UPDATED: For real this time: BRT up for important vote at City Council

Enthusiasts, detractors, loud talkers—this Monday is your moment.

Update #2 — February 7, 2016; 11:35 PM

More updates from councilmembers!

Parker Agelasto has this to add to his previous statement:

“The City Council is scheduled to vote on February 8 to support a Bus Rapid Transit project agreement that has been negotiated between GRTC, VDOT, City of Richmond, and Henrico County. I have reviewed the agreement and believe it protects the City from any cost overruns associated with construction of the project. The agreement places the burden of these expenses on the Virginia Department of Rails and Public Transportation. Likewise, the Virginia Department of Transportation is responsible for procurement and construction and will also make available more than $1 Million of incentive funding to assure the project is on-schedule and under budget. The Virginia Secretary of Transportation, Aubrey Layne, has also made a grant available to the City of Richmond to assess every GRTC bus route to determine better connectivity to BRT and improve efficiency in bus route design. Along with the $24.9 Million in competitive TIGER funding, this is a great opportunity for the City of Richmond to transform public transit. I am very supportive of this.

“While I am prepared to support the project agreement, City Council has yet to receive an operating agreement to consider. GRTC’s pro forma anticipates an operating deficit for BRT of roughly $1 Million after federal and state subsidies and any efficiency that the new system will generate. Who will fund this gap?

“The City of Richmond currently subsidizes GRTC with $12.3 Million annually. Ten years ago in 2006, this subsidy was $7.5 Million. Five years ago, this subsidy was $11 Million. This is a 64% increase in City subsidy for GRTC in 10 years. How does this compare with other demands for funding such as public education, public safety, and public works? Part of the issue is that in 2012 VCU ended its support of public transit for students by pulling $2 Million of funding from GRTC to develop its own Campus Connector. Can we guarantee a better chance of success for BRT and financially sustainable public transit if VCU ridership returned to GRTC? I think so.

“Therefore, I believe that BRT is good for the City and region but only if all stakeholders get on board. I am therefore prepared to support BRT on Broad Street with the expectation that a bus route restructuring will benefit the entire City and BRT will eventually expand to Henrico and Chesterfield counties. However, I will publicly commit to not increasing subsidies for GRTC above the current $12.3 Million. City Council must demonstrate discipline and focus funding priorities on badly neglected public education, public safety, and public works.”

And Kathy Graziano sent this official quote in:

The City requested funds from the federal and state budgets and committed City funds to this project. This is the first step in establishing a long overdue regional transportation system.

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Update #1 — February 5, 2016; 11:08 AM

We originally posted this two weeks ago, but the meeting was canceled due to weather. They will now be voting on the BRT project agreement Monday, February 8th at 6:00 PM at City Hall.

If you feel strongly about the issue, you might want to show up. If you can’t show up, now is the time to contact your councilmember with your thoughts and feelings.

Even more recent developments

In the wake of that pre-meeting flurry of activity, many organizations sent out statements for and against. We have included them below, and they include many interesting tidbits of information. We also asked councilmembers if they wanted to update their quotes (or give them to us, if they never responded), and we had no takers.

GRTC Letter to the Editor

GRTC Board of Directors Chair George P. Braxton submitted this letter to the editor following public anti-BRT statements you can read about in our earlier post below.

As a Richmond native and current city resident, I have the distinct pleasure of serving my neighbors as an appointee on the GRTC Board of Directors. I grew up in the City’s East End, riding the Patterson 2 from Chimborazo Elementary to my mother’s job in downtown Richmond. There are thousands of stories of how GRTC has connected people, work, and opportunity for decades. Now we stand on the precipice of a pivotal project that could prove the genesis of Regional transportation opportunities which could not have been imagined during my youth. Regional conversations have recommended rapid transit for RVA, and the first steps – Bus Rapid Transit on Broad and Main Streets, arrives in late 2017.

After years of public engagement, the picture of what transformative transportation will look like is in focus. In 2015 alone, there were more than 50 community and business meetings, extensive door-to-door outreach, plus thorough research and conversations conducted regarding connectivity to the Pulse, specifically in the East End. Together, we will reap the benefits of sustainable, high-quality improvements to our region’s landscape, from sidewalks, streets, and bike lanes to transit routes. Together, we can all enjoy an improved quality of life by being better connected to each other in a more beautiful region.

Let me recap the biggest, historic win of this Project already. In 2014, GRTC, with support from our regional and State partners, applied for and received an unprecedented grant from The United States Department of Transportation. That year, The U.S. DOT received 797 eligible applications from 49 states, U.S. territories and the District of Columbia. The applicants in 2014 requested 15 times the $600 million available from the TIGER program. From that incredibly competitive pool, our Bus Rapid Transit Project was plucked. The Department of Transportation selected just 72 transportation projects out of the 797 submitted, and only three of those projects received $25 million or more. Our Bus Rapid Transit Project was one of those elite three.

