The Richmond City Council signed off on a proposal to revamp the city’s bus network Monday, but faced an outpouring of concern from bus riders who said they felt left out of the planning process.
Council members responded by stressing that the plan — which could be implemented as early as November — is still a work in progress.
They said elements can still be tweaked, but that on the whole it represents an improvement over the current system, which hasn’t seen a major overhaul for 60 years and in many cases still traces old trolley lines.
“This is not a final plan,” said Councilwoman Ellen Robertson. “This is a concept we can use as a building block to begin the process of creating a final plan.”
City planners are still soliciting feedback on the draft plan, but as presented, it includes five new high-frequency routes that offer service every 15 minutes, as well as a new orbital route running every half-hour that would connect Southside Plaza to the Forest Hill Avenue corridor, across the river to Carytown and finally to the Brookland Park Boulevard corridor.
The plan also includes timed connections between high-frequency and neighborhood lines to Pulse stops, the bus rapid transit line that is scheduled to begin operation in October.
The council was not voting on the plan itself — GRTC has the power to change its routes without approval. Instead, council members unanimously passed a resolution indicating their general support for the concept unveiled last month after several rounds of public meetings that began over the summer.
About 20 people spoke in opposition to the resolution, voicing a variety of concerns. A common theme among those who spoke was a feeling that they were left out of the planning process.
Some worried about a plan to increase spacing between stops from about one every block to one every three blocks. Some questioned a consolidation of lines in the city’s East End. Others wondered why the plan doesn’t expand routes into the surrounding counties.
“We have a variety of concerns, but mainly there’s zero expansion of the new network or increased job opportunity for impoverished residents,” said Omari Al-qadaffi, representing a group called Leaders of the New South.
Al-qadaffi and others asked the council to delay the project for two weeks to allow more conversations.
“What is the rush?” asked Lynetta Thompson. “Who does this really benefit? Who benefits from this? We understand the system overall. But it’s as if you haven’t really considered the people that need the service the most. You’re not considering the elderly, you’re not considering people with young children.”
Four people spoke in favor of the plan. They called it a good start and a vast improvement over the current system.
“Until we get cooperation from Henrico County to get service to the airport and additional funding from this body, this is the best we’re going to get,” Julie Arendt said.
The city’s transit administrator, Amy Inman, told the council that a delay would jeopardize the city’s and GRTC’s ability to implement the new plan alongside the opening of the Pulse in October.
Inman said the council has already refined the plans based on community feedback.
Among the changes, an East End route was expanded to provide greater coverage to Armstrong High School and a grocery store planned for 25th Street. As a trade-off, the route’s frequency would drop from every 15 minutes to every 30 minutes.
Councilwoman Cynthia Newbille, who represents the district, pitched it as a net good and an example of other changes that can be made as more feedback is gathered.
“No, we won’t get 15-minute service in some places, because it just won’t work because we need the coverage more than the frequency,” she said. “And that’s OK. But it is still better than the coverage we have had over the past 60 years.”