2018-04-25 / Featured / Front Page

How Chesterfield, Henrico diverge on mass transit


While Chesterfield is experimenting with Uber, Henrico is poised to make big investments in GRTC bus service, including $1.2 million this year to extend hours of operations and weekend routes along West Broad Street. 
ASH DANIEL While Chesterfield is experimenting with Uber, Henrico is poised to make big investments in GRTC bus service, including $1.2 million this year to extend hours of operations and weekend routes along West Broad Street. ASH DANIEL Following a proposal to create a bus line along some of Chesterfield’s poorest areas, the response of some county officials may have initially seemed reminiscent of Marie Antoinette: Let them take Uber.

As it turns out, they were serious. Presently, the county is considering the creation of a subsidized service for low-income residents through the ride provider. Last month, Chesterfield launched a pilot program to give some county residents free Uber rides, the data from which will be used to study whether a similar program could serve as a transportation alternative to fixed-route buses.

Additionally, the county recently upped its spending for Access Chesterfield, a subsidized transportation service for seniors, the disabled and low-income residents. For mass transit advocates, it’s hard not to see these developments as a further step away from the traditional bus lines operated by GRTC Transit System. Presently, Chesterfield funds just one GRTC route, an express line that runs from the Commonwealth 20 movie theater off Hull Street Road to downtown Richmond.

Some transit advocates see Chesterfield’s Uber experiment as a positive sign. But when it comes to public transportation, the county is years behind Henrico, which has long incorporated bus lines along busy corridors. 
ASH DANIEL Some transit advocates see Chesterfield’s Uber experiment as a positive sign. But when it comes to public transportation, the county is years behind Henrico, which has long incorporated bus lines along busy corridors. ASH DANIEL At the same time, Henrico not only has multiple GRTC bus routes, but recently announced proposals to expand three of its bus lines, better connecting riders to downtown, Willow Lawn and Richmond International Airport.

The recent developments highlight how the region’s two most populous localities are moving in opposite directions. But which is right?  

Approaching the podium at a Chesterfield Board of Supervisors meeting in November 2016, Cloud Ramirez had an invitation in mind. Wearing a gray sweater over a white turtleneck, Ramirez addressed the board, asking members to take a walk with her.

To get groceries at the Food Lion nearly a mile and a half from her apartment complex on Jefferson Davis Highway, Ramirez’ neighbors must traverse grassy medians and narrow shoulders as cars whizz by at high speed. The minister and co-founder of the nonprofit Empowered Warriors asked the board to take the trek with her.

“In the community I live in, we might as well be an island,” she said, one of a few speakers to address the topic that evening. “Our families generally have to clothe and feed their children and themselves from the Dollar Tree across the street.”

In the year and a half since, it appears Ramirez’ message has gained some traction. Last May, Dale District representative Jim Holland proposed creating a 23-mile GRTC bus line through the area that would cost the county an estimated $436,000 a year.

While that plan was never formally proposed by county staff to the board, two other board members suggested that the county look at subsidizing service for low-income citizens through ride providers like Uber or Lyft on an as-needed basis.

Last month, Chesterfield launched a pilot transportation program to do just that, providing some county residents with Uber rides free of charge. A joint venture of the county’s Community Services Board and Goodwill of Central and Coastal Virginia, the program allows those who don’t own cars and are undergoing opioid addiction treatment through the county’s Mental Health Support Services Department to take point-to-point transportation through the app. The pilot is fully funded through April 30.

To arrange rides, participants call Goodwill to schedule trips through Uber’s business division. The county is reimbursing Goodwill on a per-mile basis, and Goodwill and Uber are splitting a $5 per-ride administrative fee. County officials say they’re serious about the pilot and what it could mean for transportation in Chesterfield.

“If it works, the sky’s the limit,” says Sarah Snead, deputy county administrator for human services. “Our next thought is to do a pilot for low-income people on Jeff Davis and see how that works to get people from Point A to Point B when they need to go get groceries or go to work and so forth.”