The U.S. DOT selected RVA as not only a worthy candidate, but a candidate in dire need of this kind of mammoth Federal funding to invest in generating economic recovery in our region. It’s no secret that the Greater Richmond Area remains haunted by a past that is still its present – racial and socio-economic segregation with disparities in access to jobs, essential services, healthcare, education centers and retail options. The Pulse will provide equal access to all for faster, more frequent, more reliable, cleaner, affordable transit. This service is for all – those who depend on transit already; those who will need it as they age; those who simply want choices other than a personal automobile. This Project has not just been about one line of service, but about addressing connectivity to this service and how having the Pulse improves transit efficiency across the system. The Pulse is also the first step to a larger improvement in regional transit in the capital region of the Commonwealth. And this first step is a fiscally sound choice over other rapid transit options.

The total engineering and construction cost of the Pulse is $53.8 Million for 7.6 miles of Rapid Transit. Compare this cost to our neighbors in Norfolk who invested $318.5 Million in 7.4 miles of light rail, another form of rapid transit. Although their efforts to mitigate traffic snarl are essential, buses can carry more people for significantly less money than light rail.

Additionally, this project will save money and support improved air quality through fuel efficiencies. GRTC is already transitioning its entire fleet from diesel to compressed natural gas (CNG), which operates cleaner and cheaper than diesel. Currently, a third of GRTC’s fleet is running on CNG, eliminating 18 Million pounds of greenhouse gases annually. The Pulse vehicles will also run on CNG, serving as an attractive, frequent, affordable alternative to automobile travel that improves air quality in RVA and continues GRTC’s commitment to a Greener future for new generations of Richmonders

Where we are now is the pivotal point for leadership in the City of Richmond to use their political will to advance our City forward with true regional collaboration for the first time in our history. Other recent regional collaborative efforts have not gained actionable momentum, like funding a regional ballpark or a regional Children’s hospital. This opportunity for rapid transit has already benefitted from actionable positive momentum forward, from unanimous votes of final approval from City bodies (Urban Design Committee and Planning Commission) to City Council’s unanimous vote of funding allocation for the project’s development and construction in 2015.

These bodies are responsible for the crucial review of City projects like this one, ensuring Richmond continues to cultivate orderly growth and development. And our City is growing for the first time since the 1970s.

By 2030, RVA will have 300,000 more residents. After decades of suburbanization, people are flocking back. As we live longer, more of us remain active and vital contributors to our communities. We are aging in place and our younger residents are staying here to join our workforce. We need to provide real, modern, urban multi-modal transportation to keep this trend going. From bikes to buses, automobiles to trains, we continue to work toward better connectivity and transportation options.

We have worked for years to prepare for the Bus Rapid Transit Project in particular. Our City and Virginia Capital, our region and our State are poised to catapult ourselves into an even more competitive position once this modern, rapid service is here. This new style of transit in our region will serve a 7.6-mile route through the heart of RVA along Broad Street to Main Street in the City of Richmond, turning around in the East End at Rocketts Landing and in the West End at Willow Lawn with our regional partner Henrico County.

This improved service along our historically most important route will strengthen the spine of the whole transit system, and set the stage for better overall transit. Faster, more frequent and later-operating transit service has the power to transform your quality of life, regardless of why you use transit. From crucial connectivity to the most desirable and better paying jobs, quality healthcare, education, retail and each other, to environmental sustainability and revitalization of challenged neighborhoods, improved transit service is one of the smartest ways we can invest in our future.

Although the Pulse is an essential first step, moving forward on the Pulse could place Greater Richmond at the beginning of a much broader, beneficial overhaul. Imagine leaving from a stop near your home in Richmond that rapidly takes you to an Amtrak station, connecting you across state lines. Envision riding transit to Richmond International Airport and landing overseas. This dream can become reality because of regional cooperation and mutually beneficial growth.

Regional collaboration is not just a nice idea, it is essential for the continued attraction and retention of young talent. We will thrive and win together. Or, actions to delay the Pulse from City Council could further divide us and the City will lose. Look at the current conversation The City of Richmond is having about the Boulevard’s future, including what to do about baseball in Richmond. Without regional financial support for this private sports team, and millions already invested by the Flying Squirrels to The Diamond facility maintenance, it is clear the City still has millions of dollars to go to fund baseball on the Boulevard, or anywhere, in Richmond. The problem is that the City is tackling this project alone, without regional backing or financial commitments. The Pulse has both funding and regional collaboration already in place from years of planning, developing and preparation for construction to begin in 2016 and a good faith commitment by the same partners to fund operations starting in late 2017.

