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Is Henrico Getting on the Bus?

Top county officials talk about what it would take to make a rapid transit system a reality.

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Why can’t it be extended to Innsbrook and Short Pump? That’s the first question GRTC Transit System administrators fielded last night from a crowd of more than 150 people, who came to get an update on a proposal for a new $70 million rapid route between Willow Lawn and Rocketts Landing.

The query drew a round of loud applause. The Rev. Ben Campbell, a longtime advocate for regional rapid transit, says the fact that a large enough crowd was there to generate applause was a major step forward. Lately, he says, the level of support for rapid transit has increased exponentially.

“I was at a meeting three or four years ago when basically the same proposal was presented, and there were only 20 people there,” Campbell says. “So this is a very different thing to have this level of energy.”

Attendance and enthusiasm levels aside, something else unusual happened: Henrico County Manager John Vithoulkas, who’d been sitting quietly in the audience, stood, unprompted, to offer Henrico County’s perspective on the “Why not to Short Pump?” question.

“We’ve spent $25 million over the past five years on the GRTC,” he told the crowd. “Do you know how much the locality to the south [Chesterfield] spent? $600,000 over five years.”

Then, in a drop-the-mic moment, Vithoulkas added: “This is an exciting project, but if you want to talk about transit in the Richmond region, talk about transit in the Richmond region. Thank you.”

He may have been bullish and done little more than bounce the ball into Chesterfield’s court. But GRTC administrators say the decision of a Henrico County official to attend was a significant -- and unprecedented -- step forward. Rapid transit advocates had a similar take. “There was no reason why the Henrico County manager had to be there,” Campbell says. “He chose to be there. And I see that as significant.”

After the meeting, Style spoke with Vithoulkas about what he thinks needs to happen to make a functional, region-wide, rapid-transit system a reality. In short, he said GRTC is in the best position to put a plan forward and get the necessary buy-in from the counties. But -- and this is a big but -- cost is going to be a huge issue. Here's the exchange:

Style: You said very clearly that this needs to be a regional conversation. My question is where and when -- realistically -- is this conversation is going to happen? We’ve been talking about this stuff for years.

Vithoulkas: So I think right now you’ve got, realistically, a transit company that can provide service. You’ve got the mechanism. It’s there. You have GRTC that can provide the service. If you want to talk about enhancing service, you’re talking about expanding routes. That’s a fairly … you know -- that’s not a complicated question. What complicates it is resources. In the case of Henrico, we’re putting in over $7 million worth of local dollars into transit efforts. In the case of the city, I think they’re putting in $12 million. In the case of Chesterfield County, I think their number is $300,000 a year. There is an inequity there as far as what’s being funded.

In terms of a resolution is it just anybody’s guess how that will happen?

No, I think the first thing that has to happen, is you’ve got to start the conversation and not be afraid of the conversation.

Whose job is it to start the conversation?

I think groups like this are doing a good job.

GRTC administrators and transit advocates describe the Broad Street rapid transit line as a kind of pilot project for a bigger system. If they can show it works in the city, they say they’ll have an easier time making a pitch for expansion to the counties.

A final round of public meetings will be held next spring. If the public is on board, GRTC can start applying for federal funding.

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