August 31, 2007

Bus Routes Too Short? / GRTC and the Richmond Area’s Suburban Counties Struggle With the Issue of Transportation for Workers


Just before 5 p.m. on a Thursday, the No. 19 GRTC Transit System express bus tucks itself into a seldom-used turn lane near Pemberton Road and West Broad Street, where the line ends.

The doors are open, but the engine is turned off. Nearby, Hawk, a tall man in a maroon polo shirt, heavyweight black khakis and a black baseball cap, takes the last drags of his cigarette, pulled from a crumpled pack in his back pocket.

Hawk, who goes only by that nickname, left his Church Hill home at 5:30 a.m. and rode two buses to make it to work at the Burger King in Short Pump by 7:30. He is a regular on the No. 19, nicknamed the "Jobs Bus" because it travels in a straight line from 10th and Marshall streets in downtown Richmond west into Henrico County along a stretch of West Broad dotted with restaurants and other businesses.

The No. 19 runs between those stops only on weekdays, from 6:07 a.m. to 6:42 p.m., taking riders as far as GRTC goes.

The 3.1-mile distance between the Pemberton stop and Hawk's job at Burger King takes about 45 minutes to walk. Most days, one of his co-workers picks him up.

"If I walk, it's 45 minutes," Hawk says, sunlight reflecting off the thick gold chain around his neck. "In a car, it's 10 minutes. So why can't they carry this bus out there?"

On weekends when the No. 19 does not run, he takes the No. 6 bus to Willow Lawn and gets off at Krispy Kreme to wait for the 7-mile ride to work.

This Thursday afternoon, Hawk has put out his cigarette and climbed onto the bus, pulling out two dollar bills to pay the $1.75 fare. When the bus heads downtown at 5:17, Hawk is near the back, laughing and talking with the other passengers. He knows them all by name.

"It's a whole lot of people who work out that way," Hawk says, pointing toward the Short Pump area and beyond. "It's a whole lot of hotels out there. You see all these signs, hiring, hiring, hiring. But how can anybody get out to them jobs?

"They need to carry the bus out there."

A growing region

As the number of service jobs continues to grow in the suburbs around Richmond, so will the need for ways to get to those jobs. In the past three years alone, the number of service jobs in Henrico alone has increased from 7,081 in the fourth quarter of 2004 to 7,632 in the fourth quarter of 2006, according to the Virginia Employment Commission.

John M. Lewis Jr., CEO of GRTC Transit System, says he hears complaints such as Hawk's every time he goes into the community.

The No. 19 travels along one of the area's busiest corridors, going two blocks farther now than when it started in November 1986, and he says that as the Richmond region grows, the public transit system has to expand with it.

Lewis said Henrico paid $217,000 for the bus last year. Fares totaled $67,000. The bus has average daily ridership of 257, with 66,967 total rides last year.

Lewis said GRTC does not determine bus routes on its own.

"Each of the jurisdictions purchases services from us," he said. "We're really a contractor. We operate it, but they set the rules."

That means that GRTC acts as more of an adviser to Henrico and Richmond officials, gauging ridership, suggesting stops and additional routes and helping with planning. GRTC officials have talked with Henrico about traveling as far as Short Pump, but it's the supervisors who have to write the check, Lewis said.

Henrico County Manager Virgil R. Hazelett has heard the requests and evaluates them, he said. At two or three requests a year, however, there is not enough demonstrated need or interest for the county to put money into expanding the bus line.

Instead, the county suggests that businesses or employees think about carpooling, taking advantage of the GRTC's park-and-ride lots or arranging rides to pick up people at the existing stops.

"It looks like a good idea," Hazelett said. "But there is a cost, and it's not efficient to pay to take two or three riders out that far."

George Hoffer has lived in Richmond 65 years and used to be a bus rider himself.

An economics professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Hoffer has studied the history and information about local buses and public transit systems in other cities. His research and personal experience have made him realize how vital GRTC is - but for more reasons than employment and business.

"The critical value of public transportation is to promote employment, but it also psychologically ties the region together," Hoffer said. "If I live in Henrico, I don't see the Chesterfield [County] police cruiser. I don't see the Richmond police cruiser. But I do see the GRTC bus.

"It's a visual and physical binder."

Thankful the bus is there

The limited run of the No. 19 and other GRTC buses into western Henrico makes sense to North Side resident Rae-Ezell Thompson.

Thompson, 24, takes two buses every weekday to get to his job as a supervisor at the Circuit City near Gaskins Road. He owned a car but gave it to his mother years ago so she could get to work and do errands more easily. That left Thompson no choice but to depend on the bus.

"The buses are for the city, so why should they go into the county at all?" Thompson said.

He gets up at 6 a.m. to catch the No. 37 bus at Fritz Road and Chamberlayne Avenue. He gets off at First and Broad streets to catch the No. 19 around 7:45 a.m. and rides it to Pemberton.

As the bus rumbles westward on West Broad on a Tuesday morning, Thompson is relaxed, silent and sitting alone in a seat near the front. He wears a pair of large headphones, but the volume is turned low.

When he gets off the bus a little before 9 a.m. at his stop, Thompson collects his backpack and pulls his headphones off so they rest on his neck. He gingerly steps down the small, rocky slope in the shaded area next to the stop where the bus has paused. It will head back downtown at 9:07.

As the soles of Thompson's white tennis shoes touch asphalt, he slings his backpack over his shoulder and sets off on foot for Circuit City, cutting across the parking lot of the Westpark Shopping Center on his way.

The early rising doesn't bother him. The nearly two-hour commute is no problem. In fact, Thompson is glad the bus will take him to where it's only a five-minute walk to get to work.

"Everybody has to walk sometimes," Thompson says, trudging across the parking lot in his red polo and khaki pants, pinning his nametag to his shirt. "There's no use in being lazy."

An economic connector

For some business owners in areas where the GRTC buses don't reach, finding employees willing to walk from the bus stops to the workplaces isn't easy.

Extended transportation has to be provided by the business or other arrangements have to be made.

"There is a huge disconnect between where the jobs are and where potential employees are coming from," said William H. Baxter, president and CEO of the Retail Merchants Association. The trade organization's membership includes more than 900 local companies.

Baxter said the Willow Lawn Shopping Center is an example of how public transportation can help not only commuters but also employers. The No. 6 bus stops at Willow Lawn, and the bus stop there is often filled with employees and shoppers, too, he said.

"Some businesses are having some real challenges finding employees to work in retail locations," Baxter said. "It's going to have a negative impact as growth and expansion continues."

GRTC funding

The GRTC Transit System operates on a $40 million budget. Where does the money come from?

-- $9.5 million

City of Richmond

-- $3.5 million

Henrico County

-- $14 million

Rider fares

-- $13 million

State and federal government subsidies


Originally published by Times-Dispatch Staff Writer.

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