GRTC bus driver George Barrett, 61, drops off the last of his rush-hour customers at a church parking lot and barrels down a dark residential road. He gestures toward the unoccupied seats on his outbound Stony Point Express, which picks up the No. 65 route to Stony Point Fashion Park, and declares: “The bus is empty. Now we're going to the fashion park.”
It's a recent Thursday evening about a month before GRTC's Jan. 31 elimination of the sparsely used mall run, which averages just 73 daily riders and is being cut along with five other historically underperforming routes. From the taxpayer's standpoint, getting rid of No. 65 is an unimpeachable move. GRTC's chief executive, John Lewis, says the route costs the company close to $900,000 a year to operate but last year brought in only $22,000 in fares.
But this was also the route that was supposed to bring shoppers to Stony Point and jobs to city residents. So what does its elimination mean for Lewis' long-term goal of expanding the transit company's presence in the surrounding counties?
Lewis says “there's no connection” between the loss of No. 65 and his broader plan for GRTC. “We will continue to strive to provide more regional service,” he says, “but that service has got to be efficient. This route does not meet that test.”
By comparison, the performance of routes to Henrico County's Willow Lawn Shopping Center and Regency Square Mall are “very good” and “good,” he says.
Trip Pollard, director of the land and community program at the Southern Environmental Law Center in Charlottesville, calls GRTC “a very effective agency” and says the economic climate makes service cutbacks inevitable. But he says budget reductions should be directed toward road construction, not public transit, especially “during a time of increasing ridership” in Virginia.
“We just don't give people realistic choices in this region to do anything but drive,” he says.
The No. 65 to Stony Point Fashion Park, which is within the city limits but close to Chesterfield and Henrico county suburbs, could have been a symbolic step toward the more integrated regional transit system Pollard advocates.
But “when we look at the … type of stores that are there, you know, I guess it doesn't meet our demographics,” GRTC's Lewis says.
Lewis says his main concern now is maintaining the level of service already provided to high-density city routes. “People in our core don't have options,” he says. “Our transit-dependent riders don't have the ability to get in a car one day and get on the bus the next.”