Richmond City Council approved bus rapid transit last night, with opponents saying it doesn’t do enough to extend transportation to the city’s poorest and supporters calling it a major first step to improved public transportation.
The vote was the final chance for the city to sign off on the $49 million project, which has been planned for more than seven years, and is mostly funded with state and federal dollars. The city’s Urban Design Committee and Planning Commission previously approved designs.
Council members Kathy Graziano, Ellen Robertson, Parker Agelasto, Cynthia Newbille, Michelle Mosby, Jon Baliles and Chris Hilbert voted in favor of the project. Councilman Charles Samuels voted against and Councilwoman Reva Trammell abstained.
A public hearing on the project took more than three hours, during which more than 30 people lined up to praise the project and about a dozen spoke against. Several community action groups had joined to form the RVA Coalition for Smarter Transit.
A speaker named Walker, who provides services to the area’s unemployed, said that rapid transit could connect the city’s poor with needed jobs.
“I work with individuals every day that tell me, ‘I need a job, can you help me,'” he said. “They say to me … ‘I don’t have a driver’s license because of my past.' But if we had transportation in this area to get us beyond here, there are plenty of jobs out there.”
Many of the speakers echoed a point made by Trammell and Samuels when they said that the project doesn’t do enough to reach the disenfranchised who live away from main bus routes.
Trammell said that service should have been expanded to Hull Street and the Jefferson Davis corridor, which fall within her district, to serve “the poorest of the poor.”
Council President Michelle Mosby and others said that while the plan wasn’t perfect, it was a start toward bringing bus services where they are most needed. Late last year, the city secured state funding to review its bus routes to potentially reorganize them to better serve bus riders. This could mean changes that could connect regular routes to the rapid line.
Before the vote, Samuels proposed three amendments that failed. One asked for a plan to protect businesses along Broad Street from negative impact. Samuels also asked for another route study to be completed for the final vote and wanted council and the public to have another chance to improve the design.
“We don’t know what, if anything, we will provide people who will face three to six months of construction upheaval,” Samuels said. “We need to be able to make sure we can say we are working to make bus rapid transit meaningful for them."
Aubrey Lane Jr., the state’s secretary of transportation, said that Virginia would commit some state funding toward mitigating damage from the project on local businesses if the city proposed a program.
But he cautioned the city to not drag its feet on the decision to approve the line. Lane said that waiting a year would result in increased construction costs because of inflation and other factors. He also cautioned that federal funding could be lost.
Construction on the transit line could begin in April, with plans to start service in October 2017.
The city’s share of construction costs is $7.6 million, which was approved in the current year budget. Federal sources provide $25 million and state funding totals $16 million. Henrico County has one station and will contribute $400,000.