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New GRTC chief outlines five strategies to grow public transportation

The new CEO of Greater Richmond Transit Co. has a vision of how to build on its recent breakthrough success of increased ridership, and it involves boosting regional commitment.

Capital News Service



By Mario Sequeira Quesada

The new CEO of Greater Richmond Transit Co. has a vision of how to build on its recent breakthrough success of increased ridership, and it involves boosting regional commitment.

 CEO Julie Timm, a Hampton Roads native, returned to Virginia after serving three years as the chief development officer for Nashville Metropolitan Transit Authority and Regional Transportation Authority of Middle Tennessee. On Sept. 23 she turned her focus toward continuing the growth of public transportation in the Richmond area. GRTC is increasing its numbers of passengers, dodging a national trend of declining ridership.

From 2014 to 2017 bus ridership nationally dropped by more than half a billion riders, according to a 2017 report by the National Transit Database. But GRTC reported over 16% growth in the past fiscal year, according to its ridership trends report.

Timm wants the regional network to become more dynamic and target cluttered streets.

“We definitely have traffic issues here. But I think this is the right time to be addressing them,” she said. “If you wait until you have gridlocked traffic to try and address where the cars go, the cars are already here, and you can’t address it anymore.”

In an interview with Capital News Service, Timm detailed five key components that she thinks will help the region build its public transportation and offset vehicle congestion: partnerships, developing a true regional transportation system, investment from local governments, improving service reliability and transit-centered development.

Forming Partnerships

Timm acknowledged Richmond’s recent double-digit population growth and its impact on traffic. She believes it is vital that GRTC connects with local and state government, educational institutions, public services and private businesses to ensure that as the city grows, so does the accessibility to transportation services.

“If we don’t address how to move in an integrated way of all the different modes and how they share our limited infrastructure we can find ourselves gridlocked,” Timm said. “When you have the city or the state, or you have agencies who provide benefits to people for transportation, it reduces their barriers to be able to work, live and play.”

For instance, with the partnership between GRTC and Virginia Commonwealth University, VCU students, faculty and staff can ride the bus for free through a three-year deal. The university sealed the negotiation in June for $4.6 million, paid to GRTC in three annual, increasing payments.

According to VCU, over 95% of students and employees expressed support for continuing the GRTC service. The VCU community accounts for approximately 12% of GRTC’s total ridership, averaging 87,400 trips a month, the university said.

Partnerships like this help with vehicle congestion and also provide economic relief to citizens, Timm said.

“To be able to provide those benefits to people, it supports their ability to maintain their housing and their jobs and their education,” she said. “I just can’t speak highly enough about how important it is for people to come on board and provide those benefits to the community in partnership with GRTC.”

Regional Transportation System

GRTC serves the city of Richmond and Henrico and Chesterfield counties. The organization is “handcuffed” because it is not an independent authority, Timm said. It operates under policies set by its Board of Directors, which consists of six members who serve one-year terms but are eligible for annual reappointment. Three are appointed by Richmond City Council; three are appointed by the Chesterfield Board of Supervisors.

The organization’s internal structure restrains its expansion, Timm said, and those issues have to be addressed in order to become a true regional transportation authority — or to partner with one.

“How we do that and how we move forward is something that needs to be established by the board and by our partners and by the state legislature in combination,” she said.

Timm said the groundwork must begin soon. “I’m hoping that we can have an answer over the next year in the development of a regional system that we can all embrace, we can all buy into and that everyone’s voice can be heard in it,” she said.

Investment from Local Government

GRTC generates revenue from bus fares and through advertising. The agency also receives money from federal, state and local government entities such as the Federal Transit Administration, Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation, Richmond, Henrico and Chesterfield. In some cases, money that comes from these sources can only be used for certain purposes.

But it is local funding from the districts covered by GRTC that is so vital for the company’s growth.

“We can’t function without that local funding because the money that we receive from state and federal sources requires a local match,” she said.

Timm pointed to Henrico as an example of how impactful local funding can be. Henrico recently budgeted its largest transit investment in 25 years, resulting in a 400% increase in the county’s ridership across all routes, according to GRTC’s 2018 annual report.

Reliability of the Service

A big challenge Timm believes GRTC faces is the perception of public transportation.  The organization is working to change those views.

“People, sometimes, when they think about public transit, they think about the buses from 50 years ago, they think about the school buses they rode that used a lot of diesel,” she said.

Providing a reliable service that offers accessibility, safety and consistency is the key Timm believes will help change the culture of public transportation.

“To have that level of frequency, that level of reliability, you will see people respond to it and people will start using it,” she said.

Rider Marina Williams said she celebrates the efficiency of the Pulse line, which runs every 10 minutes in the day over a 7.6-mile loop through Richmond and parts of Henrico. Williams said the other lines aren’t as convenient.