A delay of this Project for even a year is estimated to cost the City taxpayers at least another $1.5 Million, plus any other costs incurred by the other Project Partners (VDOT, DRPT, GRTC, Henrico County) as a result of a potential delay inflicted by City Council. The Taxpayers could be on the hook for those bills from the other Partners, and even if The City refused to pay each Partner back for their good faith efforts, you can bet the goodwill the City has worked so hard to establish in recent years would all be for naught. Additionally, how could the Federal Government ever justify investing national dollars in Richmond again if we cannot prove to be worthy of such a rare and important grant? If this project is delayed and the goodwill lost, the City Council would have itself, and only itself, to blame.

Delaying or terminating this project would prove destructive and is not at all in the best interest of our community. I call on City Council to exhibit real leadership and take this opportunity to lay the groundwork for a transportation network the citizens of RVA deserve.

RVA Rapid Transit and Partnership for Smarter Growth

Nicholas Smith, Community Outreach Director for Partnership for Smarter Growth and RVA Rapid Transit, sent out this press release, and he speaks for RVA Rapid Transit as well. Read our interview with Nicholas Smith here.

“After years of working to get better public transit in Richmond, Partnership for Smarter Growth and RVA Rapid Transit are proud to announce a strong and unanimous endorsement of the Pulse Bus Rapid Transit project,” said Nicholas Smith, Community Outreach Director for the unified campaign. “We urge Richmond City Council Members to vote in favor of moving this project forward without delay at its meeting this coming Monday, January 25.”

“This Bus Rapid Transit project will help Richmonders get where they are going faster, and represents an incredible opportunity to upgrade our public transit network,” said Stewart Schwartz, Policy Committee Chair for Partnership for Smarter Growth. “With dedicated bus lanes, signal priority at traffic lights, step-free boarding and off-board ticket payment, travel times along the corridor will be cut in half, saving current users time and making public transit a more competitive transportation option.”

The proposed 7.6-mile route would connect many neighborhoods, running from Rocketts Landing along E Main St through Shockoe Bottom to Main Street Station, then up 14th Street to Broad, past MCV, City Hall, the Capitol, the Downtown Arts District, Jackson Ward, VCU, Carver, the Fan, the Museum District, Scott’s Addition, Staples Mill and ending at Willow Lawn. Service would run from at least 6 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. seven days a week every 10 minutes during rush hour and every 15 minutes at other times, making the Pulse a frequent service people will be able to depend on.

“This corridor houses one-quarter of the city’s residents and nearly two-thirds of its jobs, making it an ideal first place for a faster, more reliable transit service, the design of which was unanimously approved by the city’s Urban Design Committee and Planning Commission,” said Smith.

“For over a generation, Richmonders have been underserved by public transit, leading us to fall to 92nd out of the largest 100 metro areas in the U.S. in terms of public transit service, even though we’re 44th in population.” said Nelson Reveley of RVA Rapid Transit. “Our failure to invest in transit and link jobs to transit has contributed to our concentrations of poverty – leaving over 120,000 jobs out of reach of those without cars.”

“This project is the first step of moving Richmond toward the world-class transit system it needs to compete in the 21st century. It’s a game changer,” said Schwartz. “Building these 7.6 miles can transform the center of our growing region. It gives us a platform on which to begin the work of a
regional rapid transit system for 1.2 million people, 10 Fortune 1000 companies and their employees, and four Universities (VCU, VUU, UofR, VSU).”

The BRT on Broad and Main is only the first step in an expanded and more efficient public transportation system. The Commonwealth has funded two ongoing studies, one to reorganize current
routes to make them more efficient and one to expand rapid transit to the surrounding region. Efficient connections between routes and the BRT have already been proposed for the East End and will allow people to seamlessly get to work, shopping, restaurants, parks and friends and family using public transit. Partnership for Smarter Growth and RVA Rapid Transit were catalysts for these studies and are participating as stakeholders in these studies to make sure Richmond has a great plan for moving forward.

“Two-thirds of households in the corridor have one or no cars, 18-34 year-olds make up 57% of the population in the corridor, and the corridor is growing at three times the rate of the city as a whole,” said Smith. “Furthermore, given that about one-third of this area is dedicated to surface parking, this area has an incredible opportunity for investment and redevelopment.”

“Young people are moving back to cities all over the country, and Richmond is no exception, growing at a faster rate than Chesterfield, Henrico and Hanover, with over 2,000 new residents each year,” said Schwartz. “With 400,000 people expected to move to Central Virginia in the next 20 years, we need a transit system that moves people quickly, reliably and efficiently, and with this project it is expected that an extra $1.1 billion will be invested into the corridor, which by year 20 will lead to an increase in property tax revenues of $13.2 million each year.”

