Public bus users fight increasing fares, route cuts

In response to GRTC’s proposed fare increases and route cuts, a new social group in town is rallying riders and creating a stronger voice for public transportation users in the Richmond area.

Rushing down East Broad Street on a Wednesday morning, 19-year-old Laura McWilliams dons her work uniform and a smile as she talks about her son, who she supports with her job on Virginia Commonwealth University’s MCV Campus.

As a life-long rider, McWilliams says she relies on the Greater Richmond Transit Company (GRTC) to get to work every day, traveling approximately 20 minutes from her apartment in Henrico Country to Downtown Richmond.

The roaring engine of the GRTC bus can be heard almost as soon as it becomes visible, and for many riders like McWilliams, the far off sound is as routine as their morning cup of coffee. However, with proposals of increasing fare prices and inaccessibility by cutting routes, public transportation is taking a back seat when it comes to funding, and commuters are beginning to notice.

“I think it’s ridiculous to pay $1.40 for a transfer,” McWilliams said. “How much is it going to be if we have to ride two or three buses a day? The GRTC — they are making brand new buses, so I don’t understand why they are cutting routes. It’s convenient, but I also think that is unfair.”

About a month ago, McWilliams says she and other residents from her apartment complex devised a petition to add an additional bus stop outside of the building to make it easier to access, especially for the disabled, elderly, and parents riding with their children.

“We have to walk all the way around this big, black gate just to get to a bus stop and that’s unfair to us,” McWilliams said. “We have a lot of kids, a lot of elderly people, and a lot of disabled people that can’t walk, so they don’t have a ride to the hospital or where ever they have to go.”

McWilliams’s story echoes the sentiments of other riders who depend on the GRTC buses to commute for work, health, etc., and have sparked more than a discussion about funding for public transportation.

Still in its early stages, the Richmond Transit Riders Union is a newly-created social group advocating for increased funding for public transportation in Richmond and the surrounding areas.

Kenny Yates and Daniel Bickett, both members of Richmond Industrial Workers of the World, are working to organize the RTRU’s structure so that it is composed of and run by the riders themselves.

Yates and Bickett say the new advocacy group will be supported but not run from the workers’ rights group, and the RIWW will take on the role of a partner with the group, as opposed to a facilitator.

“It’s all about self determination,” Yates said. “We don’t represent the riders — they represent themselves.”

The idea to reach out to community members for a riders union came in January, Yates said, when signs started popping up around the city informing the public that certain routes were going to be cut at the end of the month.

“A group of us who were at that point talking about a Richmond chapter of IWW took that as (an opportunity) to organize something here in Richmond because there really hasn’t been a collective voice on the issue of public transportation as far as I know—except for that of developers and city officials,” Yates said.

Yates said he contacted other riders unions — one in Laredo, Texas and another in Milwaukee, Wisconsin — and also discovered several finely–tuned organizations across the United States in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Atlanta.

“I contacted the (union) in Laredo, Texas, which was also one that the IWW formed. They had very little time to get what they wanted done — they started organizing a month before things were going to change and they were able to get a group of their people together and go to their city hall and stop the fare from being increased completely,” Yates said. “They were able to convince city council to increase in increments over a six-month period. They’re still trying to fight it back down.”

According to Yates, the union in Laredo discovered a lot of the money for public transportation was going to streetcars in the inner city or the downtown area instead of the large Latin, working-class community.

Yates said the first series of meetings will address similar issues, and take place mid-June before the fare hike in July.

The first RTRU meeting is expected to be held around June 15.

At this time, Yates said plans remain loose and are susceptible to change. However, during the first couple of meetings he and Bickett will propose that members get a consensus on the group’s structure which they will suggest to be democratic.

According to Yates, their proposals will also tackle different strategies to combat the fare increases, some of which might include speaking directly with Richmond City Council and other governing organizations for Henrico and Chesterfield Counties.

Bickett said while the RTRU is in the midst of gaining support, he and Yates have encountered a large population eager to speak out about the transit system.

“Our strategy right now is really solid; we’re talking to people on the bus lines. We’re learning more out here from people telling us stories,” Bickett said. “One of the things we’re getting into right now is reaching out to congregations and existing organizations in the community. We made a connection with a pastor last Thursday so we want to connect them in that sense also.”

