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Everything you need to know: Construction kicks off on city’s Bus Rapid Transit project

Construction begins in earnest today on one of the largest transportation projects in the City’s history–here’s our guide to everything you need to know to during construction and what to expect when service begins in October of 2017.

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Construction activities for the long-anticipated Bus Rapid Transit project, dubbed the GRTC Pulse, are scheduled to begin today. The major transportation project will bring rapid bus service to the city from Willow Lawn in Henrico County to Rocketts Landing just east of Downtown Richmond.

The project and overall vision

The GRTC Pulse will be a 7.6 mile high capacity, bus-based rapid transit system that offers some of the advantages of rail transit but at a lower and more affordable cost. Rather than building out a track- or rail-based system, the Pulse line will focus on improvements to the area’s roadways, bus stations, and route plans with the ultimate goal of speeding up the city’s bus system and offering a faster and higher quality bus service. While the new project will result in changes to the city’s traditional bus system, GRTC busses will continue to operate separate of the actual BRT line as they always have. The project will take existing services and upgrade them with “a spectrum of service enhancements,” according to planners.

The Pulse will feature dedicated bus lanes along W. Broad Street, traffic signal priority for buses, upgraded bus stations, better signage, and more, with the overall goal of making the line more accessible, attractive, reliable, and, most of all, faster. The BRT is designed to serve as a starting point for regional improvements to the transit system, which can expand in future years to serve other major “activity centers” in the region.

Station locations

There will be a total of 14 BRT stations stretching from Willow Lawn to Rocketts Landing. The upgraded stations will be covered and feature upgraded signage and other amenities that don’t currently exist.

Route_Updated_Names_July_2016

Interior_-_Night

Parking controversy and mitigation

As could be expected with any major project, the BRT has not been without its share of controversy. A number of neighborhood associations, businesses, and other groups along and near the BRT corridor have expressed concerns with construction, loss of parking, altered traffic patterns, and more.

By working with these entities, project planners have partially mitigated the issue, preserving 401 parking spaces that were originally to be lost along the route. However, all on-street parking will be lost along W. Broad Street from 4th through 14th streets to accommodate curb-running busses in that area. On-street parking is already prohibited during peak rush hour times in the morning and evening in this area.

In the locations where parking/loading spaces will be lost, BRT project partners are working with City staff from Parking, Planning and Development Review; Public Works; and Economic and Community Development to work on solutions to the loss of parking. Virginia Commonwealth University will also open to-be-determined lots and/or decks for public use during, and possibly after, construction takes place.

Parking mitigation options will consider safety of Pulse operations, road lane widths and median width for pedestrian refuge, and accommodations of bicycle and pedestrian movements. The team says the overarching goal is to preserve nearly 60% of the on-street parking along W. Broad Street. GRTC estimates there are 1,015 existing on-street parking spaces on the side streets within one block of W. Broad Street between Thompson Street and 14th Street, and more than 8,000 off-street parking spaces within one block of the route.  Of these spaces, 6,461 comprise short-term and long-term public and private off-street parking facilities. Construction of the BRT will neither change nor affect these off street parking spaces.

The project’s necessity

With renewed development along W. Broad Street and in the downtown area as a whole, the corridor has become more important as an activity center and economic engine for the region, GRTC says. More than 33,000 people live along or near the route and over 77,000 jobs are located within a half‐mile radius of the planned Pulse stations–a figure which is expected to grow rapidly through 2035, as the below map illustrates. Planners also hope the service will create economic opportunities for the City of Richmond, which is saddled with the highest poverty rate in the Commonwealth.

Population_Density_2

The BRT project aims to drastically reduce many of the changes GRTC’s current system faces, including the following (in the system’s own words):

  • Long travel times for local bus riders
  • Service delays due to bunching of buses
  • Substandard bus lane widths
  • Lack of exclusive bus lanes during off‐peak times
  • Reduced level of service for motor vehicles and buses
  • Congested regional interstates increasing travel time delay and commute costs for motor vehicles.
  • Limited and unreliable local access to employment, retail, educational institutions and health care services for transit‐dependent populations
  • Lack of permanent infrastructure investment to support development and redevelopment initiatives that would stimulate the economy of the metropolitan region

