The GRTC Transit System Board of Directors unanimously agreed Tuesday to partially restore 15-minute service to one of its routes, meeting the request of activists and residents who decried a recent service cut.
Unresolved, however, is whether Virginia Commonwealth University students and faculty will still be able to ride GRTC buses for free come August.
As VCU and GRTC officials discuss extending a $1.2 million, one-year agreement allowing university affiliates to ride nearly all GRTC buses for free, GRTC Interim Director Charles Mitchell said Tuesday that VCU had proposed to narrow the scope of the program.
Mitchell said the school suggested allowing its students and employees to ride only the Route 5 and Pulse bus rapid transit system for free under a new agreement, to save money.
“They’re looking at cost. That’s their main reason for that,” he said.
VCU spokesman Mike Porter said the idea was discussed in a recent meeting, but that it is not a consideration.
“VCU and VCU Health remain committed to continuing to fund a cost-effective transportation option that provides our students and employees with access to the entire GRTC system,” Porter said in an email after Mitchell’s comments were published online by the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
Mitchell said VCU and GRTC must decide next month whether to continue the agreement beyond its July 31 end date.
According to ridership data provided at Tuesday’s GRTC Board of Directors meeting, VCU ridership last month hit 82,898 — the highest level the regional bus system has seen since the new one-year agreement with VCU went into effect in August.
VCU ridership last month on the Pulse hit 27,902.
The $65 million bus rapid transit line that launched at the end of June travels between Willow Lawn and Rocketts Landing. Route 5 — the second most-used route by VCU affiliates — covers a similar distance between Carytown and the Whitcomb neighborhood, through VCU’s Monroe Park and MCV campuses.
Previously averaging about 48,000 VCU rides per month, monthly numbers have shot up since January because, until then, GRTC was unable to track how many VCU students and employees were riding the Pulse, as special fare cards had not yet been issued.
VCU affiliates accounted for about 12 percent of the 688,236 rides counted last month, officials said.
Despite significant increases in ridership over last year, GRTC operating revenues are not meeting the agency’s expectations, causing officials some concern.
In recent board meetings, several GRTC leaders said they should consider a different agreement with VCU to see if it would be willing to pay more than it does now.
Ben Campbell, a member of the board, said allowing VCU students and employees to ride just the Pulse and Route 5 for free would “make it about right in terms of cost.”
“What happened is we gave them the whole system. Their use of the whole system is enormous — much more than we knew,” he said.
In other business Tuesday, the Board of Directors voted to approve several GRTC route changes that officials said will go into effect in May.
After scaling back frequency of service from 15 minutes to 30 minutes on Routes 4A and 4B in the Fulton neighborhood, buses during peak morning and evening hours will return to a 15-minute schedule.
Though GRTC officials said they lowered the level of service for the Fulton route due to low ridership, some neighborhood residents and activists criticized the decision.
GRTC officials publicly proposed the idea of 15-minute peak-hour service at a neighborhood meeting last month.
Omari Al-Qadaffi, a local activist who filed a federal civil rights complaint against GRTC in part because of the recent service reduction, said he was pleased to see the board approve the change.
“That’s actually one of the remedies I cited in my complaint,” he said. “They’re right on that ball with that.”
Despite his praise of the decision, Al-Qadaffi said he does not plan to withdraw his complaint, as it touches upon other complaints about systemwide changes last summer that he believes made the transit system worse for minorities and low-income people.
Routes 50 (Broad Street), 76 (Patterson Avenue) and 77 (Grove Avenue) will also change in May to stop along Hermitage Road in front of the Whole Foods Market that is expected to open soon.
Route 77 will also be temporarily extended west for about 5 miles to Three Chopt Road and Patterson Avenue, as GRTC and Richmond officials work to correct traffic safety issues at the intersection of Grove and Libbie avenues.
The board also approved operating Route 87 until 10 p.m. on weeknights. The route travels from downtown Richmond to Southside Plaza off Hull Street Road.