“I wish they had more buses on some routes,” Williams said. “It is very inconvenient to rely on buses every 30 minutes.”

Church Hill resident Marcel Cheatham agreed that the Pulse is a good service and that other lines are plagued by too many delays. “It takes me two hours to get to work and two hours to get back; the buses don’t stop frequently enough,” he said. “They need more buses.”

Timm agreed that many routes need to run more frequently and for longer hours.

 “Of course, we can only provide as much service as we have funding for and for which we can show there is good demand to serve our current and future riders,” she said.

She said they are looking for opportunities to increase service to help passengers access a variety of resources.

Timely Planning of City Development

As the city population grows, so do its businesses, services, housing and infrastructure. Timm urges local leaders and developers to include and prioritize transportation access in their planning. Timm hopes development will target high density corridors where GRTC already has infrastructure in place or can connect to it.

“As we look to grow, and as we look to provide that access, think about mobility first, think about it as part of an integral part of the process. Not later,” she said.

Timm appreciated that Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney factored in public transportation in the Navy Hill redevelopment project with the proposed GRTC Transit Center. The project is still under review by Richmond City Council, but it includes a 65,000-square-foot connection hub for bus passengers that would replace the current temporary transfer center on 9th Street. GRTC was already seeking a large space to build a “multi-modal transportation hub” that could help streamline and coordinate scheduling and provide a secure place for waiting passengers.

“I think it is amazing and exciting that it is part of the conversation,” Timm said. “Too many times you see development and infrastructure and cities grow without having the conversation for how to embrace transit.”

GRTC has concluded the first stage of the Greater RVA Transit Vision Plan and is now under consultant review before the second stage starts, according to spokesperson Carrie Rose Pace. Part of the review is identifying incremental goals that can be implemented in the next five to six years over current service areas in Chesterfield, Henrico and Richmond, Rose Pace said.

Timm’s watch is just beginning, but she is optimistic that GRTC can provide the public transportation Richmond wants and needs.

“It’s important to show that when you provide good, frequent, reliable transit … people will use it,” she said. “Slowingly reducing the barriers of how public transportation is perceived will help the growth of ridership.”



The Capital News Service is a flagship program of VCU’s Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture. In the program, journalism students cover news in Richmond and across Virginia and distribute their stories, photos, and other content to more than 100 newspapers, television and radio stations, and news websites.

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City of Richmond announces Small Business Disaster Loan Program

The Richmond Economic Development Authority on Thursday created the Richmond Small Business Disaster Loan Program (COVID-19), which will offer interest-free emergency loans of up to $20,000 to small businesses within city limits.

RVAHub Staff



The Richmond Economic Development Authority on Thursday created the Richmond Small Business Disaster Loan Program (COVID-19), which will offer interest-free emergency loans of up to $20,000 to small businesses within city limits.

The program is intended to provide relief to small businesses that have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Monies will go toward paying employee wages, empowering local, small businesses to continue operating and keep employees on their payroll.

“Small businesses have made Richmond the thriving cultural capital we love,” said Mayor Stoney. “They’ve been understanding, patient and selfless in adapting to the recent social distancing guidance, no matter the economic consequences for them. This loan program is one way we can help provide some relief and support in this tough time.”

The maximum loan amount for the program is six months of current employee wages or $20,000, whichever is less. Loan payments will be disbursed over six months.

Repayment of the loans will be deferred for six months, followed by 48 months of no-interest payments.

Small businesses interested in applying should fill out the application and provide the required documentation via email. The application will be available starting Monday, April 6.

Funding is limited. Applications will be considered in the order they are submitted.



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Schools, nonprofits hustle to feed over a half million Virginia students: ‘It’s incredible’

Richmond school bus driver Tyrone McBride is still driving a big, yellow bus through Richmond neighborhoods, but these days, he’s transporting boxes of food for kids in need. More than a week has passed since Gov. Ralph Northam announced students will not return to school this academic year, and volunteers are still fighting to feed the 590,000 children in Virginia with free or reduced lunches who were ordered to remain home during the coronavirus pandemic.

Capital News Service



By Hannah Eason

Richmond school bus driver Tyrone McBride is still driving a big, yellow bus through Richmond neighborhoods, but these days, he’s transporting boxes of food for kids in need.

“It gets me out of the house,” said McBride, who has been a school bus driver for 18 years, “and you know, you’re doing a great deed and helping people out.”

More than a week has passed since Gov. Ralph Northam announced students will not return to school this academic year, and volunteers are still working to feed the 590,000 children in Virginia eligible for free or reduced lunches who were ordered to remain home during the coronavirus pandemic. Schools have been closed since March 16, though students were originally slated to return by March 27.

Whitcomb Court resident Simone Sanders said her children are now eating at home during the day, but she didn’t receive an increase in food stamps. One child is disabled, which prevents Sanders from being able to work.

