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2017-08-02 / Featured / Front Page

Is tide turning for public transit in Chesterfield?

BY JIM McCONNELL STAFF WRITER


County Supervisor Jim Holland has proposed a bus line that would run down Jeff Davis Highway to the county courthouse and back. 
ASH DANIEL County Supervisor Jim Holland has proposed a bus line that would run down Jeff Davis Highway to the county courthouse and back. ASH DANIEL A longtime political nonstarter, public transportation appears to be back on the table in Chesterfield. At the behest of county officials, a state agency is conducting a study of mass transit options for the economically depressed Jefferson Davis Highway corridor.

Staffers from multiple county departments have provided data to the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation (VDRPT), which will analyze it to produce a list of transit initiatives that could be successfully implemented along the corridor.

Work on the study began in April. Jesse Smith, the county’s transportation director, hopes it will be completed by the end of 2017. He will then provide the findings for consideration by the Board of Supervisors.

“As the county becomes increasingly dense, with an aging population, we’re seeing more diverse needs in terms of transportation,” Smith said in an interview earlier this month. “It makes sense to consider various options. We have to start somewhere.”

Chesterfield isn’t a total stranger to mass transit. The county shares ownership in the Greater Richmond Transit Company and maintains an express route that runs daily along Hull Street Road between the county and the city of Richmond. It also operates Access Chesterfield, a subsidized transportation service for seniors, the disabled and low-income citizens.

For decades, however, adding full-service bus lines in the county has been a political dead end. The fact that county leaders are even entertaining the possibility of running GRTC buses along U.S. Route 1 is a significant departure from the status quo.

Chris Winslow, who represents the Clover Hill District on the Board of Supervisors, said he and his fellow supervisors recognize there are citizens who can’t afford cars and need help from the local government to connect with job opportunities, as well as getting back and forth to grocery stores and other routine tasks.

“The question now comes to the board: How do we best address this issue?” Winslow said. “What do we put in place to assist residents? This deserves a thoughtful response.”

More than 6,000 people responded to the Blueprint Chesterfield survey last summer and ranked transportation as one of their top county government priorities, along with education and public safety.

Transportation also was a major topic of conversation at community meetings in the Bermuda and Dale districts prior to adoption of the county’s fiscal year 2018 budget.

“Citizen input matters. I’m pleased to see we’re responding to the will of the people,” said Dale Supervisor Jim Holland, the board’s most vocal advocate for mass transit.

Holland has proposed the creation of a new bus route that would start at the Food Lion grocery store on Jefferson Davis Highway, proceed south to state Route 10, then west to Chippenham Parkway before looping back to Route 10 to conclude at the Food Lion. According to an analysis prepared by GRTC, operating the fixed-route bus line Monday through Friday, a total of 255 weekdays, would cost the county approximately $436,000 per year.

An accompanying transportation service for disabled citizens, which is federally mandated for all localities that offer fixed-route service, would cost county taxpayers another $41,000.

The cost of operating the bus line has been estimated at $677,477, but GRTC anticipates nearly $200,000 annually in projected state assistance and fare collections. The total price tag to the county, according to GRTC, would be $477,329.

Holland’s proposal is based on 12 round trips daily. That would allow citizens to board a bus once an hour between 7 a.m. and 6 p.m. It’s unclear how many bus stops there would be along the 23-mile route.

“It’s critically important that people can get to jobs so they can sustain themselves and their families,” Holland said.

A recent study by researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University found a glaring geographic disconnect between affordable housing and many retail and service-sector jobs in Chesterfield, which makes it difficult for low-income citizens to access those employment opportunities.

“That’s one of the big issues in our region,” said Tom Jacobson, an urban planning professor at VCU and a former director of the county’s Planning Department.

County leaders are trying to identify the most cost-effective way to address the transportation needs of low-income residents along the Jefferson Davis Highway corridor.

Dorothy Jaeckle, chairwoman of the Board of Supervisors, said the county doesn’t have the population density to support Holland’s proposed bus route.

GRTC’s analysis projects that only about 9 percent of the annual cost for operating the Route 1/Route 10/Chippenham loop would be recouped through bus fares.

Another potential drawback to such a plan is the lack of sidewalks along Jefferson Davis Highway, which would be necessary for people to safely walk from their homes to bus stops. Such infrastructure likely would cost in the tens of millions of dollars to construct.

Both Jaeckle and Winslow suggested the county explore subsidizing automobile-based transportation services, such as Uber or Lyft, for low-income citizens on an as-needed basis.

“Automobiles are the most efficient means of transportation in the suburbs,” Jaeckle said.

Such services are accessible through an app, however, which would require citizens to have smartphones.

The current draft of the county’s Northern Jefferson Davis Special Area Plan also mentions the possibility of operating a trolley service along the U.S. 1 corridor.

According to Smith, the county presented each of those options and a significant amount of demographic data for consideration by the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation as part of its Chesterfield transit study.

VDRPT was one of the sponsors of the Greater RVA Transit Vision Plan, which provides a long-term vision for implementing public transportation across the Richmond region between now and 2040.

The Transit Vision Plan, which was released last year, recommends enhanced local bus service along Jefferson Davis Highway between downtown Richmond and John Tyler Community College’s Chester campus, with daily service every 15 to 20 minutes and stops at major retail centers.

It identifies the U.S. Route 1 corridor as one of the areas in the Richmond region that could benefit significantly from increased citizen access to employment opportunities.

But Winslow said he still has yet to see a transit plan that “checks all the boxes” for Chesterfield.

“You can draw whatever line you want on a map,” he added. “It doesn’t address where the money is going to come from to pay for it.” ¦

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