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Virginia public transit grapples with reduced ridership, zero fare

Virginia public transit systems from Northern Virginia to Hampton Roads are looking for a path forward after losing riders and revenue during the pandemic. Some transit systems have been harder hit than others.

Capital News Service

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By Katharine DeRosa

Virginia public transit systems from Northern Virginia to Hampton Roads are looking for a path forward after losing riders and revenue during the pandemic. Some transit systems have been harder hit than others.

“We are serving a market of essential workers that can’t stay home; they have to use our service,” said Greater Richmond Transit Co. CEO Julie Timm during a recent presentation.

Gov. Ralph Northam issued a state of emergency in March of last year in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The move prompted limits on public and private gatherings, telework policies and mandates to wear masks in public, although some restrictions have eased.

GRTC faced a “potentially catastrophic budget deficit” since eliminating fares last March in response to the pandemic and reductions in public funding starting in July of this year, according to the organization’s annual report. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act funding and Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation emergency funding covered the deficit, according to the report.

The transit system lost about 20% of riders when comparing March to November 2019 with the same 9-month period in 2020. Overall, fiscal year-to-date ridership on local-fixed routes decreased the least (-16%), compared to the bus-rapid transit line (-49%) and express routes (-84%), according to GRTC data. Local-fixed routes had a 7% increase from March 2020 to March 2021.

GRTC eliminated fares in March 2020 to avoid “close interactions at bus fareboxes,” Timm said in a statement at the time. CARES Act funding made the move possible. GRTC will offer free rides until the end of June.

GRTC will need an additional $5.3 million when federal funding ceases to continue operating with zero fare, Timm said. Zero fare can be supported through the third round of federal stimulus money and Department of Rail and Public Transportation funding, advertising revenue and other funding sources, Timm said.

“This is the conversation and it’s a hard conversation,” Timm said. “To fare or not to fare?”

GRTC serves a majority Black and majority female riders, according to the 2020 annual report. Commuters account for over half the trips taken on GRTC buses and almost three-quarters of commuter trips are five or more days per week. Nearly 80% of riders have a household income of less than $50,000 per year.

GRTC spends about $1.7 million to collect fares annually, according to Timm. Eliminating fares is more optimal than collecting fares, Timm said in March. She believes in zero fare operation because the bus rates act as a regressive tax, which takes a large percentage of income from low-income earners.

Free fares could lead to overcrowding on buses, opponents argue. However, Timm said that’s not a good reason to abolish the initiative.

“If we have a demand for more transit, I don’t think the answer is to put fares out to reduce the ridership,” Timm said. “I think the answer is to find additional funding sources and commitment to increase service to meet that demand.”

GRTC will continue to evaluate the effectiveness of the zero fare model, according to Timm.

“We’ll have a lot of conversations post-COVID about how we consider transit, how we invest in transit and how that investment in transit lifts up our entire region, not just our riders but all of our economy for a stronger marketplace,” Timm said.

GRTC added another bus route as the COVID-19 pandemic hit last March. Route 111 runs in Chesterfield from John Tyler Community College to the Food Lion off Chippenham Parkway. The route surpassed ridership expectations despite being launched during the pandemic, according to the annual report.

GRTC also will receive additional funding from the newly established Central Virginia Transit Authority. The entity will provide dedicated transportation funding for Richmond and eight other localities. The authority will draw money from a regional sales and use tax, as well as a gasoline and diesel fuel tax. GRTC is projected to receive $20 million in funds from the authority in fiscal year 2021. The next fiscal year it receives $28 million and funding will reach $30 million by fiscal year 2026.

These funds cannot be used to assist in zero fare operation, Timm said.

Almost 350,000 riders boarded the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority buses per day on average in 2019, which includes passengers in Northern Virginia. That number dipped to 91,000 average daily boardings in 2020, according to Metro statistics.

Metro’s $4.7 billion budget will maintain service at 80-85% of pre-pandemic levels, according to a Metro press release. Federal relief funds totaling almost $723 million filled Metro’s funding gap due to low ridership.

“The impact of the pandemic on ridership and revenue forced us to consider drastic cuts that would have been necessary absent federal relief funding,” stated Metro Board Chair Paul C. Smedberg. “Thankfully, the American Rescue Plan Act has provided a lifeline for Metro to serve customers and support the region’s economic recovery.”

Hampton Roads Transit buses served 10.7 million people in 2019 and 6.2 million people in 2020. The decline has carried into 2021. Almost 1.6 million passengers took HRT transit buses in January and February 2020 and just over 815,000 have in 2021, resulting in a nearly 50% decrease. HRT spokesperson Tom Holden said he can’t explain why HRT bus services saw a higher drop off than GRTC buses.

“We had a substantial decline in boardings in all our modes of transportation just as every transit agency in the U.S. did,” Holden said.

HRT operated with a zero fare system from April 10 to July 1, 2020. Ridership had a slight uptick from April to October, aside from an August dip. Fares for all HRT transit services were budgeted for 14.2% of HRT’s revenue for Fiscal Year 2020.

“We are hopeful that with vaccinations becoming more widespread, the overall economy will begin to recover, and we’ll see rates increase,” Holden said.

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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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Community

Richmond.com Reporting Pop’s On Grace Closing in July

Fans of Pop’s only have a few month’s to hit the spot on Grace.

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From Richmond.com and Karri Piefer

The pandemic, of course, and the devastating financial impact it had on restaurants, is among the reasons the restaurant will close.

