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After her first month on the job, GRTC’s new CEO, Julie Timm, is rolling out her vision for the future of regional transit in the Richmond metro area, hoping to build upon the first-year success of the new Pulse bus rapid transit line as well as expansions into the counties of Henrico and Chesterfield.
As the GRTC Transit System prepares to operate an extended route along Jefferson Davis Highway in Chesterfield starting in March, Timm said she wants to involve more local leaders in the agency’s decision-making and re-evaluate how its operating and capital budgets are prepared.
The transit agency also has been contending with farebox revenue shortages in the first year of the Pulse, leading to questions about its open design and fare enforcement system that relies on spot-checking by inspectors.
And safety has commanded more attention from GRTC and local officials after a woman died in a collision with a Pulse bus earlier this month.
The Rev. Ben Campbell, who was elected as chairman of the GRTC Board of Directors last week, said Timm, a Hampton Roads native and former chief development officer for the Nashville Metropolitan Transit Authority, is well-suited to lead the transit agency through these challenges as its footprint continues to grow.
“It’s kind of like moving from having a Class A baseball team to an AAA team,” he said. “It’s an exciting moment for metro Richmond. I think a lot of people sense that. We’ve got a person who really gets that and who also has a lot of experience.”
The death of Alice E. Woodson this month spurred new conversations about what the city can do to improve pedestrian safety along the Pulse corridor.
Since the launch of the new 7.6-mile bus rapid transit line that travels from Rocketts Landing to Willow Lawn in June 2018, there have been several vehicle crashes. But Woodson was the first pedestrian to be killed by a GRTC bus since 2009.
“It’s heart-wrenching. You never get used to it. It’s never something you can prepare for or protect yourself from,” Timm said.
At least one other pedestrian has been hit by a Pulse bus in the past 16 months, but city officials say there have been fewer vehicle and pedestrian crashes in the Broad Street corridor where the Pulse is located since the launch.
Timm said she is unaware if there have been any other instances of a pedestrian being struck by a Pulse bus, but the agency is currently reviewing its crash records to confirm.
Based on data from the past 15 months, the city is on track to see a 25% decline in severe crashes on Broad Street because of the changes in the streetscape, according to Richmond Public Works spokeswoman Sharon North.
“While it is too soon to draw any definitive conclusions (a standard before and after transportation safety study requires three years of data on either side of change), there are positive outcomes on Broad Street from the first-year Pulse operations on transportation safety as we move towards our Vision Zero goals,” said North, referring to a city initiative to reduce severe pedestrian and vehicle crashes.
While some transit advocates have started to call for specific changes to improve safety, such as painting bus lanes red, Timm and city officials said they are contemplating how to make things safer. “If you have too much visual stimulus and signs, sometimes you don’t see any of it,” Timm said. “We want to make sure what we do is truly effective.”
While GRTC has seen an approximately 15% increase in systemwide ridership since the launch of the Pulse, revenue collected from its fares missed the agency’s projections for last year.
Because the Pulse bus line is designed to function more like a subway or a metro train, passengers do not have to validate their fare when boarding. Fare inspectors are deployed to conduct spot checks, but officials say they suspect that the lower-than-expected revenues are a symptom of a lax fare enforcement system.
Timm said GRTC officials are still working to determine how frequently riders are evading fare payment. In the meantime, however, she said fare inspectors could soon begin issuing fines against fare evaders.
“It might be that you’ll see in the next few months or so that it starts happening,” she said. “We need to have that conversation with the community and the city. ... It’s not my favorite option, but that is the option that’s available to us today.”
Timm acknowledged that some municipalities and transit agencies have moved to provide free public transit to avoid problems with fare enforcement and to make the service available to more people. She said GRTC could also potentially change the Pulse platforms so that people have to validate their fare to pass a barrier or turnstile, but that either option would require significant public investment in the system.
“Regardless of which way we go, we have to address the fundamental principle of what we want this system to be and how we want it to serve the community. We’ll then enforce fares based on that strategy,” she said.
Funding and regional cooperation
The city of Richmond increased its GRTC funding by $800,000 this year, bringing its total annual contribution up to $15.9 million.
The increased funding was tied to the city’s request for longer service hours on a few South Side routes and a new bus route in the Church Hill neighborhood. Timm said she wants the city to consider spending more money on GRTC based on how much the agency actually spends on its operations throughout the year, rather than previously adopted budgets.
