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Pump Change

Rising gas prices have cities everywhere reinvesting in public transportation. Is Richmond next?


Today's sticker shock: $48.12. But would he ride the bus instead? No, says the social worker who lives and works in Richmond — driving is much more convenient. In years past, Page took the bus from time to time. But now he's become reliant on his own wheels and says flatly of public transit: "It could be better."

Sure it hurts now, but economists keep telling us the pain at the pump is good for us in the long run. Think of it, they say: With gas averaging $3 a gallon, people are driving less, conserving energy, saving the environment and thinking globally.

Just last week, the Greater Richmond Transit Co. reported ridership was up 16 percent in March from the same period last year. With economists forecasting that high gas prices are here to stay and will likely to continue rising during the next few years, the outlook seems bullish for GRTC's buses.

But could pricey petrol actually push a critical mass of people to commit long-term to public transit? If history is an indicator, the answer appears easy: not even close. We're too attached to our SUVs and far-flung cul-de-sacs.

Yet surprisingly, on this subject, area officials and transportation experts disagree. Some say the high cost of gas — if sustained as economists predict — could be a turning point in changing the way people get around the city, exurbs and suburbs. And more than the immediate forking over at the pump or the farebox, the rising cost of gas has government officials across the country seeing long outdated and outmoded regional transits with fresh eyes.

The reasons for their renewed interest stem from demographic, economic and, to a lesser extent, quality-of-life issues. People are spread out more than ever, living and working in urban areas and in the suburbs. Short Pump, for example, has become its own thriving township 13 miles from city limits. Still, the masses — including a rising number of seniors — want to be connected to such places as Short Pump Town Center and the 17th Street Farmers' Market, Stony Point Fashion Park and the future mall in Chesterfield County at Route 288. The question is whether they want to do it without getting in their own cars.

For the first time in a decade, local and state officials are conducting a regional mass-transit study to figure out what Greater Richmond's public transportation network should look like and who it could serve. Administered by the Richmond Regional Planning District Commission, the study, including staffing, costs $400,000 in state and federal money and will take a year to 18 months to complete. In the meantime, GRTC is conducting its own grant-funded $330,000 study, its first comprehensive analysis in five years. Style's calls to GRTC Chief Executive John M. Lewis Jr. seeking comment for this story were not returned.

Officials say the studies will help map the future of public transportation — high-speed rail, downtown circulators, trolleys, a web of express routes connecting the margins of counties to the city — in the metro area and place the Richmond region in the company of cities such as Philadelphia, Atlanta or Chicago.

But there are skeptics. George Hoffer, a professor of transportation economics at Virginia Commonwealth University, says people are simply too attached to their cars.

"I just don't see the future of public transportation in Richmond," Hoffer says, stressing that he's an advocate of public transportation. He just doesn't think the lifestyle in and around Richmond merits — or, more important, will support — a truly regional approach to mass transit.

"I'm not saying high gas prices aren't crimping people," Hoffer says, "but I'd be dumbfounded if I'm wrong." Why? Take a look around, he says. Traffic congestion in Richmond, at its worst, is nothing compared with that in nearby Northern Virginia or Hampton Roads. While GRTC and carpool programs such as Ridefinders boast increased participation, Park and Ride lots are still sparse with cars.

What's more, drivers of SUVs, luxury vehicles or sports cars would switch to more economical vehicles long before taking any form of mass transit, Hoffer insists. National trends indicate the popularity of the SUV is on the decline. In other words, in a city such as Richmond, with one of the most accessible highway systems on the East Coast, the cost savings of taking public transit is small potatoes compared with the time saved by driving to and from work.

Gerald P. McCarthy, Richmond's representative on the 17-member Commonwealth Transportation Board, disagrees. He describes the rising gas costs as "a wake-up call to a truly complex, global subject" that influences the way people make decisions about the "big three Es": energy, economics and the environment.

But as a region we have far to go, McCarthy says. Pinching gas costs, traffic congestion, poor air quality and oil dependency are inducements to mass transit but have limited resonance when few alternatives to driving exist.

"First, there have to be options," McCarthy says. "We are the largest region of this size in the country without a regional transit system." He also trumpets the recent jump in GRTC's ridership along two new express routes into Chesterfield County — where politicians have long resisted public transit — as a sign of things to come.

The Metropolitan Planning Organization, made up of officials and representatives from Richmond, Henrico and Chesterfield counties, and as far away as Goochland and Charles City counties, is also taking an invigorated look at regional transit.

"Until last fall, it wasn't a priority," McCarthy says.

In October Jim Dunn, executive director of the Greater Richmond Chamber of Commerce, and former Virginia Gov. Gerald Baliles led the push to take a closer look at mass transit in and around the city. By making the issue a priority, McCarthy says, the MPO was able to secure state and federal funding and conduct its research in conjunction with the GRTC study. "It's a very significant step," McCarthy says, that ultimately means one thing: "There will be a regional plan."

City Councilman William J. "Bill" Pantele hopes the plan will include funding a $2.5 million "downtown circulator" involving trolleys he proposed last year to City Council, city administrators and VCU. The trolleys, branching major corridors north and south from downtown and west to the Boulevard, would serve residents, tourists, workers and students, says Pantele, who's met with VCU officials about a $1 million contribution to the project.

And while the downtown circulator is its own animal, Pantele is pushing for GRTC to make it a fundamental part of its study. As he sees it, the circulator, while focusing on downtown and midtown Richmond, would "plug into a regional transit system" carrying people along various arteries into Chesterfield County along Hull Street and into Henrico County along Route 1 and Route 301, for instance.

There's reason to be optimistic. If public transit is a complex and difficult business, GRTC — with its fleet of 175 or so buses and express vans — is considered highly efficient among its peers. Dan Lysy, director of transportation for the Richmond Regional Planning District Commission, says the time is ripe to expand GRTC.

"Our population threshold in terms of light rail or commuter rail is reaching that mode" of New York, Philadelphia or Chicago, Lysy says, adding that Richmond is the 50th largest metro area in the nation. Still, unlike Arlington, which tacks on a 4-cent tax of its own to the state's 17.5-cent-per-gallon gas tax and receives billions in federal transportation funds because of its ties into Washington, D.C.'s, metro line, Richmond and its surrounding counties have "no dedicated funding" for regional transportation.

What the region does have, Lysy says, is the go-ahead for a comprehensive forecast of what could be. Considering the politics and history of public transit in the region, money, obviously, will become the biggest issue. Chesterfield County has resisted paying for transit in the past, and Henrico officials have scaled back GRTC funding as well. With the recent completion of Route 288 — linking the most populous residential areas of Chesterfield to the business districts in Henrico — it's difficult to see a public outcry for public transit on the horizon.

Anywhere from three to 25 years may elapse before some aspects of the regional mass transit study come to life — if they do at all. Still, Lysy says, the current gas hike is relevant. It's forced more than a dialogue among independent localities. It does what pinches do, Lysy says: "It's gotten people's attention." S

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