“It’s affecting us bad, especially in the projects, and there’s nothing for the kids to do all day,” Sanders said. “And then you have to worry about your child just being outside getting shot.”

Sanders said she’s grateful for the food from Richmond Public Schools, and says she occasionally gives food to neighborhood kids who say they’re hungry.

The Richmond Public Schools meal distribution program, like others around the state, continues to evolve during the coronavirus pandemic that caused a surge of Virginians to file for unemployment. Almost 46,300 Virginians filed for unemployment between March 15 and March 21. The previous week 2,706 people filed an unemployment claim, according to the Virginia Employment Commission.

The program started with 10 school sites, and has since grown into at least 43 sites throughout the community and 10 school sites.

Erin Stanley, director of family engagement at Richmond Public Schools, said volunteers, bus drivers and the district’s nutrition staff have made the efforts possible. Volunteers were using personal vehicles to drop off food, but RPS decided that school buses would better suit the cause.

“We did that for a couple of reasons,” Stanley said. “One, so we can get more food out, and two, because school buses are a bit more well known and probably more trusted than individual volunteers going in with their personal vehicles.”

Plastic bags filled with milk cartons, sandwiches, apples and snacks are handed out in neighborhoods found on the Richmond Public Schools’ website. School distribution sites are open Monday through Friday from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., and neighborhood times vary by location. Any student in the school district can use the program, Stanley said.

Volunteer Natalie Newfield said many families she gave meals to lost jobs in the restaurant industry.

 “They’re changing the way they do deliveries, which is amazing,” Newfield said. “Every day you give them a count. If they need more food, the next day, all of a sudden your bus has more food. It’s incredible.”

Statewide efforts to feed children in Virginia

When schools closed, the U.S. Department of Agriculture activated the Summer Meals Program, which funds public schools and local organizations to serve breakfast and lunch during the summer.

Del. Danica Roem, D-Prince William, pressed the USDA to change its policy which required parents to have their child with them when picking up food.

Roem said it was difficult for a Prince William County mother to access food for her two children. Her daughter has an immune system deficiency caused by recent cancer treatments, making her susceptible to the COVID-19 virus.

“When you’re talking about a 7-year-old with cancer, we have to really evaluate what is it that our policy is trying to prevent that is more important than feeding a child with cancer,” Roem said.

Roem said she was able to bring groceries to the family, who live in the representative’s district. As they carried bags of food inside, Roem said the mother told her children, “We’re eating tonight.”

“I fought with the USDA for a full week and won a major, major victory for kids throughout Virginia and across the country, and especially immunocompromised kids, to make sure that they stay safe, that they stay home,” Roem said.

The USDA waived the restriction last week, and states can now choose to waive the in-person policy for students to receive food.

No Kid Hungry, a national campaign launched by nonprofit Share Our Strength, is offering emergency grants to local school divisions and organizations during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The grants can help people who are trying to make meal distribution possible, but may lack the equipment necessary to feed children outside of a school setting.

Sarah Steely, senior program manager at No Kid Hungry Virginia, said the grants can fund necessities like vehicles, gas, coolers and equipment to keep food safe during distribution.

“Those might not be resources that folks already have, because those aren’t service models that were expected of them before,” Steely said, “so we’re here to support community organizations and school divisions as they figure out what it is they need to distribute to kids.”

The organization works with YMCAs, childcare centers, libraries and all 133 of Virginia’s public school divisions.

The organization recently activated their texting hotline for those unsure of where their next meal is coming from: text “FOOD” to 877-877. The hotline is generally used during the summer months, but was reactivated to combat food insecurity during the coronavirus pandemic.

Steely called the hotline “a tool in a bigger toolbox of resources” and encouraged families to contact their local school board for updated information about their locality.

“They count on that as a primary source of nutrition, so with schools closed, we want to make sure that the students who are accessing meals at school are now accessing those meals at home,” Steely said.



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Use Exact Change or E-Zpass on Powhite Parkway Starting Today

There will be no manned booths taking money on Powhite for the foreseeable future.




The Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) has temporarily suspended cash exchange tolls on Powhite Parkway extension and the George P. Coleman Memorial Bridge. This means there won’t be someone to take your money so either have exact change, pay too much, or use an E-Zpass. No mention of any changes to Nickel aka Boulevard Bridge.

As of April 1, if you make an unpaid trip on a Virginia toll facility, you may be able to pay that toll through the “missed-a-toll” process before receiving a notice/invoice. The “missed-a-toll” payment process must take place within six days of the unpaid toll trip.

The standard administration fee associated with “missed-a-toll” has been suspended temporarily.

Exact change can still be dropped into the coin basket at the Powhite Parkway Extension.

E-ZPass is now the most convenient and safest way to pay tolls.

For more information or to order your own E-ZPass, click here.



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