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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.

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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.”

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ReRunner Clothing Drive at Quirk

A chance to help others and declutter your closet all this week at Quirk.

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The good folks at Quirk Hotel (201 W Broad Street) are hosting a clothing drive this week.

From Jan. 20-26, people can drop off their gently used clothing and shoes to the Quirk hotel lobby, and they will get 10% discount at Maple & Pine and ReRunner. As an added bonus tonight Wednesday, January 22nd, from 4-6 pm there will be a Happy Hour at Quirk for people to drop off clothes, mingle and a portion of drinks will go to benefit Goodwill.

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Bill to strike Lee-Jackson Day, make Election Day state holiday advances in General Assembly

Virginia lawmakers have advanced Senate bills that make voting easier, including not requiring an excuse to vote absentee and recognizing Election Day as a state holiday.

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By Zach Armstrong

Virginia lawmakers have advanced Senate bills that make voting easier, including not requiring an excuse to vote absentee and recognizing Election Day as a state holiday. Other legislation that would extend citizen access to voting — part of the 11-point “Virginia 2020 plan” put forward by Gov. Northam — has yet to clear committees.

Senate Bill 601 designates Election Day as a state holiday to give more citizens the chance to cast their ballot. The bill also would strike from current law Lee-Jackson Day, which celebrates the birthdays of Confederate generals. The legislation, introduced by Sen. L. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, passed the Senate Tuesday.

“Even on Election Day, people have to go to work, people have to handle childcare, people have to go to class and often it can be hard to make it to the polls,” said Del. Ibraheem Samirah, D-Herndon. “It just makes sense that those folks should be given the opportunity to come out and vote in a time window that works for them.”

A bill that removes the need for an excuse to cast an absentee ballot passed the Senate Monday. SB 111, introduced by Sen. Janet Howell, D-Reston, permits any registered voter to vote by absentee ballot in any election in which he is qualified to vote.

Several other bills that facilitate ease of absentee voting are SB 46, removing the requirement that a person applying for an absentee ballot provide a reason to receive the ballot; SB 455, extending the deadline when military and overseas absentee ballots can be received; SB 617, authorizing localities to create voter satellite offices to support absentee voting; and SB 859, making absentee voting easier for people who have been hospitalized.

Legislation in the House includes a bill that would also allow for no excuse absentee voting, automatic voter registration and same-day voter registration. In the Senate, a bill would pre-register teens 16 years old and older to vote and one bill in the House would reduce the period of time registration records must be closed before an election. All House bills are in an Elections subcommittee.

“Restrictive voting provisions almost always disproportionately affects people of color and low-income individuals because those are the groups that move more frequently, work multiple jobs and have less spare time,” said Jenny Glass, director of advocacy for the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia.

The House and Senate also introduced bills that would remove requirements that voters present a photo ID when voting. Under the legislation, voters can show voter registration documents, bank statements, paychecks or any government document that shows the name and address of the voter. Neither bill has made it past committee.

Virginians currently must present a photo ID, such as a driver’s license or a U.S. passport, to vote in person. According to a 2012 study by Project Vote, an organization that works to ensure all Americans can vote, approximately 7% of the U.S. population lacks photo ID. This is especially true of  lower-income individuals, those under the age of 20 and ethnic minorities.

Voters can provide their social security number and other information to get a free Virginia Voter Photo Identification Card, but some legislators said that service is unknown to many.

“Before the photo ID requirement voters had to sign the affidavit to say they are who they say they are, and I think that was enough,” said House Majority Leader Del. Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria. “I feel the photo ID was a way to suppress the vote because not everyone has one.”

Former Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell signed SB 1256 into law mandating voters have a form of ID with a photograph. Virginia is one of the 18 states with such voting requirements, according to the National Conference of Legislature.

In 2016, the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the ID requirement after attorneys for the state Democratic Party challenged the law, arguing it had a disproportionate impact on low income and minority voters.

“People are fed up with our overly restrictive and racist voting policies, and the legislature is finally getting rid of some of the biggest roadblocks to progressive reform,” said Glass. “This has been a long time coming.”

