For the last five years, GRTC Transit System has been developing a plan to build and operate a rapid transit line along Broad Street, offering a 25-minute trip between the city center and Willow Lawn.
But at an estimated cost of $53 million, the project's expense has been a hurdle.
Now local officials say they're getting a break that could significantly speed up the project: the support of Gov. Terry McAuliffe.
The governor is expected to endorse GRTC's application for grant funding from a federal program, citing the project as statewide priority, according to city officials.
The support is considered critical because the grant program, commonly referred to as Tiger, is highly competitive. McAuliffe is expected to back only one application from the state, and city officials and transit advocates said his endorsement would essentially move GRTC's application to the top of the pile.
"With a project this size, getting the funding in place can take a while," said Lee Downey, the city's director of economic and community development. "And this may be a giant leap forward in that effort. People across the board recognize the huge benefit, but funding has always been an issue, and here we are presented with a funding option — a significant funding option — that has lots of support … state, local and regional."
While multiple sources confirmed McAuliffe's support for the project, the governor's office declined to confirm the decision. His spokesman, Brian Coy, said McAuliffe will make an announcement in the "near future."
Because no official announcement had been made, GRTC's chief executive, David Green, and other officials declined to speak publicly about the endorsement.
"We certainly hope the governor would support it," Green said. "That would be fantastic if that happened."
There were 568 applicants to the Tiger grant program last year, with 52 receiving awards. The program, administered by the U.S. Department of Transportation, provides funding for public transportation projects.
Green said GRTC is asking for $25 million, $17 million of which would come from state sources. The remaining $8 million would come from the city and Henrico County. If funding comes through, he said, construction could begin as soon as 2016.
The proposed line uses bus rapid transit, which operates more like a light rail system than a bus line. The service would run from Rocketts Landing to Willow Lawn, saving time with limited stops — 14 along the 7.6-mile route — and street-level stations where passengers buy tickets before boarding. The system would use dedicated traffic lanes in the city center and receive priority at traffic lights.
The service also would run more frequently than current lines, with service every 10 minutes during peak hours.
Advocates for better public transportation in the city were enthusiastic about the prospect of McAuliffe's support for what they describe as a long-sought improvement.
"To have the governor of your state supporting your proposal is a tremendous boost," said the Rev. Ben Campbell, a member of the steering committee of RVA Rapid Transit, which advocates for such transportation in the metro area. "This gives us a chance to get our project approved much more quickly and therefore begun much more quickly."
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the last name of the governor's press secretary.