The temporary bus transfer plaza downtown has outlived its projected life span, and that’s not a good thing for a facility that everyone concedes is substandard, if not inhumane.
“Duck” — he did not want to give his last name — weighed in on the shortcomings of the site on Ninth Street between Marshall and Leigh streets.
Once Richmond City Hall closes at the end of business hours, “there’s no public bathroom down there,” he said Monday.
“You imagine getting off work and you’re coming from South Side in the evening, and you’re coming over here to change buses and there’s no place to use the bathroom,” he said.
The plaza opened in April 2014 with the goal of easing traffic on Broad Street ahead of the CapTech USA Cycling Collegiate Road National Championships and the UCI Road World Championships the following year. The comfort and convenience of the bus riders was clearly an afterthought.
Plans called for the plaza to remain at that site for two or three years as GRTC continued its two-decade search for a permanent transfer plaza.
Today, a bus rapid transit system, the Pulse, is under construction, but appears unlikely to be completed by year’s end, as hoped. GRTC Transit System continues its quixotic search for a transfer plaza site, with its eyes on the 100 block of West Grace Street.
Then-Mayor Dwight C. Jones rejected a $1.4 million offer submitted by GRTC in October to purchase the site, which lies near the Richmond Police Department’s headquarters and the Quirk Hotel. The transit system is awaiting word from Mayor Levar Stoney.
Even if the city bites, GRTC has environmental studies and other due diligence to complete. We’re a long way from a new transfer plaza, if it happens — and some transit advocates are skeptical that it should.
In the meantime, something must be done to ameliorate conditions at the existing plaza, which offers hardly any amenities.
“The site where it’s at now was always intended by the city and GRTC to be a temporary solution,” said GRTC spokeswoman Carrie Rose Pace.
“What we’ve heard from our riders, and we agree, is the current temporary plaza does not meet the needs of our customers.”
That this situation has existed beyond the projected life of the transfer plaza is unacceptable.
“That transit center’s been unsatisfactory since the day it opened,” said Stewart Schwartz, founder of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, adding that the decision to go with that site “caught many of us by surprise.”
The bicycle races were “the excuse they latched on to,” but he expressed concern that the impetus behind the plaza was “the longtime effort to move bus riders off of Broad Street.”
Tom Byrnes, deputy press secretary for Stoney, said the city’s Office of Multimodal Transportation is assessing what kind of bathroom facilities can be placed at the plaza, at what cost, and how much cash the city has on hand to provide them.
“The city recognizes there is a need for facilities at the temporary spot, and there may be some other needs” in the short term, he said.
“Posthaste, as soon as possible, they want to get something done.”
Everyone agrees that the amenities-free, two-block-long temporary plaza has been a poor solution. But some area transit advocates say a central transfer plaza is no longer needed with the Pulse serving as the spine of the bus system.
“The old system, the one we still have today before the Pulse and before the transit network plan, is a hub and spoke system,” with all buses coming to one point and then leaving, said Nicholas Smith, a transit advocate with the Partnership and RVA Rapid Transit. “With that kind of system, a permanent transfer system makes a lot of sense.”
But in the new transit plan, buses will go by at least one Pulse station, he said. “You’re going to see a lot less people wanting to transfer at one central location.”
But Pace says there will still be need for a place downtown for timed connections to occur, particularly on weekday evenings after 7 p.m. and on Sundays, when buses are not running as frequently.
Pace says GRTC envisions a five-story transit hub that would provide a safe and clean environment for riders and bus drivers to use the bathroom. Such a facility could include parking spaces and potentially retail. It would be more compact than the two-block-long temporary plaza that has some bus riders struggling to make their connections.
Funds for the Grace Street site would come in part from the $9.1 million that GRTC received for its former bus terminal site on Davis Avenue. That amount would cover much or most of the cost of the plaza, she said.
But Schwartz preached caution.
“That Grace and Adams location is also very valuable for private development, which would contribute directly to the tax base,” Schwartz said, noting that the Richmond City Council recently approved a development plan for the Pulse corridor.
“I think the city should very much take its time on this,” he said of the transfer plaza proposal.
But when it comes to addressing the indignities of the existing plaza, the city can’t move fast enough.