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GRTC directors approve bus service cuts on Pulse, 8 other routes and suspend advertising program
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GRTC directors approve bus service cuts on Pulse, 8 other routes and suspend advertising program

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The GRTC board of directors has unanimously approved plans for bus service cuts starting in December due to an ongoing shortage of drivers and mechanics amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

While the plans are subject to change ahead of the next quarterly service update, GRTC is preparing to reduce bus frequencies on the Pulse and eight other routes.

Julie Timm, CEO of the regional transit company, said she expects that the cuts will be temporary, as the GRTC board also voted Tuesday to allocate $5 million from a pot of federal aid for employee bonuses, a recruitment media campaign and other retention incentives.

The appropriation vote also included $255,000 to cover projected revenue loses from the suspension of the company’s transit advertising program.

A month after announcing the possibility of service cuts later this year, Timm said that the proposed reductions are less severe than what were previously considered because of recent hires and other developments.

“We expect to continue to see this turn around,” Timm said. “At the same time we are cautious because we know that we have some key issues over the next several months that could balance out these good movements.”

GRTC required around 300 bus operators prior to the pandemic. Officials at Tuesday’s meeting said that they currently have 257 drivers and 11 more in training, but that they can plan for only 215 drivers on the road each day to account for employees who are off, sick or out because of a personal emergency.

Fearing that a federally required vaccine mandate could trigger more turnover, GRTC officials are proposing to adjust Pulse headways to 15 or 30 minutes during peak and off-peak hours. Current frequency is as often as 10 minutes until 7 p.m. weekdays. Also subject to the cuts are Routes 4A, 4B, 5, 20, 76, 77, 78 and 88 — all of which would move back from running every 15, 30 or 40 minutes to 30 minutes or an hour.

The transit company last month suspended three of its express commuter routes in Henrico County after staffing shortages over the last year resulted in more frequent late or missing buses for patrons.

To attract prospective employees, the transit company is offering $5,000 and $8,500 bonuses for new drivers and mechanics, respectively. Timm said the company also is planning to give discretionary bonuses to help retain employees, as well as $500 bonuses for all employees who are vaccinated.

Timm also announced Tuesday that GRTC employees will need to be fully vaccinated or secure a religious or medical exemption by Nov. 24 to comply with a federal vaccine requirement for workers in the public and private sectors.

Several board members said they were relieved by the limited service reductions presented Tuesday.

“It’s not as severe as we were afraid of,” said GRTC Chairman Ben Campbell, who represents Richmond on the board. “It’s actually very encouraging.”

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In other business Tuesday, the GRTC board of directors voted to suspend the system’s transit advertising program after a series of federal court rulings that weakened the case for public transit agency bans on political ads.

Timm said she proposed the suspension as the transit company remains in litigation over a 2017 lawsuit filed by the White Coat Waste Project, a Washington-based nonprofit and taxpayer watchdog that says GRTC unlawfully rejected its request to place an ad about animal testing at McGuire Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Richmond.

GRTC’s two-page advertising policy, adopted in 2018, says its buses or vehicles are not meant to be a “public forum for dissemination, debate, or discussion of public issues.”

The policy includes 15 specific prohibitions, including bans on messages that are false, misleading or deceptive; sexually explicit or harmful to minors; alcohol- or tobacco-related; and religious or anti-religious. The policy also bans “all political ads.”

Timm said she has been concerned about GRTC’s advertising policy for a while, particularly after officials determined that they could not approve some proposed advertisements, including a nonpartisan message about voting from the League of Women Voters or one on wearing a mask to limit spread of the coronavirus.

“There were a lot of court cases about that at the time. ... It became highly politicized,” Timm said, speaking about a proposed public service ad that GRTC sponsor and health care provider Bon Secours proposed about wearing masks. “That was something I desperately wanted, but we weren’t sure if doing it would open us up [to a lawsuit].”

Timm proposed that the board soon discuss a potential revision to the policy while the program remains suspended. She said ads on buses will stay for the time, remaining on current advertising agreements.

Advertisements on GRTC buses generate about $30,000 in net revenue each month for the transit system. Gary Armstrong, a Chesterfield County representative on the board, however, said GRTC could be doing more to tap even more revenue from ad sales.

“I’d like to only keep a sense of urgency around this topic because this is a revenue source. I think we can greatly enhance it,” Armstrong said. “I want to make sure that we’re really urgent about how we address this and not let it linger too long.”

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