GRTC’s overall goal is to have The Pulse be a part of a multi-modal transportation solution that is pedestrian oriented but also transit supportive. The entity hopes the new bus line will (again, in their own words):

  • Expand the range of job opportunities for transit‐ dependent populations by increasing the areas accessible within a reasonable commute time
  • Provide a permanent transit investment in the Broad Street corridor that will encourage economic development and stimulate property values
  • Leverage opportunities for mixed‐use, transit‐oriented development that will revitalize an economically distressed corridor and improve jobs‐housing balance
  • Create additional opportunities to increase system‐wide efficiency for GRTC and further improve service on local bus routes
  • Attract new riders by providing a service with travel times that are competitive with motor vehicles or passenger vehicles
  • Increase bus speeds by approximately 65%
  • Improve pedestrian safety at station areas with improved crosswalks and pedestrian refuge areas at station platforms.  Also add new pedestrian crosswalks in the corridor
  • Improve the reliability of transit operations on Broad Street by providing a dedicated lane for BRT vehicles from Thompson Street to Foushee Street and by improving the dedicated bus lane between 4th Street and 14th Street
  • Reduce travel time for riders on BRT by approximately 33%

brt-benefits

Initial construction & upcoming work zones

The project’s contractor, Lane Construction, will perform utility relocation work in tandem with local utilities in preparation for site work. Said activities are set to begin on the south side of W. Broad Street at Thompson Street, progressing eastward. Temporary work zones will be set up surrounding construction activities, involving closing one curb and/or parking lane of Broad Street and a portion of the adjacent sidewalk for approximately 500 to 550 feet around the site Mondays through Saturdays from 7:00 AM – 5:00 PM through October 16th.

Pedestrian pathway detours and street lane closure signs will be posted accordingly. GRTC asks pedestrians and motorists alike to follow construction signage and be aware of construction workers and vehicles within all work zones, which will be clearly marked.

Next week, the week of August 22nd, work zones will be set up on the south side of W. Broad Street, from Cleveland Street to North Boulevard. The week of August 29th, expect work zones on the south side of W. Broad Street, from North Boulevard to North Davis Street. During construction, the public will continue to have access to businesses, organizations and services located along the Project route, as required by regulations Virginia Department of Transportation.

“Any activity that would impact parking, loading zones, access, utilities and other business-related functions must receive approval from VDOT who will ensure that continuous access will be provided to all businesses at all times,” says GRTC Public Relations manager Ashley Mason. “All Project team members are committed to providing prompt information to ensure a smooth construction phase for businesses, residents and patrons of the region as part of the overall success of the project.”

Overall project timeline

The Pulse project team expects major construction work will progress within the following approximate timeframes, which will be weather dependent:

  • Thompson Street to Laurel Street: August 2016 – October 2016. Work occurs on eastbound Broad Street on the south side sidewalk and adjacent lane.
  • Allison Street to 5th Street: October 2016 – April 2017. Work occurs in the median area.
  • I-195 to Allison Street: March 2017 – July 2017. Work occurs in the median area.
  • Curbside Stations (Willow Lawn, Staples Mill, Main Street Station, Shockoe Bottom, East Riverfront and Orleans St): November 2016 – October 2017. Work occurs in the sidewalk area and adjacent lane only at station locations.
  • 4th Street to 12th Street Westbound: June 2017 – October 2017. Work occurs in the sidewalk area. Westbound outside lane is closed.
  • 4th Street to 12th Street Eastbound: August 2017 – October 2017. Work occurs in the sidewalk area. Eastbound outside lane is closed.

Pulse service is expected to begin in October of 2017–a fairly aggressive timeline.

Visio-Construction Schedule (July 2016).vsd

BRT video simulation

This video simulation demonstrates how the BRT line will work, where the system’s dedicated lanes will be, how stations will operate, and how busses will be prioritized over motor vehicles along the route.

Construction information and updates

The Pulse section of GRTC’s website offers a bevy of continuously-updated information, graphics, charts, news, and more. Check it out here and be sure to sign up for updates on construction activity, which will be sent throughout the project timeline.

A construction phone hotline is also available at 804.980.0084. The automated system will provide updates on construction and expected impacts.

