After about a year and a half of meetings and study, a draft plan released this week presents what one longtime Richmond-area transit advocate calls “an immense opportunity” to link the city and its surrounding counties with a system that connects people with jobs and drives economic development.
The Greater RVA Transit Vision Plan lays out a vision that includes new bus rapid transit lines, park-and-ride lots and expanded local bus and paratransit service providing better connectivity between Richmond and the seven surrounding counties that constitute the Richmond Regional Transportation Planning Organization: Charles City, Chesterfield, Goochland, Hanover, Henrico, New Kent and Powhatan.
“By 2040, transit will connect the Richmond region through an efficient, reliable, seamless and sustainably funded system that benefits everyone by enabling economic growth, promoting livable and walkable-transit oriented development, expanding access to jobs and services and strengthening multimodal access within and beyond our region,” the plan summary says.
The $327,000 plan, paid for by the state Department of Rail and Transportation and completed by a team of consultants that includes Michael Baker International, Rhodeside and Harwell, AECOM and the Southeastern Institute of Research, was released in draft form Tuesday.
The plan builds off GRTC Transit’s Pulse, a Broad Street-centered bus rapid transit system that will run from Willow Lawn to Rocketts Landing starting in late 2017, and envisions five new BRT lines.
Those include a Pulse extension from Willow Lawn to Short Pump; a line from Cary Street to the Regency Square mall area then to Short Pump; a Midlothian line that runs from the Pulse Downtown station to Westchester Commons via Hull Street, Southside Plaza, Belt Boulevard, Midlothian Turnpike and Hull Street Road; a Hull Street Road line to Southside Plaza to the Woodlake-Magnolia Green area in Chesterfield; and a Mechanicsville Turnpike line that runs from the Pulse Downtown station to Mechanicsville and beyond Interstate 295 to the Walnut Grove Road area.
The plan also includes four local service routes that will run every 15 to 20 minutes all day. Those include an airport connector that runs from downtown Richmond to Richmond International Airport along Williamsburg Road; a Staples Mill Road regional connector from Willow Lawn to Glen Allen and a southern extension to University of Richmond, Stony Point and the Midlothian BRT; a U.S. 1 North route from the Pulse to Ashland; and a Jefferson Davis Highway route from the Pulse to Chester, with a possible express link to Petersburg.
There are six additional express or regional routes to provide long-distance connections, designed to support commuter trips: Ashland to downtown via Interstate 95; Petersburg/Chester to downtown via I-95; Goochland/Western Henrico to Downtown via Interstate 64; Powhatan/Midlothian to Downtown via the Powhite Parkway; Chesterfield Government Center to Short Pump via state Route 288; and New Kent to Downtown via I-64.
The proposed network increases the local population near frequent transit from 2 percent to 10 percent and the population close to any transit from 19 percent to 33 percent. The number of jobs near transit will grow from 31 percent to 55 percent, the plan says.
“The plan is excellent,” said the Rev. Benjamin Campbell, a pastoral associate at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, member of Mayor Dwight C. Jones’ Anti-Poverty Commission and a board member of RVA Rapid Transit, a citizen transit advocacy group.
“The real question is whether now, having seen this, can we make it effective?” he said, adding that the Richmond area is easy to connect because so many jobs are close to the major arteries served by the plan. “Once you put these major lines in, everyone can relate to them and everyone can get to them. There’s just this immense opportunity.”
His one quibble: Campbell would have preferred a true BRT route to Petersburg.
“The great debate in public transportation is whether it should be understood as a development tool and a city-shaping device or whether it should follow development,” he said. The plan, he said, is “a conservative methodology that tends to follow existing development rather than seeing itself as shaping development.”
Nick Britton, the DRPT’s statewide manager of transit planning, said the plan will be presented to the Richmond Transportation Planning Organization in February.
“The goal of this was to identify project corridors, areas that the TPO could take forward and turn into projects,” he said.
Though the plan estimates the system it envisions would cost between $123 million and $147 million a year to run and $785 million to nearly $1.4 billion to build, it did not make a specific recommendation on the source of that money, such as a regional sales tax, which some advocates back.
“We purposely stayed away from that,” Britton said.
The plan says “each component of the vision plan will move forward on the basis of local interest and ‘championing’ the services proposed in the vision plan, ideally in tandem with actions to foster transit‐supportive land use.”
Barbara Nelson, director of transportation at the Richmond Regional Transportation Planning Organization that is responsible for long-term transportation planning and shorter-term work programs for the area, as well as submitting projects for state and federal funding, said the organization’s Technical Advisory Committee will review the vision plan itself.
Then the group will be asked to develop a “first tier of recommendations” for projects that should go forward first, she said.
The Pulse came out of the last regional vision plan in 2008 and Nelson hopes for an implementation strategy for the current version that “gives the plan the legs it needs to live.”
“What I’m looking forward to as part of this plan are actionable items that can move this plan forward,” she said, adding the organization hopes to use the plan to generate annual projects.
Campbell said historic local divisions over public transit, which has generally ended at the city border, with the exception of some GRTC Transit service in Henrico and a single remaining express route to Chesterfield, may erode once county officials see development along the Pulse corridor.
“You’re starting to talk about real money. I think that will impress some people,” he said. “When the counties see that the city’s underdeveloped spaces along Broad Street become attractive, they’re going to look at their own underdeveloped spaces and wonder.”