The project won a highly competitive federal TIGER grant and state funding, so that the city is paying just $7.6 million out of the $54 million total cost. The city will realize an unheard-of 6-1 match, with a guarantee that if there is a cost overrun, it will be fully covered by the Commonwealth. Project construction will be managed by experienced engineers at VDOT, which is highly regarded for being able to deliver large projects on time and on budget.

“This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity that Richmond needs to take advantage of today,” said Reveley. “With all the benefits and momentum this transformational project will bring, the sooner we start, the sooner we can move forward to making Richmond the vibrant, connected, inclusive and
attractive 21st century city we know it ought to be.”

Symmetria Solutions Letter

Symmetria Solutions, an independent consulting firm representing RVA Coalition for Smart Transit, submitted their own letter full of concerns from an economic standpoint on the same day as Patrick Dempsey’s lawyerly letter (see original post below).

Our breakdown of BRT operating costs

Since we originally published this piece, we also added another Q to our BRT FAQ series and tackled the question of how much the thing will cost to run (not to build).

I have just read about 10 million words about the BRT, thanks to you. Now what?

Get to City Hall on Monday, February 8th at 6:00 PM to show your support or cast your shade!

Or (or maybe in addition), contact your councilmember and let them know your position.

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Original — January 21, 2016

This entire thing assumes that City Council will even meet on Monday, which they may not, having bundled themselves up and slogged northwards after Winter Storm Jonas.

At the January 25th City Council meeting, members will vote on whether or not to execute a project development agreement regarding BRT development with: GRTC, Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation, and the County of Henrico. This is the last major hurdle for the BRT moving forward, nay, rapidly transiting forward!

While in the past, City Council has been supportive of BRT, things could take an actual turn on Monday, as some of them have started to grumble a little.

We asked every single Honorable for a quote about the BRT for this piece, and only Charles Samuels and Parker Agelasto responded.

Charles Samuels says:

I believe BRT will be transformational for our city and region but am also concerned by some of the issues the citizens have mentioned. I will be introducing a series of amendments to the paper before Council to increase transparency and ensure the citizens have a chance to be heard.

Parker Agelasto says:

The project agreement that is before City Council on Monday, January 25th, has addressed several of my earliest concerns related to cost overruns and construction responsibilities. It is very significant that VDOT will conduct the procurement and design/build of BRT. It is also significant that VDOT is committing incentive funding to complete the project on time and under budget while DRPT is committing to absorbing the cost overruns.”

I am waiting on information that addresses the ongoing operating budget and pro forma for BRT. It appears that there will be an operating deficit. However, there is no operating agreement for BRT. Therefore, I’d like to understand who is expected to cover this deficit. Can we limit the need for additional subsidies by assuring that other partners will commit to using BRT rather than other alternatives currently available to them? I think we will have a very successful BRT that can expand to future destinations outside of Richmond if it is one system that we are all proud to use.

The Fiscal Impact Statement Letter

On January 15th, the attorney representing the RVA Coalition for Smart Transit–to refresh your memory, they’re an association of various neighborhood associations as well as the local chapter of the NAACP–dropped off a letter to the City Council.

In this letter, attorney Patrick McSweeney demonstrates how Ordinance No. 2015-263 (the BRT development agreement ordinance being voted on on Monday) violates the the requirements imposed by Ordinance No. 2015-144-154.

Put plainly, that means that nobody filed a fiscal impact statement, defined by City Code as ” “a written report containing analysis of the estimated public service costs and the increase or decrease of revenues to the City associated with the proposed economic development project.”

It’s not clear whether or not the fiscal impact report ordinance applies to the Pulse–McSweeney and the RVA Coalition for Smart Transit explain why they think it does in the letter.

The rest of the letter lays out each requirement for a fiscal impact statement and then demonstrates how the Council has failed to comply with each requirement. Here is the full text of McSweeney’s letter (PDF).

Politics are fascinating!

What this could mean

We are way into the BRT here at RVANews, but we are also way into reason. There’s some compelling stuff here, and it’ll be interesting to see how City Council handles it, and what Samuels plans to propose.

That’s not to say that other council members won’t be proposing things of their own. And, as always, things could change after their informal meeting before the real meeting.

Politics are confusing!

What you should do if you feel one way or the other about it

Get in touch with your councilperson right this very second and tell them how you feel. They will read your emails, guys–just don’t ask them for a statement back, I guess!

First find your district. Then find your councilperson.

OR! Go to the City Council meeting itself, which will be held Monday, January 25th, weather permitting, at City Hall (second floor).

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Susan Howson

Susan Howson is managing editor for this very website. She writes THE BEST bios.

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