Earlier this month, the Board of Supervisors voted to increase its funding for Access Chesterfield by $273,500. The ride-sharing program is paid for in part by public subsidies and is expected to provide about 55,000 rides for seniors, low-income residents and the disabled in fiscal year 2019. Riders pay $6 for each one-way trip, and the county pays $33.15.

“It’s not for everybody,” says Dawn Missori, the county’s alternative transportation manager. “It may be your senior who has to use it once or twice for medical appointments because they don’t have family around. A big one is people being released from the hospital who can’t drive for a limited period of time. They register, use it and never ride again.”

Though Chesterfield owns 50 percent of the GRTC Transit System, it funds just one line, the Route 82 Express bus that runs from the Commonwealth 20 movie theater to downtown Richmond. Last July, the county stopped funding its 81 Express route, which ran from the Lowe’s parking lot behind Chesterfield Towne Center to downtown.

While other bus lines terminate in Chesterfield just over the county line – Routes 63 and 71, for instance – those are funded by the city.

Henrico is taking a different approach. Not only does the county fund multiple GRTC lines, but it has plans to expand its service into Short Pump and increase the frequency of that and two other bus lines. If approved for next fiscal year’s budget, the $1.2 million proposed expansion would take place when GRTC’s bus rapid transit line, Pulse, begins operating sometime this fall. The three routes – the 7, 19 and 91 – service the bulk of Henrico’s ridership.

The expansion of service to the airport is touted as a boon to more than flyers. “It’s not just a travel center. It’s a major employment center,” says Carrie Rose Pace, a spokeswoman for GRTC, adding that it’s “going to provide people the opportunity to reliably and consistently get to their jobs.”

Steve Yob, director of Henrico’s Department of Public Works, says the proposed changes are based on customer demand.

“We’ve been receiving requests for this for some while,” Yob says.

Henrico’s transit changes are expected to be approved as part of the budget vote, which will take place at the Board of Supervisors meeting on April 24.  

Historically, Chesterfield has been seen as resistant to mass transit. In 1973, GRTC was formed when local, state and federal funds were used to purchase the assets of the Virginia Transit Company. Chesterfield paid $50,000 to purchase 50 percent of the public service company in 1989.

It would take until 2001 for Chesterfield to implement actual GRTC bus service, a three-year pilot for a service called Chesterfield Link that was subsidized with state funds. Chesterfield’s reluctance to add full-service bus lines struck some observers as being racially motivated, with then-City Councilman Tim Kaine telling the Richmond Times-Dispatch in 1996 that “Chesterfield officials have told me off the record that race is a factor.”

But Lane Ramsey, who served as county administrator from 1987 to 2007, says race was far from a factor in how Chesterfield handled transportation.

“I never had any discussion with my board members or my staff that that ever came up as an issue,” Ramsey says. “I never, ever, ever heard anything that came close to that.”

Instead, Ramsey says that the late 1980s were a period of regional cooperation, and that when Richmond came to Chesterfield with the option of buying into the service, the county saw it as a need for the future. When the county was looking into bus routes along Midlothian Turnpike, Jefferson Davis Highway and Hull Street Road, questionnaires were sent to people along the thoroughfares who could feasibly walk to catch the bus. Less than 5 percent of respondents said they would use the service, Lane says.

“We were sort of surprised,” Ramsey says. “That kind of kept Chesterfield from considering a major expansion of the bus lines, and [we instead decided to implement] service from a set location to job centers.”

When Chesterfield purchased half of GRTC, the county added three people to the transit system’s board, which Ramsey said was a boon to the service. “[Chesterfield] really took leadership roles in the management of how GRTC was run,” Ramsey says. “From a Chesterfield standpoint, [that] was a great contribution.”

While Chesterfield may have ducked GRTC service, it has offered other transit options over the years. In 1990, it operated a Human Service route up and down Jefferson Davis Highway to the county government complex. It also conducted adult day care runs five days a week to Lucy Corr, then created Access Chesterfield in 2004.

Henrico, on the other hand, began implementing GRTC service back in 1975, and extended it to include Virginia Center Commons and J. Sargent Reynolds Community College in 2003. Now, it looks to conduct its biggest expansion of bus service in 25 years.