Timm said those changes and improving future planning will help GRTC, the city and other jurisdictions in the metro area make decisions about where routes should go, how long they operate and where new bus shelters and seating should be built.
With the expansion of bus service all the way to Short Pump Town Center in Henrico last fall and a route extension to John Tyler Community College in Chesterfield about to open in March, she said she also wants to get officials in Henrico more involved in how GRTC is governed.
Richmond and Chesterfield share equal ownership of the transit company. Each jurisdiction appoints three representatives to the board. Timm said she would like Henrico, as well as other localities in the region, to become involved in GRTC’s operations and planning.
“If we’re going to be a regional transportation system, we can’t be governed by members of two jurisdictions. We need to have input and representation from the communities that we serve,” she said. “I’m going to repeat this over and over: Where does this region want to take regional transportation? That’s the fundamental question we need to be asking because once we decide that, then the governance structure and strategy for service will match that.”
Henrico may continue to keep an arms-length relationship with the agency, however, as County Manager John Vithoulkas said in an interview Friday that he believes Henrico should maintain its status as a GRTC “customer.”
“I don’t see the benefit in us joining another board,” he said. “They’ve already been responsive to everything we’ve been asking for.”
Health care, schools among local concerns
The race between Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico, and her challenger, Del. Debra Rodman, D-Henrico, is a slugfest over health care, guns and abortion that is seeing more TV ad spending than any other Virginia Senate race.
Holding the seat is critical for both parties in a year when Democrats are trying to erase the GOP’s narrow edge in the state Senate chamber. Republicans now hold 20 seats and Democrats 19, with one seat vacant.
More than $1.9 million in TV advertising had been spent on the race as of Oct. 15, with that number growing. Most of the 12th District’s voters are in Henrico County, with a sliver in Hanover County.
Dunnavant, an OB-GYN seeking a second term, raised the issue of abortion in a TV ad attacking Rodman for a bill Rodman co-sponsored with Del. Kathy Tran, D-Fairfax, related to third-trimester abortions. Rodman’s team responded with an ad attacking Dunnavant on abortion.
Each side now accuses the other of lying.
Dunnavant has delivered somewhere between 2,500 and 3,000 babies. She is a sibling of three other Republican elected officials: Virginia Beach Sheriff Ken Stolle, Virginia Beach Del. Chris Stolle, and Virginia Beach Commonwealth’s Attorney Colin Stolle. Her slogan is “Dunnavant Delivers,” and her campaign materials feature her work as a doctor.
Her message: “I ran four years ago because I really wanted to get things done outside of all of the combative kind of political language that we hear in elections and that I’ve done just that,” Dunnavant said.
“And that I’ve worked to solve problems that are the specific problems I was told people are concerned about — the cost of health care, the cost of health insurance, education, the cost of education, and that I’ve done that in a data-driven way where I’ve used the skills I’ve developed as a mom and a doctor to figure out how to get things done.”
“I built consensus. I’ve reached across the aisle and been bipartisan.”
When she ran four years ago, Dunnavant had an ad with screaming babies surrounding a picture of then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe.
“Crybaby politicians whining to expand Medicaid and Obamacare — more taxes, more spending. Let’s say no,” the ad said.
Four years later, Dunnavant — like other Republicans who represent districts in the Richmond suburbs — faces a changed political landscape. The election of Donald Trump to the White House led to major gains for Democrats in the House of Delegates and in Congress, and helped push some Republicans to join Democrats this year in expanding Medicaid.
Dunnavant’s brother Colin Stolle — also a doctor — was among them. Dunnavant was not.
Enter Debra Rodman.
She’s a Randolph-Macon professor and in 2017 was a first-time candidate who — motivated to run by Trump — upset a then-powerful Republican, Del. John O’Bannon, who had held the 73rd District seat in Henrico since 2001.
Sensing an opportunity to defeat Dunnavant and flip the Senate seat this year, political brokers aligned with Gov. Ralph Northam helped recruit Rodman into a Democratic primary, which she won, setting up the big-spending race between Dunnavant and Rodman on Nov. 5.
