Chesterfield County has owned a stake in the GRTC Transit System since 1988, but decades later, the legacy of that influence is limited service in the county, which funds just one bus route.
The issue has the attention of influential business leaders in the greater Washington region, who argue in a new report that limited public transit in the Richmond metro area hinders economic growth and exacerbates socioeconomic disparity in the region.
The report was published by the Greater Washington Partnership Regional Mobility Initiative, a coalition of corporate leaders from Richmond, Baltimore and Washington co-chaired by Dominion Energy CEO Tom Farrell.
Among their recommendations for the Richmond area is that GRTC and Chesterfield County leaders work together to identify the right corridors for fixed-route service and move toward implementing it.
“It’s a very large county with many jobs and residents, and no public transit option,” said Joe McAndrew, director of transportation policy with the Greater Washington Partnership.
Just three GRTC lines currently cross into Chesterfield and only one is subsidized by that county. That’s the Route 82 Express, which runs along Powhite Parkway, operates only during weekday peak hours and has just one stop in Chesterfield.
Chesterfield County’s purchase of GRTC stock means it controls three of the six seats on the system’s board of directors. (The city of Richmond appoints the other three members.)
Gary Armstrong, chairman of the board who represents Chesterfield, said in an email that the partnership isn’t recommending “anything that already is not happening between GRTC and Chesterfield County administration.”
“We certainly look forward to more discussions and work with Chesterfield as they determine the transit opportunities appropriate to the County as needs evolve," he added.
But Vice Chair Ben Campbell, who represents Richmond, said in an interview that the need for a public transit option in Chesterfield has long been apparent and that “it’s just not right” that some residents there don’t have access to a public transit option.
“Chesterfield is not what it was 30, 40 years ago,” Campbell said. “It’s a constructive, modern community and public transportation has to be a part of it.”
When Chesterfield County voted in 1988 to buy GRTC stock and three seats on its board of directors, members on the Board of Supervisors pointed to support in the business community and a report that described Chesterfield as the key to transportation development in the region.
But over the years, Chesterfield has added and eliminated GRTC stops and entire routes, sometimes citing lack of ridership. In 2016, the Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to discontinue GRTC’s Route 81 Express — one of the two lines it subsidized that year.
Officials and county staff cited lack of ridership, but supporters the program said that the county dealt a death blow to the line when it cut several daily trips and nearly doubled the fare from $3.50 to $6 in 2014. (The county argued that it increased the fare to match what it charged elderly residents through its shuttle program.)
In March 2013 GRTC counted an average of 118 rides per day for the previous 12 months — before service cuts and fare hikes — compared with the 16 riders per day averaged between March 2015 and 2016.
In 1999, county officials had asked GRTC to eliminate stops near Forest Hill Avenue because, officials said, they were not properly approved by the county before service began.
But, even then, officials acknowledged remnants of historic tensions over segregation and annexation as a factor in conversations about GRTC transit.
"The issue unfortunately has become, not 'Do we have stops that service Chesterfield County commuters?' but that sleeping giant about annexation and all that ridiculous rhetoric that comes with it," Midlothian District Supervisor Edward B. Barber said in 1999.
Campbell said Richmond and Chesterfield have “made major strides” since that time. “But the alienation of the jurisdictions,” he added, “has precluded the kind of work in cooperative economic, social, and infrastructure development necessary for a healthy and competitive city.”
Chesterfield County officials and staff reached by the Richmond Times-Dispatch declined to comment specifically on the recommendation for an expansion of GRTC routes into Chesterfield.
Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Dorothy Jaeckle said in an email that the board is “trying to figure out what the best transit options for our citizens would be.”
The county is studying its 7-mile portion of Jefferson Davis Highway for the potential of public transit. A recent study by the county using 2015 data found that 5.4 percent of residents near the corridor have no access to a car, compared with 2.9 percent of residents county-wide.
Nearly 20 percent of residents along the corridor are low-income, compared with almost 12 percent county-wide.
County spokeswoman Susan Pollard said that county staff are “planning to work with a consultant to produce a full-market analysis of transit alternatives for Jefferson Davis Highway.” The resulting analysis, she said, citing transportation staff, would eventually be used in a grant application to the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transit.
Among the transportation alternatives on county officials' radar, other than GRTC service, are things like a shuttle service along the corridor, as well as a partnership with a service like Uber or Lyft that would subsidize fares.
McAndrew warned against alternatives that are not as inclusive as a public transit system.
“A concern that we should look out for is that those alternatives are equally accessible to all residents of the region,” he said. “If they don’t benefit a Richmond or Henrico resident to access jobs in Chesterfield, then it makes it challenging for employers to access the full labor pool of the region. Or, for individuals in the city or the county to access retail or other kinds of destinations.”
McAndrew said the results of Henrico’s GRTC expansion should quell any concerns over demand. That county recently approved the expansion of five GRTC routes into its limits, leading to a 58 percent increase in ridership on those routes.
“It screams to the fact that if provided service across the bounds, people will use the service,” he said. “For a relatively reasonable investment, you can see what is possible.”