When looking at any issue from a regional perspective, it’s hard not to compare Chesterfield to Henrico. Both suburbs of Richmond have a similar population figure, an affluent western side and higher poverty to the east.

So, when it comes to public transportation, which locality has the right idea? It depends on who you ask.

Talk to Chesterfield’s transportation officials and you’ll hear that the makeup of the county doesn’t support fixed-route transit.

“We’re not really set up to bring buses into the county,” Missori says. “Chesterfield County has roughly 800 people per square mile. Cities with bus service have 3,500 to 4,000 people per square mile.”

While it’s true that Henrico has approximately 1,361 people per square mile on average, portions of Chesterfield are just as dense as Henrico. Comparing 2016 figures from the planning departments of both counties reveals areas of roughly 2,000 to 5,000 people per square mile: Chesterfield’s population centers are mainly in Midlothian/ Bon Air, while Henrico’s are on the western end of the locality.

Ross Catrow, an organizer with mass transit advocacy group RVA Rapid Transit, disagrees with Chesterfield’s methodology.

“It’s not super fair to use average density like that. [The Jefferson Davis Highway, Midlothian Turnpike and Hull Street Road corridors are] certainly dense enough to support [it],” Catrow says. “There’s nothing specially preventing Chesterfield in terms of layout or demographics from having fixed routes.”

While he applauds Chesterfield for being willing to experiment with different methods of transportation, Catrow says fixed-route transit is the way to go: “The most ineffective suburban bus usually performs twice as well as the best on-demand system” based on riders served per hour.

George Hoffer, an economics professor at the University of Richmond who specializes in transportation, doesn’t agree. He contends that traditional buses make more sense in Henrico than they do in Chesterfield, saying Henrico has more fixed destinations and is more compact, meaning that the transit cost per mile is lower. Broad Street, for instance, is a concentrated area of worker demand. “Where Henrico is expanding, there’s a critical mass of ridership and critical destinations,” Hoffer says. “My perception [is that] Chesterfield is much more sprawling. … You can’t get any critical minimal level of ridership to make any kind of public transit logical.”

Hoffer is instead a fan of Chesterfield’s pilot.

“In essence, Henrico’s expansion of transportation raises its fixed costs,” Hoffer says. “Chesterfield is going on a variable cost, meaning they’re only going on an as-needed basis.”

As there can be public outcry when fixed-route transit is given the ax, Hoffer says the pilot can be used to feel out the market with few consequences.

“I applaud them for it,” he says. “It really makes sense. And, if there’s no demand, there’s no cost. If the demand later appears to be much more than they expected … then you might substitute fixed-route transit.”

Long an advocate for expanding bus service, Catrow prefers Henrico’s recent moves.

“What Henrico is doing is amazing. It leaves me a little speechless, honestly,” Catrow says. “[Chesterfield’s pilot is] obviously a useful program for a segment of the population, but at the same point, it’s not a replacement for fixed-route mass transit.”

Catrow hopes that future developments will follow the outline expressed in the Greater RVA Transit Vision Plan, a proposal for what Richmond’s transit options might look like in the future. Created by the Virginia Department of Rail and Transportation and released last year, the plan is intended to serve as a planning document for public transit looking toward 2040.

The plan incorporates multiple levels of transportation, including the expansion of bus rapid transit lines down Midlothian Turnpike and Hull Street Road, and additional service down Jefferson Davis Highway.

“That’s really what we want to see, the implementation of that plan,” Catrow says.

For her part, Ramirez is hopeful that the pilot program will lead to additional transportation developments.

“It’s a great start, but I think with that limited access that if they base their judgment on those numbers, it will be a small quantity” of riders, she says.

Ramirez says she’s been working with County Administrator Joe Casey and is conducting outreach to see what rider demands are. Part of that effort includes a survey of potential locations that public transit could serve.

“I think he’s really trying to help,” she says of Casey. “I just hope that they don’t base their judgment and their decisions on that one small group of people.”

As for what transit options Chesterfield might ultimately end up with, county officials sound hopeful of addressing citizens’ needs.

“We’re in exploration mode,” says Snead, deputy county administrator for human services, “but we’re serious about it.” ¦

Senior writer Jim McConnell contributed to this report.

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