The leading candidates for Richmond mayor — including the incumbent — are turning their attention to issues of transit equity as Election Day bears down.
As GRTC bus fares remain suspended during the COVID-19 pandemic, policy discussions about the possibility of free transit service beyond the health crisis are turning into commitments from candidates.
While the pandemic leaves public agencies and localities unsure about revenue forecasts, the candidates are jockeying to champion the expansion and improvement of transit service in the city.
The three candidates who support a move to free public transit, Mayor Levar Stoney, 2nd District Councilwoman Kim Gray and Alexsis Rodgers, the Virginia director for Care in Action, all say it would help economically distressed residents who depend on public transit to work and run errands.
“Yes. I think we have to find a way ... to make it a reality,” Stoney said at a news conference Tuesday. “We’re going to find ways to continue the fare-free approach with GRTC.”
Rodgers, a Democratic party activist and policy analyst, last month said that she would create a new transportation department for the city and enact free public transit if elected.
Stoney endorsed the concept as he unveiled a new transit equity office within the Department of Public Works, which currently oversees public transit matters for the city. He said the creation of the new office will not have any immediate budget impacts.
In addition to advocating for universal free bus fares, the mayor’s office said, the new transit equity office will be responsible for overseeing several current initiatives related to pedestrian safety, bike lane development and transit planning as well as working with a new regional transit authority formed this year.
The new office, Stoney said, will help improve planning and coordination with GRTC as the transit company, the city and surrounding counties that are part of the regional transit authority will soon begin drawing millions of dollars that will come from a 0.7% increase in the sales and use tax and a 7.6-cent increase on wholesale gas in the region.
Rodgers, who last month proposed creating a public transportation department to oversee many of the same initiatives and matters as the new office, questioned the timing of the mayor’s announcement, adding that he’s done little to improve transit equity.
“It’s unfortunate that after three years of the mayor’s administration ... he’s now trying to make a play to transportation advocates who for a long time have been raising these issues,” she said. “It’s not enough to just say you support it.”
Bobby Vincent, the city’s public works director, said Tuesday that his department has been working to restructure things to improve collaboration between traffic engineers, transit planners and GRTC officials.
The mayor’s administration said keeping the transit equity office within the Department of Public Works will minimize “duplicative work.”
Though new funding will soon be available through a new regional transit authority designed to improve transit planning and the expediency of transit projects , the city slashed its local funding for GRTC by half in this year’s budget anticipating the new revenue source.
The city also has been slow in finding a permanent location for the temporary GRTC bus transfer plaza that’s been on 9th Street since 2014. The proposed Navy Hill redevelopment project that Stoney supported envisioned a new transfer center in the area, but it ultimately fizzled out earlier this year.
Earlier this summer, GRTC CEO Julie Timm asked for the city to identify someone within City Hall to “champion” the project to see its completion.
Dironna Moore Clarke, a transit planning manager who will be in charge of the city’s new transit equity office, said the administration is working with GRTC to form an ad hoc committee for the transfer center project before the end of the year.
Fare rates are decided by the GRTC Board of Directors. The transit company originally suspended fare collection at the outset of the pandemic in March to allow passengers to board without interacting with fareboxes and ticket vending machines that could transmit the virus.
Since then, the GRTC board adopted a budget for the fiscal year that began on July 1 and did not include revenues from fares, believing that the health crisis could continue through next summer.
The confluence of the pandemic and the recent protest movement over racial injustice prompted officials to discuss making the policy permanent.
GRTC and city officials have said the pandemic’s impact on transit has become more apparent, as ridership has declined by approximately 20% through the course of the pandemic.
Considering that more than half of riders make less than $25,000 annually and that the busiest routes operate in the poorest parts of the city, free-transit advocates say it’s apparent that fares place a burden on those of little means.
Gray said Tuesday that she’s also supportive of moving to a free-transit model but that has been waiting for more information about what it would cost the city to subsidize the service.
“I wouldn’t want to have to resort to raising taxes or to making cuts to other needed services to achieve it,” she said. “At some point this will require a budgetary reckoning.”
Not all of the candidates agree on the matter. Justin Griffin, an attorney running for the office, said he’s skeptical.
“To provide bus service without collecting a fee from the rider would require more money to be diverted from the city budget or a reduction in services to fill in the gap,” he said. “We should be focused on improving the bus system’s coverage and reliability instead of on talking points for political resumes that actually make things worse for regular people.”
The equity lens officials are applying to transit, however, would also involve efforts to improve bus frequencies and reliability, as the increased ridership could result in higher levels of state and federal funding, Timm said.
While GRTC has also considered a new account-based fare system with benefits for low-income riders, Timm said she is partial to a zero-fare model because it would be simpler and less costly to implement.
However, she said, the move still would rely on the support of the city and the community .
“We talk a lot about equity of zero fares, but honestly there’s more to it than that,” she said. “It’s not a revenue loss. It’s an investment strategy. We need the time to evaluate it.”