transportation.
Chesterfield pays $368,000 annually for five round-trip GRTC commuter bus routes that run weekdays between the county and Richmond. Three operate in the Hull Street Road corridor and two on Midlothian Turnpike.
During an interview earlier this year in the wake of the RMA flap, Matoaca District Supervisor Steve Elswick noted that expanding beyond those express routes is a non-starter for the county at this point.
“We can’t afford to do it,” he said.
GRTC is owned jointly by Chesterfield and the city of Richmond. Each locality appoints three of the six members of the board of directors. Most of the company’s funding comes from fares, state and federal grants, and route subsidies.
The county’s ownership stake doesn’t represent an ongoing financial commitment, though. Chesterfield only obligates itself to contribute money to GRTC if it opts to have buses provide service in the county.
For years, Chesterfield’s leaders have insisted that the county’s population density doesn’t justify significant expenditures on public transportation. Depending on the results of VCU’s economic impact study, that argument could shift in the coming months.
Watkins believes the calculus eventually will change. He noted that when he was first elected to the Virginia House of Delegates in 1982, Fairfax County was a staunch opponent of mass transit; today, Fairfax is the most affluent suburb in Virginia and the commonwealth’s largest consumer of public transportation.
Watkins suggested that it might take an “out of the box” proposal, perhaps one similar to Virginia Beach’s light rail system, to get the city and counties on the same page.
“For the Richmond region to benefit from the economies of scale that Northern Virginia has enjoyed, we’re going to have to make those transportation connections work,” he said. “We’re not there yet. But when the need gets great enough, there will be strong leadership that will rise up and say, ‘It’s time.’”
Editor Scott Bass contributed to this story.