“In 2017, I ran against the doctor that led the fight against Medicaid expansion in the House. Now, I’m running against the doctor that led the fight against Medicaid expansion in the Senate,” Rodman said. “I knew Medicaid expansion was important, but it was exciting to know that other people thought it was important, too.”
Her signs and campaign literature feature images of her pink cat-eye glasses, which she started wearing about five years ago. Several people, including at least one donor, have told her not to wear them because she doesn’t look like a politician, she said. “I wanted something that showed who I was.”
Rodman and her campaign have been aggressive about attacking Dunnavant and saying her record doesn’t reflect the blue-trending views of the district, which includes part of Henrico and a large chunk of western Hanover with a small number of voters in it.
Dunnavant said the attacks are insulting.
Rodman is “using scare tactics and demeaning tactics,” Dunnavant said. “The first thing she said about me was I was a ‘quack,’ which was a professional assault and is the worst insult you can give a doctor.”
Dunnavant said Rodman takes sole credit for things she didn’t do alone — like Medicaid expansion, and hasn’t been bipartisan in her term as a delegate.
“I know her record and she passed one bill and that bill was to change one word in the code and it was a bill that she was asked to carry by the Board of Counseling because it updated the language in the code to be consistent with their licensing language.”
Rodman continues to pound away on Medicaid expansion.
“I was elected to pass Medicaid expansion and that was no small feat,” she said. “Leadership and effectiveness is not always about how many bills you pass.”
Guns are an issue in the race. Dunnavant has an A rating from the NRA; Rodman is pushing gun control measures like enhanced background checks.
“People are talking about gun violence prevention,” Rodman said. “That has been front and center during this campaign.”
Abortion a key issue
And then there is abortion, which is generally not something each side would be closing a campaign with.
Dunnavant has a TV ad that says Rodman had a bill that would “allow unrestricted abortion up until the moment of birth.”
Virginia and federal law already allow legal abortion. The bill Rodman co-sponsored would have addressed the requirement that three doctors sign off on a third-trimester abortion, reducing the number to one.
Currently, the three doctors must find that “continuation of the pregnancy is likely to result in the death of the woman or substantially and irremediably impair the mental or physical health of the woman.”
The Rodman bill also cut the words “substantially and irredeemably.”
Republicans stopped the bill in a House committee.
Abortions late in a pregnancy are extremely rare. Dunnavant said she did not know of any in her 20-year medical career.
“As a clinician and an OB-GYN, there is never an instance in the third trimester where an abortion is necessary to protect the life of a mother,” she said. “You deliver in the third trimester to protect the mother. Period.”
She added that in the third trimester “if the baby has a life-threatening fetal anomaly, they’re born and they don’t live. You don’t abort them. It doesn’t happen.”
Rodman said she was surprised that Dunnavant, as an OB-GYN, introduced abortion into the campaign. And she said Dunnavant’s views, which Dunnavant describes as pro-life, are out of line with a majority of constituents in the district who support legal abortion.
“We need to make sure that there’s no government intervention,” Rodman said of her position on abortion. “That it remains between a woman and her doctor.”
Rodman countered Dunnavant’s ad with a TV ad Dunnavant said contains falsehoods.
The ad quotes Planned Parenthood saying, “Siobhan Dunnavant would make abortion illegal, even to save the life of the woman.”
Rodman mail pieces say Dunnavant wants an “extreme ban” on abortion.
However, the source cited in the mail is audio of Dunnavant in April in which Dunnavant does not call for a ban on abortion, but says she thinks there should be no elective abortions after 12 weeks, and that she would legislate that. After 12 weeks, she said, abortion should be legal only to save a mother’s life.
A changing district
Republicans have held the Senate seat since 1988, but the 12th District has begun to trend more toward Democrats in recent statewide elections.
Democrat Hillary Clinton carried the district by 2 percentage points in the 2016 presidential contest. Democrat Ralph Northam carried the 12th by 5 points in the 2017 contest for governor, and Democrats edged their GOP counterparts for lieutenant governor and attorney general by about 400 votes apiece in the district.
In 2018, U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., carried the district by 16 points, matching his margin statewide against Republican Corey Stewart.
Through the end of September, Rodman had raised $1.85 million and had nearly $399,000 on hand, according to the Virginia Public Access Project. Dunnavant had raised $1.53 million and had a balance of $220,000.