BUS RAPID TRANSIT

People held signs during a Richmond City Council public hearing to discuss bus rapid transit plans on Monday.

Richmond City Council voted 7-1-1 on Monday night to approve a $49 million bus rapid transit project that supporters hope is the beginning of a regional transit system and opponents worry is a flawed first step that doesn’t do enough to expand access to public transportation.

The action represented the City Council’s final opportunity to sign off on the project and followed a heated, 90-minute-long public hearing before a packed Council Chambers.

“We want to build the first stage of a bus rapid transit regional transportation system and it must start in Richmond,” said Councilwoman Ellen F. Robertson, 6th District, who went on to pledge to bring the surrounding counties to the table to work on the next stages. “It has always been a regional plan.”

Councilman Parker C. Agelasto, 5th District, agreed, but cautioned it wouldn’t be easy. “It’s aspirational to think we’ll have a bus rapid transit system in other corridors in 15 years and have it reach Chesterfield,” he said. “And I think that’s a great aspiration, but the city can’t drive that bus alone.”

Council members Robertson; Agelasto; Cynthia I. Newbille, 7th District; Michelle R. Mosby, 9th District; Kathy C. Graziano, 4th District; Jonathan T. Baliles, 1st District; and Chris A. Hilbert, 3rd District voted in favor of the project.

On the other side of the debate, Councilman Charles R. Samuels, 2nd District, opposed the project, and Reva M. Trammell, 8th District, abstained.

“This is a good first start. However, we’re not getting to where the jobs are with this program,” Samuels said, adding that a majority of his constituents have made it clear they don’t support the project.

Trammell made a similar point.

“I wanted more time so we could put in the Jefferson Davis corridor and the Broad Rock corridor that I represent,” said Trammell. “I feel like my district, the poorest of the poor, did not get included.”

GRTC Transit System says construction could begin as early as April this year with the service operational in October 2017.

The line will run from Willow Lawn to Rocketts Landing along Broad and Main streets. GRTC says it will halve transit time along the corridor using a mixture of dedicated lanes, coordinated traffic signals and off-board ticketing. The agency will run buses every 10 minutes during peak travel times and every 15 minutes during off-peak hours.


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The project has been in the works for at least seven years and has been the subject of countless public meetings. However, interest and scrutiny increased considerably in the year and a half since the city won $25 million in federal funding and $16 million in state funding. Henrico County, which will have one station, is contributing $400,000.

The city’s share of construction costs is $7.6 million – an outlay the council approved as part of the current year’s budget.

Likewise, the city’s Planning Commission and Urban Design Committee unanimously signed off on the project’s design late last year.

The council’s vote Monday gave city administrators the authority to sign a project agreement among the city, state, Henrico County and GRTC. The document lays out the various party’s roles and responsibilities during construction, which is being managed by the Virginia Department of Transportation.

About 30 supporters of the project spoke, saying they hoped it would be the beginning of a modern regional transit system, while roughly 10 opponents derided it as a flawed first step that threatens to undo the minor retail renaissance Broad Street is currently experiencing.

“The plan does not do enough to expand access to residents who presently do not have public bus services in their area,” said Lynetta Thompson, the president of the Richmond Branch NAACP. “Our position is that a vote should be delayed until flaws and unanswered questions get resolved.”

The Richmond Brand NAACP joined with about 10 neighborhood groups to create a group called the RVA Coalition for Smarter Transit.

On the other side, proponents said the bus line is a critical first step to modernize the city’s transit system.

“I can tell you Richmond has fallen pretty far behind on transit,” said Trip Pollard, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center. “This doesn’t solve all the problems – I agree – but no single project will. But it can serve as a spine for a greater system. We cannot wait.”

Emily Thomason, a Virginia Commonwealth University student, said she loves the city, but would love it even more with improved transportation.

“It’s a game changer to leave your house and know a bus is coming within 10 minutes,” Thomason said. “It’s also as convenient as being in your car and you don’t have to deal with parking or paying for gas.”


GALLERY:


The council also considered three amendments proposed by Samuels.

One, which he subsequently withdrew, called for an economic development plan to mitigate “all potential adverse impacts” on businesses by construction.

Despite the amendment not passing, city administrators pledged to work on the issue “if there are impacts,” while state Secretary of Transportation Aubrey L. Layne Jr. committed on the spot to contribute some state funds. “If you come up with a program, we’ll contribute money,” he said.

The council members said they would revisit the issue at a future meeting with additional legislation.

The two other amendments proposed by Samuels were voted down 7-2, largely due to concerns they would delay the project. One would have given the council and the public another opportunity to sign off on the project’s design, while a second would have required an additional route study be completed before moving forward.

Layne and other state officials were on hand to press the council to act quickly, warning a year delay would mean $1.5 million in increased construction costs due to inflation and increased procurement costs.

Reiterating comments by Gov. Terry McAuliffe last week, Layne said that the city is in danger of losing a major federal grant that is funding nearly half the project if they didn’t take a speedy vote.

“This is your project,” Layne said. “I’m only here to point out what would happen if things are delayed. It’s not meant to be a positive or a negative – it’s just where we are in the project.”


PREVIOUS COVERAGE:

Tonight marks a defining moment in the future of our Greater Richmond Region. We are poised to take our community to the next level through the development of an innovative and cost-effective rapid transit system.


noliver@timesdispatch.com(804) 649-6580

Twitter: @nedoliver

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