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Republican-backed gun bills fizzle on heels of massive rally

Democrats halted a slew of Republican-backed gun legislation — including bills that would not require concealed carry permits, allow firearms in places of worship, and allow state employees to bring concealed guns to work — during a firearms subcommittee meeting held Tuesday.

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By Hannah Eason

Democrats halted a slew of Republican-backed gun legislation Tuesday, including bills that would not require concealed carry permits, allow firearms in places of worship, and enable state employees to bring concealed guns to work.

One day after 22,000 gun rights advocates flooded the State Capitol in support of Second Amendment rights, 11 gun bills failed to advance out of a Democratic-majority legislative subcommittee.

House Bill 162 would have allowed those injured in established gun free zones to file a civil claim for damages. The bill states that if a locality or the commonwealth creates a gun free zone, it also waives its sovereign immunity in relation to injuries in that zone. Sovereign immunity protects government entities and employees against certain lawsuits.

Jason Nixon addressed the panel of delegates in support of the bill while wearing a Virginia Beach Strong T-shirt. His wife, Katherine Nixon, was killed in the May mass shooting in a Virginia Beach municipal building that left 12 dead and four injured.

“If you tell my wife that she has to go into gun free zones under city policies or state policies, and you can’t protect her, and you harbor her right of protecting herself, is that fair?” Nixon said.

Nixon said his wife expressed safety concerns the night before the shooting — and contemplated bringing a gun in her purse — but decided against it to comply with the law.

“This bill probably should be called the ‘put your money where your mouth is,’” Del. John McGuire, R-Henrico, said. “If you are in a gun free zone, you should be able to hold the local government accountable for preventing you from doing anything in self defense.”

During a block vote of HB 162 and HB 1382, which supported similar measures, the bills were tabled in a 6-2 vote. Del. Carrie Coyner, R-Chesterfield, broke party lines to vote alongside Democrats.

HB 161, sponsored by McGuire, would have changed the law to not require a permit for a concealed handgun.

Louisa county resident Myria Rolan supported the bill, saying she had to obtain a concealed carry permits because winter clothing often covers her firearm.

“But the reason I needed it isn’t because I was going to do anything crazy. It’s because I wear a coat or sweatshirt,” Rolan said. “Do you know how easy it is for current clothing to cover your firearm, and now you’re committing a crime just because you are being fashionable or warm?”

Del. Wendell Walker, R-Lynchburg, sponsored HB 596, which would repeal the law banning dangerous weapons in a place of worship. It was tabled in a 5-3 vote.

Steve Birnbaum, the head of a volunteer security team at his local synagogue, said he supports the bill.

Birnbaum said it took law enforcement 10 minutes to respond during the mass attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. He said churches should have the option to protect themselves before officers arrive.

“There are some synagogues that don’t even want paid security, because they don’t like firearms, they don’t always want off-duty officers, they don’t want to pay for security, and that’s their choice,” Birnbaum said. “But there are synagogues that understand that law enforcement are not coming, and that they’re on their own for 10 minutes, if not longer, especially in rural parts of the state.”

One attendee said that church and state were separate, and legislators shouldn’t control whether people bring guns in churches. Current law allows armed security guards in places of worship.

The subcommittee tabled HB 596, HB 373 and HB 1486, all in a 5-3 vote. The bills would have allowed guns in places of worship.

HB 669, patroned by Del. Mark Cole, R-Spotsylvania, would have allowed state employees with a valid concealed handgun permit to carry a concealed handgun to their workplace.

Other bills tabled Tuesday include :

  • HB 1470 would have allowed a landowner with property in multiple localities to extend the firearm ordinance of the country where the largest parcel was located to anyone hunting on site.

  • HB 1471 would have given property owners the ability to use HB 1470 in their legal defense.

  • HB 1175 would have increased the penalty for use or display of a firearm while committing certain felonies. It would raise the mandatory minimum sentence for first offenses from three years to five years, and second and subsequent offenses from five years to 10 years.

  • HB 1485 said that no locality shall adopt or enforce any workplace rule preventing an employee from carrying a concealed handgun if the employee has a valid concealed handgun permit.

  • HB 976, patroned by Del. Matthew Fariss, R-Campbell, was not heard today and will be consulted by the subcommittee at a later date.

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