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Transit System Finds a Way to Cut Through the Red Tape

Bus line changes will no longer require city council approval.

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Buses in the city of Richmond no longer will travel wherever city politicians think they should. Last week GRTC Transit System won the right to tweak lines and change services without first seeking City Council's approval.

Until now, shifting a line just two blocks required a public hearing at City Hall and a council vote, meaning changes — however minor or uncontroversial — often were delayed or never pursued. The last major route adjustment came in 2008, when GRTC had to battle to eliminate a line that had 20 riders a day.

In effect, last week's action by council depoliticizes bus routes, meaning no more messy fights to change routes with abysmal ridership. A GRTC task force requested the change earlier this year.

"Economics should be running the system, not politics," 1st District City Councilman Jon Baliles, a member of the task force, said after the vote.

Other councilmen seemed to share Baliles' view. Their decision to approve the change also was notable because it was totally uncontroversial. The vote passed unanimously without debate.

So what kinds of crazy things are in store now that GRTC has the power to, you know, run its system?

None, says Larry Hagin, GRTC's director of planning. At least nothing major in the immediate future. He says any given line might be shifted a block here or there if the system thinks it might be able to win new customers or better serve existing ones. But Hagin struggles to come up with any examples of a tweak he's been itching to make.

That's not to say he isn't thrilled. "This is a really huge issue for us," he says. "There's a general understanding that we know the most about the service and making changes to it, and having to go through City Council has seemed like a cumbersome prospect."

Changes will continue to be driven by ridership statistics and community planning studies, Hagin says. And to anyone with doomsday visions of the system retracting, he says, fear not: Any major reductions in service will still require a public hearing under federal law. The new policy also doesn't affect GRTC vans that serve the disabled. Reductions to that service are before City Council.

The change also won't make it much easier for GRTC to get the transfer station it's been pursuing for years, Hagin says. The struggle for that has been about acquiring the necessary land. But if it does find a suitable location, adjusting routes to converge there will be a breeze.

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