Regional transportation scored a victory last week when Henrico County agreed to fund new bus routes set to begin operating Aug. 27.
The additions may sound small: The two vehicles will be vans instead of buses. Henrico will spend roughly $470,000 for both, a fraction of GRTC Transit System's total operating budget, and the routes are short -- one is a circulator focused in a single neighborhood and the other is a resurrected route down Laburnum Avenue.
Nevertheless, the new lines are expected to become important case studies for GRTC, which is undergoing an overhaul under GRTC Chief Executive John Lewis Jr..
"I think the makeup of our fleet will be very different over the next several years," Lewis says. Implementing small van lines fulfills a major methodological goal aimed at changing the composition of the present fleet from mostly big buses to a more diverse mix of smaller vehicles.
"Ten people on a 40-person bus is highly inefficient," Lewis says. "Ten people on an 18-passenger [van] is highly efficient."
He plans to let the community propose the decorations for the Central Gardens neighborhood van line, an old trick he used in Maryland. "We had a line that ran near the Baltimore zoo and it was painted with zoo animals," Lewis says. "The only problem was when it got taken in for maintenance, we'd get calls from the community asking where it had gone."
More than wide-eyed meerkats and prancing penguins, decorating the buses is a way to get the community more invested in public transportation, Lewis says.
"We're incrementally moving forward," he says.
The bus system has seen up-and-down successes during the past few months. An express bus that takes riders from the city to the commuter train station in Fredericksburg is growing in ridership, but not as quickly as GRTC had hoped. They're waiting to learn more in the fall when commuters come back from vacation.
More troubling are the circumstances surrounding the CARE van service for the elderly and disabled. Henrico recently approved money for more van service in the county, but the funding wasn't immediately matched by the city, making seamless schedules across jurisdictional lines nearly impossible.
The scramble to shore up funds from a variety of local, state and federal sources "highlights the dysfunction of our system," Lewis says.
"With a fractured system such as ours, it highlights the inequities that definitely need to be balanced out," he says. Finding a reliable cash flow has been another major priority for Lewis, and GRTC may have one other trick up its sleeve to help.
On Aug. 28, GRTC will celebrate the groundbreaking of its new facility on Belt Boulevard. The bus system, not the city, owns the roughly 5 acres of Fan property where the buses currently sit at Robinson and Cary streets. Lewis says he's hoping to explore the possibility of developing it into some kind of mixed-use project think condos and boutiques that could generate extra money for the buses. S