Project resources (PDF format)

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Trevor Dickerson is the co-founder and editor of RVAhub.com, lover of all things Richmond, and a master of karate and friendship for everyone.

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Mayor Stoney Releases Statement on Casino Referendum Rolling Snake Eyes

Despite spending in the neighborhood of $2 million Urban One failed to convince voters that the casino was worth the gamble.

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Urban One came in strong with promises of jobs, tax revenue, concerts, and green space as part of their $565 million southside casino and resort. The issue was but before Richmond residents yesterday. The vote was too close to call last night but the writing was on the wall this morning and the measure was defeated by 51.4 percent of Richmond voters voting against it.

Mayor Stoney released the following statement earlier this morning.

From the beginning, we said the people would decide. They have spoken, and we must respect their decision.

While I believe this was a $565 million opportunity lost to create well-paying jobs, expand opportunity, keep taxes low and increase revenue to meet the needs of our growing city, I am proud of the transparent and public process we went through to listen to our residents and put this opportunity before our voters.

I’m deeply appreciative to the members of our economic development team who negotiated this project and to Richmond City Council, which overwhelmingly supported it. Finally, I’d like to thank Cathy Hughes, Alfred Liggins and the entire Urban One Team for being willing to commit to, and invest in, our city. They believe in Richmond, as do we. Rest assured, this administration will not be deterred from its ongoing mission to bring other economic development opportunities to our city that will benefit the lives of all who live here.

RTD has a nice summary of the battle and money spent.

The Richmond casino project owners spent approximately $2 million campaigning for the proposal, spending the bulk of their money on media advertisements, campaign mail and volunteers trumpeting its projected benefits, such as $50 million in annual tax revenue for the city and other amenities, including 15 restaurants, an on-site television and radio studio, and a 3,000-seat theater.

Opponents of the project mounted a modest campaign raising about one-tenth of what the casino campaign spent, arguing that a casino in Richmond would worsen poverty and lead to a rise in gambling addiction.

Richmond’s vote is a stark contrast to ballot measures taken last year in four other cities in Virginia, where voters approved referendums with majorities of 65% or greater.

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Tazza Kitchen owners bringing new Mexican concept to Patterson and Libbie

Conejo (pronounced Koh-nay-ho) will feature a lunch and dinner menu of fresh drinks, a curated list of mezcals and tequilas, house-made masa, rotisserie meats, tacos, unique salads, and vegetarian options, and a variety of classic Mexican antojitos, the owners said in a press release.

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Big Kitchen Hospitality, the Richmond-based restaurant group which owns and operates Tazza Kitchen, has announced plans for a casual Mexican restaurant at the Westhampton Commons development at the corner of Patterson and Libbie Avenues.

Conejo (pronounced Koh-nay-ho) will feature a lunch and dinner menu of fresh drinks, a curated list of mezcals and tequilas, house-made masa, rotisserie meats, tacos, unique salads, and vegetarian options, and a variety of classic Mexican antojitos, the owners said in a press release.

“We are thrilled to be partnering with Mexican Chef and cookbook author, Danny Mena, who has become an integral part of our menu and concept development,” said partner Susan Davenport. “He has a wealth of knowledge about Mexican cuisine and Mezcal – both from his upbringing in Mexico City and his work on his cookbook, Made in Mexico. He has owned and operated several Mexican restaurants in New York but was ready for a change and has moved his family to Richmond to join us on the project. As a Virginia Tech graduate, Virginia is familiar ground. The pieces just fell into place.”

“In addition to being Spanish for rabbit, Conejo is one of the varieties of Mexican heirloom corn we plan to use for our masa. And according to the Aztec myth of the 400 Conejos, divine rabbits are the gods of agave spirits. So, the word Conejo represents elements of this restaurant that are important to us. I am very excited to be here in Richmond and be a part of this team,” said Mena.

The 4,474 square foot full-service restaurant will seat 120 inside and 50 on the partially covered patio. A separate entrance will provide easy access for take-out orders.

The targeted opening date is around year-end. Big Kitchen Hospitality Partners include John Davenport, Susan Davenport, and Jeff Grant. The company has engaged 510 Architects as the architect and Whiting-Turner as the general contractor.

