Catching a bus in the Richmond area is becoming an economic priority for corporate leaders as far away as Washington and Baltimore.
The availability of bus service in the Richmond region, especially Chesterfield County, is part of a larger challenge the Greater Washington Partnership confronts in a new report that links economic opportunity to equitable access to mass transit, especially for people who can’t afford a car.
The partnership, a consortium of CEOs for companies in a super-region that stretches from Richmond to Baltimore, found that 28 percent of people in the Richmond region and barely half of low-income households live within a quarter-mile of a bus stop. That compares with 82 percent of the population and 91 percent of low-income households in Washington.
“Clear disparities exist — both by income and by race — in access to opportunity afforded by the transportation system across the Capital Region,” the partnership states in the “Capital Region Blueprint for Regional Mobility” released this week.
Nowhere is the gap larger in the Richmond region than Chesterfield, which owns a share in the GRTC Transit System but funds little fixed-route bus service in the county.
“The bus system has got to get into Chesterfield County,” said Dominion Energy CEO Tom Farrell, one of three corporate leaders in the super-region who oversaw the 16-month report.
Equitable access to bus service is one of several specific priorities the partnership report set for the Richmond region. It also calls for creating a pedestrian trail system that extends north to Ashland and south to Petersburg and replacing the main Amtrak train station on Staples Mill Road in Henrico County.
One of the biggest transportation challenges for Richmond lies north at the Potomac River, where an old, two-track railroad bridge between Arlington County and the District of Columbia limits passenger and freight train service for the entire state and its economically critical ports.
“If we have an improved Long Bridge, the trains will be more reliable and faster, and we can add more trains from Richmond to Washington and points beyond,” said Nick Donohue, Virginia deputy secretary of transportation and a Richmond native.
While the report focuses on the urban corridor between Richmond and Washington, as well as Baltimore, Virginia officials say that investments in transportation have statewide benefits.
The Long Bridge project, for example, determines whether Virginia can add new train service from Southwest Virginia. It also is crucial to meeting the expanding demand for freight rail service from ports in Hampton Roads that generate billions of dollars in economic activity across the state.
“We need to have a rail network that can move it,” Donohue said.
It won’t come cheap. The cost won’t be clear until after an environmental impact study determines whether to replace the bridge entirely or add a separate two-track span, but an early estimate ranges from $355 million to $893 million, said Joe McAndrew, director of transportation policy for the partnership.
Laying track for higher-speed rail service between Richmond and Washington could cost $4.3 billion to $5.5 billion under the DC2RVA rail plan, McAndrew said.
The partnership estimates that the Richmond region will spend $2.4 billion on its transportation needs through 2040, but will need an additional $441 million to pay for all of the projects on its wish list.
Some of the costs aren’t known, such as development of a pedestrian system that links with the Virginia Capital Trail but extends north to Ashland and south to Chester. But the value of an expanded trail system is clear in an economy that depends increasingly on people who don’t necessarily want to drive a car or can’t afford one.
“Our region deserves more than one long-distance trail,” said Max Hepp-Buchanan, director of Bike Walk RVA at Sports Backers. “We should have a network of trails that link communities.”
“Giving people safe and convenient access by bike or foot to job opportunities in the region is critically important,” Hepp-Buchanan said.
Dominion Executive Vice President Bob Blue, a member of the steering committee for the mobility initiative, sometimes commutes by canoe or kayak from his home in South Richmond to the company’s corporate headquarters on Tredegar Street along the James River.
“Let me tell you, it’s a beautiful way to get to work,” said Blue, a member of the Sports Backers board of directors.
For most people, however, transportation is about time, he said. “Quality of life is directly related to how much time you’re spending trying to move around.”
It’s also about economic access, Blue said. “Having access to public transit options gives folks better opportunities to jobs. Improving mobility improves economic opportunity.”
Currently, it’s easier to get to a job by bike than by bus in the Richmond area, the partnership study found. The average resident can reach 81 percent of the region’s 600,000 jobs within 45 minutes by car and 85,000 jobs by bike in the same span.
But transit links residents to about 21,000 jobs within 45 minutes, or just 4 percent of the jobs in the region, the partnership said.
The reaction to the report by leaders of the GRTC board of directors demonstrates the challenge of bridging a long divide between Richmond and Chesterfield over access to bus service, especially for jobs.
The Greater Washington Partnership’s blueprint is not recommending anything that is not already happening between GRTC and the Chesterfield County administration, said Chairman Gary Armstrong, who represents Chesterfield.
But the Rev. Ben Campbell, vice chairman of the board, representing Richmond, said of Chesterfield, “The whole community needs them to have transportation along their three major corridors” — U.S. 60 (Midlothian Turnpike), U.S. 360 (Hull Street Road), and U.S. 1 (Jeff Davis Highway).
“There is probably no major city in the world with corridors that significant that does not have public transit along them,” Campbell said. “The whole community needs it, and Chesterfield residents need it, too.”
Transit advocates contend the business community needs it, too, as companies look to grow, as Amazon proved when it chose Arlington’s newly named National Landing neighborhood for part of its new East Coast headquarters. The site is next to two Metro stops and Reagan Washington National Airport, which will be linked to the project by a new pedestrian bridge.
“Do you want economic growth? Do you want companies to come to your state and create jobs?” asked Lisa Guthrie, executive director of the Virginia Transit Association. “Then you have to have transit.”
Richmond and Henrico recognized the opportunity with the Pulse, the bus rapid transit system that opened in June between Rocketts Landing and Willow Lawn. The new system has exceeded ridership estimates — about 6,000 people ride it each weekday, or 71 percent more than projected — and is the only bus service in the super-region of 10.2 million people that allows riders to pay fares before boarding the buses.
Henrico expanded GRTC bus service in September to Short Pump in the west and the White Oak Village shopping center in the east, as well as Richmond International Airport. “They have seen the light,” Guthrie said of the transit association.
“This is not just something for the inner city,” she said. “This is something for all of us. We might not all use transit, but we all need transit.”
Staff writer Mel Leonor contributed to this report.