TransitCenter spoke recently with Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-area Coalition for Smarter Growth and board member of the Richmond, Virginia Partnership for Smarter Growth (PSG), about the recent approval of the 7.6 mile, $49 million Pulse bus rapid transit project in Richmond. The Partnership worked closely with RVA Rapid Transit, an advocacy group that emerged in response to Richmond’s BRT proposal. TransitCenter provided support for the Partnership and RVA Rapid Transit to jointly hire an organizer for the effort.
In February, the Richmond City Council voted to authorize construction of the Pulse BRT line. Can you explain the significance of this development?
The vote was to authorize the city to sign agreements with the state and the Greater Richmond Transit Company (GRTC) to move forward with construction of Pulse. The vote was seven to one, with one additional member abstaining. Pulse will have 14 stations, running roughly east/west across Richmond, mainly on Broad Street. Launch is slated for fall 2017.
This vote represented the last significant opportunity for the council to vote on the project. While there had been concerns by neighborhoods and small businesses over loss of parking, the debate leading up to the vote, and the “no” vote and abstention on the council were over concerns the new transit capacity represented by Pulse wouldn’t reach enough people or lead to improved service for transit-dependent populations. It’s not a rejection of transit as something that can’t work in Richmond, but rather that the project alone wouldn’t do enough.
Just a few weeks before the scheduled vote, political observers thought the votes weren’t there to move forward.
The difference was that PSG and RVA Rapid Transit (with TransitCenter’s support) brought to bear a diverse coalition of white and black, clergy, civic, young and older, in favor of this big first step toward modern transit in the underserved Richmond region.
If the vote had failed, it would have meant turning our backs on more than $40 million in federal and state funding for transit. The Richmond area would have been out of the transit game for decades to come. On the other hand, construction of the project will provide confidence to neighboring counties to consider and invest in transit, and for the city to improve its overall bus network.
Tell us more about the contours of the debate, especially the “we need even more transit” theme.
One contextual issue was that the city and the city council specifically were skeptical of some of Mayor Jones’s earlier economic development initiatives, such as the Redskins training center and proposal for a minor league baseball stadium in historic Shockoe Bottom. Transit supporters also faced more typical opposition from wealthier civic associations and small businesses adjacent to Pulse’s route. But the very reasonable concerns of African American residents and the NAACP for the poor condition of existing bus service provided the main contour of debate. The Pulse route does not provide direct service to the poorer East End of the city, nor is a BRT route yet planned for north-south service to connect poorer areas on the north side and south side to downtown.
A critical development was the emergence of RVA Rapid Transit. It is a clergy-led citizens’ group that grew out of Mayor Jones’s anti-poverty task force in 2013. Transit came as a natural complement to its discussion among churches and other institutions about access to jobs. RVA Rapid Transit and PSG began to team shortly thereafter.
The fact that the federal funding in the project was a 2014 TIGER grant also created time pressure for the decision, because of the use-or-lose nature of TIGER, and that brought Governor McAuliffe and Virginia Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne into the debate in very constructive, proactive roles as well.
How were the broader concerns about the need for more transit resolved into a “yes” vote for Pulse?
During the debate over Pulse, RVA Rapid Transit, PSG, and Councilmember Cynthia Newbille (representing the East End) were able to persuade GRTC to look at ways to link people in the East End with Pulse via connector or circulator buses. Then the city and state were able to agree on a state grant for a wider look at redesigning the Richmond bus network, bringing in Jarrett Walker to do the work. Additionally, the GRTC and the region’s metropolitan planning organization have launched planning for a regional vision and long-range plan which could build on Pulse.
So the debate and decision to build Pulse have helped generate a much broader and more in-depth discussion about transit in and around Richmond, amounting to a huge win-win outcome.
What were the key moments where advocacy by the Partnership and RVA Rapid Transit were pivotal?
When we were told a few weeks before the council was scheduled to take up the measure “you don’t have the votes,” we redoubled our outreach efforts by generating hundreds of emails, lining up a diversity of speakers, and outlining our case to the media. At the final council hearing, we turned out twice as many supporters as the opposition. There were 30 speakers in favor of Pulse, and only 10 in opposition.
All of the positive movement leading up to the vote came from advocacy. It was critical that the story was not one-sided, that we demonstrated a balance of opinion and indeed significant support for going ahead with Pulse.
One problem we see across the country is city governments and transit authorities not working well (or at all) together. But making bus service work well requires both parties. What was the experience in Richmond?
I would say our groups helped to bring city government and the GRTC into a closer working relationship. The process and debate around Pulse has helped improve communication between the transit agency and city. When advocates asked for high-level meetings, we pressed for both to attend. At the outset the city was not as engaged, but that changed during the project process and debate.
Initially we saw some issues with the way the city and GRTC were conducting their outreach. We raised the issue; agency and city leaders didn’t disagree.
In the final push, the advocacy groups and the government agencies worked independently but were aware of what the other was doing/saying and to whom. In the end GRTC did a great job, hiring a highly effective outreach staff director. The staff planners conducted retail-level outreach that allowed more people to come on board, addressing business community issues such as loading zones and construction mitigation, and reducing initial estimates of parking loss.
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