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Unemployment benefits aren’t the only thing keeping workers at home

Business owners, chambers of commerce types and some local officials around Virginia swore that ending enhanced unemployment benefits – of $300 a week from the federal government – would propel folks back into the workforce who’d been home during the pandemic. That may not be the case.

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Business owners, chambers of commerce types and some local officials around Virginia swore that ending enhanced unemployment benefits – of $300 a week from the federal government – would propel folks back into the workforce who’d been home during the pandemic. 

The commonwealth should play a figurative Scrooge, these folks said, because places including restaurants, hotels and small businesses needed these employees. “Turbocharge the cash registers!” they cried.

This line of thinking was a gross oversimplification of the (so-called) post-pandemic economy. Nor do I think it was by accident. Demonizing low-wage workers has been a sport in this country for ages.

Several factors have kept people on the sidelines, not just the government largesse. The recent uptick in COVID-19 infections and persistent vaccine resistance, for example, would make anybody leery of working outside the home.

Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam has repeatedly said the commonwealth will keep doling out the checks until the Sept. 6 deadline, and a spokeswoman confirmed that to me again on Monday. It’s a wise, compassionate decision. 

About half of the states, mostly led by Republican governors, ended their programs early, however. 

Now a study by a university professor of the early impacts of canceling the benefits suggests there’s been no rush to return to the workforce – even after states declined the money. 

“This doesn’t seem to have translated into most of these individuals having jobs in the first 2-3 weeks following expiration,” said Arindrajit Dube, economics professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “However, there is evidence that the reduced (unemployment insurance) benefits increased self-reported hardship in paying for regular expenses.”  

Those checks have been deemed wasteful recently by critics, but several factors are keeping people at home. Shame on those who said otherwise – and depicted many Americans as freeloaders for not waiting on tables, changing sheets, or ringing up customers.

Caveats abound to Dube’s study, as CNBC reported. Some states hadn’t reverted to a lack of federal benefits very long. Dube noted more time and information are needed.

Virginia Beach Mayor Bobby Dyer was among those who urged Northam to cut off benefits sooner. His tourist-heavy locality can use workers, especially during the summer. Many of those jobs, though, didn’t pay well and can be physically demanding. Many employers are now dangling fatter paychecks, but finding workers is still a hurdle.

Dyer told me Monday the issue is moot now, since September is around the corner and with it, the end of the peak tourist season. He’d talked to many business owners who were desperate for workers, and Dyer was voicing their concerns to the guv, he told me. 

Dyer also said employers at places like Stihl Inc., which have higher-paying and higher-skilled jobs, have told him they can’t fill vacancies. “Workforce is the biggest challenge we’ve got,” Dyer said. “If we’re going to have businesses, we have to supply the bodies.” 

That’s true. 

Since the pandemic, however, many adults and families are reassessing the necessity of working outside the home. They value spending more time with their children, while giving up lengthy commutes. 

And given our notorious reputation for being overworked compared to the rest of developed nations, many Americans wonder if our former job habits still make sense. Everyone is re-evaluating the trade-offs. 

Vinod Agarwal is an economics professor at Old Dominion University and deputy director of its Dragas Center for Economic Analysis and Policy. I knew he’d give me a balanced assessment of the unemployment insurance controversy.

Business owners who say the enhanced benefits are the sole cause of the labor shortage are just wrong, he said. Since the pandemic started, some workers left the labor force entirely. Many women, Agarwal noted, made less than their male partners, and they often assumed the primary task of helping children who could not go to in-person school. 

Minority women often had the task of taking care of elderly relatives, too. A Trump administration crackdown on J-1 visas for overseas workers also played a role, Agarwal noted, particularly in tourist-heavy areas like Virginia Beach and the Outer Banks of North Carolina. 

Among formerly low-income workers, some now have greater flexibility and choices. “Unless the wages go up, a lot of these workers won’t return to the marketplace,” the professor said.

From daycare concerns and costs, to the aggravation of low-paying jobs, many families – especially those with two adults – are reassessing what’s important. Should they return to the market, when employers aren’t meeting their goals and conditions are less than desirable?

Enhanced unemployment benefits are going to end. Our place in the revamped economy is just beginning.

Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Robert Zullo for questions: [email protected] Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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