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Engine Trouble

While city leaders focus on improved rail service, few seem interested in improving the region's only true mass-transit option: buses.

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Fifth District Councilman Marty Jewell recalls when the Richmond Public Schools used city buses to get pupils to and from class. It didn't last.

“The complaint was that the kids were ripping up the seats,” Jewell says. Loud noise from boomboxes and other displays also “became a bit untenable back in the day,” he says. But boomboxes are gone and there are no cushioned seats. “It's all singular molded plastic,” Jewell says.

A renewed partnership between the GRTC Transit System and the Richmond Public Schools was just one of the last-ditch ideas that City Council members floated last week for the ailing bus system. Facing a $5.4-million deficit — the result of state and federal funding cuts and flat-lined budgets from Richmond and Henrico County — GRTC Chief Executive John Lewis successfully asked council to raise all fares by 25 cents.

The increase is intended to generate an additional $1.5 million needed next year after making other cuts such as route eliminations and less frequent service.

But the first fare jump since 1992 came with protests from the recently formed Richmond Transit Riders Union and chagrin from council members wary of the burden on public transit's core riders — a demographic heavily populated by low-income, disabled and elderly residents.

Amid pledges to revisit the budget with Mayor Dwight C. Jones — Councilwoman Ellen F. Robertson asked the administration for an additional $1 million and Jewell wanted to dip into the city's rainy day fund — the hand-wringing over fares sparked a broader debate among council about GRTC's role in regional transit.

While the city pushes aggressively to bring faster rail to Main Street Station and turn Richmond into a true regional transportation hub, GRTC continues to face obstacles extending service into the counties and gets politically shortchanged.

Ironically, GRTC's Lewis says, the city's efforts to secure federal funding for rail improvements hinges, in part, on the quality of the regional bus system.

Lewis, who says he continues to work with city officials on additional applications for federal high-speed rail grants and a possible bus-transfer hub at Main Street Station, the bus system's financial weakness already has affected Richmond's bid to be viewed as a regional transit player.

In the state's request last year for $1.5 billion for higher-speed rail improvements, Richmond applied for $491 million to upgrade CSX's Acca rail yard and Main Street Station. The state received only $75 million in federal stimulus money for rail, all of it for improvements in Northern Virginia.

“If you go back and look at the regions that received money from the federal government for high-speed rail,” Lewis says, “one thing that is abundant, that is absolutely clear [is that] those systems were very strong, very well-funded, truly regional transit systems.”

The bus system's political issues have a long history. For Jewell, it starts with GRTC's ownership. In a move that many observers say was motivated by racism, Chesterfield County purchased half the company's shares in 1989 but long has refused to pay for bus service into the county. Chesterfield now has two dedicated express lines that are paid for by the state, but that money ends next year.

“We've not been able to get past this pernicious intent of all these years to block GRTC service out into the county,” Jewell says. “The attitudes in Chesterfield County may prove to be very, very different and more progressive” these days, Jewell adds, “but nobody's testing that.”

But some people closer to county lines say the demand for transit just isn't there.

“Stop putting the money into the GRTC system and give it back to the taxpayers,” says 1st District Councilman Bruce Tyler, who has called for a task force to examine GRTC's structure and proposes an “on-demand transit system” employing vans at strategic locations. “I'm not saying take the bus system away,” he says, but “until we prove to the counties that we have a system that's cost-effective and is something that people would want to use, there's no reason to join in.”

Henrico County Manager Virgil Hazelett says demand for buses hinges on density. Given the county's sprawling development patterns, what Hazelett considers “natural migration” by choice, “the majority of the citizens are more concerned about roads than public transit.” To account for its own budget shortfalls, Henrico cut two underperforming bus routes this month, one in the county's East End and the other taking passengers between the city and park-and-ride stops in the West End.

“It's hard to criticize the county for not being more of a player when there hasn't been a lot of success in the new routes,” says George Hoffer, an economics professor at Virginia Commonwealth University who studies transportation trends. He says that “even the most dramatic increase” proportionally in the 25-cent GRTC fare increase — in this case, among seniors and the disabled — is lower than the rate of inflation since 1992.

Hazelett says that providing a dedicated funding source for GRTC — which Lewis and public transit advocates say is vital to growing a better regional system — would involve General Assembly action to establish a public transit tax, raise the gas tax or set up a regional transit authority to do so.

“This is where you get into the philosophical position of who is responsible for what,” Hazelett says.

In other words, which comes first: the chicken or the egg? There's growing evidence that timing is right to test the waters. According to the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation, the number of public transit trips — buses and rail — jumped 19 percent between 2004 and 2008, compared with national growth of 15 percent. While gas prices remain high and environmental concerns mount, more people opt for public transit where it's available.

Richmond remains a laggard. In a state transportation report in April, the city accounted for a meager 5.5 percent of public transit trips statewide, lagging behind Hampton Roads at 9.1 percent and dwarfed by Northern Virginia at 74.1 percent.

“I think this region really has to decide how high a priority public transit is going to be,” Lewis says, “if we want to make a credible argument to the federal government that it should invest billions of dollars in high-speed rail.”

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