Bickett said he likes to emphasize the power that can be harnessed by the masses — “if you want to improve the conditions for many then you have to organize them in order to demand.”

On a side note, Bickett said this project is not only aimed at improving the public transit system but to form a stronger working class group.

“When people reminisce about the 60s and 70s the difference between then and now is that people were vocal and people were mobilized and willing to move in large numbers and you don’t see that as much these days,” Bickett said. “So, you have a deeply divided population and in order to reinvigorate that fire you got to think of an issue that will really connect the working people.”

Bickett said the RIWW is approaching the working class with the public transit issue — one he says really hits home and hopefully will organize the working class.

Challenges of fare increases and route cuts might be on the opposing front line for the RTRU but, according to GRTC CEO John Lewis, “the financial challenges facing GRTC (are the) result of the current economic recession, ”making the increase of 25 cents in July detrimental to closing the potential $6 million budget deficit that faces the GRTC in the current fiscal year.

Lewis laid out GRTC’s financial challenges in Transit Talk, a blog on the GRTC website. In the “Financial Challenges” blog, he stated the million-dollar shortfall occurred because of decreased revenue from riders as well as local and state funding. He added the increasing costs of fuel and health care also contribute to the problem.

“We have worked diligently to find opportunities for greater efficiency by purchasing smaller, more fuel efficient vehicles, instituting a hiring freeze for non-essential personnel, cutting back on inefficient routes with low ridership, and reducing hours,” Lewis stated.

Despite the GRTC’s efforts, the fare will be raised for the first time in 18 years according to Kathy Shaw Clary, the director of marketing for the GRTC.

While the GRTC welcomes advocacy for public transportation funding, Clary said the GRTC’s job is solely to provide transportation, and the organization can only provide service within the localities with transit funding.

“Public transportation should be a choice for everyone,” Clary said. “The only way we can provide that choice is to have the funding through a dedicated revenue stream.”

According to Linda McMinimy, the executive director for the Virginia Transit Association, funds have been growing for public transit in Virginia, but they haven’t kept pace with the increased ridership.

McMinimy said the improvement program started on May 19 documented the total funding for Virginia public transportation at $730 million; the state investment is approximately $225.3 million for the coming year 2011 Fiscal Year. The $730 million is the amount from all sources: rider fares, local, state and federal funds. She added this is minuscule compared to the funding for highways construction and maintenance, which is in the billions.

The transit association has managed to increase capital and benefit from federal stimulus funds to obtain new buses and trains, McMinimy said. “Where we’re really suffering is funding for operations,” she added.

Among the four funding sources — fares, local, state, and federal — McMinimy said the state funding share used for operating (drivers and fuel) is not growing.

While the state share is shrinking, the local share continues to grow. McMinimy said when the state doesn’t keep pace it forces local governments to pick up the slack or lose service. Localities often cannot make up enough of the loss to prevent service cuts. As the squeeze is taking place, fares are going up and services are getting cut, she said.

The transit association plans to bring attention to the funding problem at the state and federal level.

“The state program is just insufficient for the needs of both the transit system and roads. It needs to maintain and grow the systems so we can all continue to get to where we need to be,” McMinimy said.

According to McMinimy, the transit association will take several steps to rally state and federal support:

  • The association will provide information and education for state legislators and for representatives at the federal level.
  • The association will work with groups like the GRTC (and their riders)—this provides an avenue to let representatives at local, state, and federal level know public transportation is important to the public.
  • At the state level, the association is providing more information in general.

McMinimy said the association is making an effort, but the recession is cutting into everything across the board.

“Funding sources are constrained,” McMinimy said. “We’re struggling to maintain and keep what’s on the road. I think at this point in time there is a need for public transportation almost everywhere and if we don’t invest now, in five years we’re going to be hurting.”

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Erica Terrini

Erica Terrini is a contributing writer for RVANews and currently attends Virginia Commonwealth University, where she is also the executive editor for The Commonwealth Times. During her time in Richmond, she has gotten used to running around like a crazy person with a never-ending checklist in her pursuit to report the local news of a thriving, raw, and pretty fly city.

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