“[There are] lots of layered reasons, some stemming from pandemic, but ultimately things can’t be the way they were,” he said. “And the vision has changed.”

But before everyone runs out and tries to crowd the restaurant all at once, remember, there are at least two months of Pop’s opportunities left.

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Community

3rd Street Diner Sold

The exact plans for the space are unknown at this time but it supposedly will be a new restaurant.

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The iconic corner cafe’s sale was announced yesterday.

Cushman & Wakefield | Thalhimer is pleased to announce the sale of the former 3rd Street Diner property located at 218 East Main Street in the City of Richmond, Virginia.

Ya Hua Zheng & Jianwei Tang purchased the 3,928 square foot retail building from 3rd Street LLC for $550,000 and will operate as a new restaurant.

Reilly Marchant of Cushman & Wakefield | Thalhimer handled the sale negotiations on behalf of the seller.

I’ll confess to having never set foot inside the diner but I’ll be bummed to see the neon go away if they go down that path.

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Downtown

New national study: Downtown Richmond leads City’s growth over two decades

“Downtown Richmond continues to drive economic value, creativity, and innovation for the entire region.”

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Richmond’s downtown is home to more than half the city’s jobs, it has absorbed nearly half of the city’s population growth over the last two decades, and it represents 35% of the city’s total assessed property value, all on less than 5% of the city’s total land area. A study by the International Downtown Association, and recently reported by Venture Richmond, offered this and other insights.

“Downtown has a remarkable concentration of the city’s real estate and cultural assets and has been a growth driver for the City’s transformation. It has also had a significant impact on the image of the entire Region,” said Lucy Meade, Venture Richmond’s director of economic development and community relations.

As part of Venture Richmond’s Annual Community Update, David Downey, President and CEO of the International Downtown Association, provided insights into how downtown Richmond is well-equipped to rebound from the financial challenges stemming from the pandemic while sharing a new study examining the value of Richmond’s downtown.

Various generations – from Generation Z to older populations – continue to have a high demand for the downtown experience, according to Downey. He noted that Richmond’s strong housing market, walkability, quality open spaces, and diversity scores, particularly in downtown, are positive indicators for the future.

“Downtown Richmond continues to drive economic value, creativity, and innovation for the entire region,” Downey said.

With the COVID-19 vaccine distribution continuing, Downey emphasized the need for companies to create productive and efficient plans for returning to the office to address the potential loss of innovation, creativity, and collaboration when working virtually.

During the event, Downey also shared takeaways from The Value of Downtowns and Center Cities, a report that quantifies the value of U.S. downtowns across more than 150 metrics under five core value principles with a focus on how downtowns contribute to the city and region around them. From 2017-2020, the IDA analyzed a total of 37 downtowns and center cities across the country.

The pre-COVID study finds that not only does Richmond’s downtown account for a significant proportion of the region’s jobs, but the city’s core experienced the region’s biggest percentage spike in residential population growth since 2000.

The significant and insightful results from the study included the following highlights. The full report can be found atVentureRichmond.com.

Jobs

Richmond’s downtown accounted for more than half (53%) of the city’s jobs (77,465 out of 147,251) compared to the average of 40% for other “established Downtowns” in the study. Richmond leads the list of “established downtowns” with 63% of the City’s knowledge industry jobs, which is relatively higher than Seattle (58%), Minneapolis (58%), and Miami (52%); compared to the average of 41% for other “established Downtowns.”

The private sector employs 66% of jobs Downtown (50,910 jobs) and knowledge industry jobs account for 35,100 jobs.

Workers in the city center are better educated, comparably. Two in five (39%) of downtown workers have at least a college degree vs. one in three (33%) workers citywide and 31% in the region.

Residential Population

Downtown is young and educated. Today, 40% of our residents are between 18-24, and 30% of residents are between 25-34. The Downtown residential population is well educated with 57% having a bachelor’s degree or higher—up from 40% in 2010 and 40% are enrolled in college.

Most impressive was the increase in residential units, soaring 71% since 2010. However, only 14% of downtown residents own their own homes, but the racial balance of homeowners in downtown is close to even: 51% white vs. 49% non-white.

Economy and Quality of Life

Downtown is an entertainment and tourism destination with 70% of the citywide hotel rooms located Downtown – 16 properties with 2,581 rooms.

According to the report, Richmond’s downtown has one-fourth of the city’s retail businesses (478) and one-third of its restaurants and bars (252). Total annual downtown retail sales of $526 million represent 23% of the city’s retail sales. Non-Downtown residents account for 55% of that economic activity. The city center’s restaurants, bars, and breweries generate a combined $221 million in annual sales, 89% of which come from non-residents.

Downtown received a strong Walk Score of 94% and a Bike Score of 80% compared to other established Downtowns and an average Walk Score of 85% and Bike Score of 70%.

The report found that downtown Richmond’s sustainable transportation numbers left room for improvement with 65% of Downtown residents commuting alone compared to 35% commuting to work using a sustainable form of transportation (i.e. do not drive to work alone).

“As our downtown businesses continue to meet the challenges imposed by the pandemic, this IDA report is a timely reminder of the value that downtown Richmond brings to both the city and the region,” said Lisa Sims, CEO of Venture Richmond.  “Our downtown will always play a significant role in our economic, civic, and cultural lives. As more people receive the vaccine, we are confident in the economic rebound of downtown.”

To view the full IDA report online, visit Venture Richmond’s website here: https://venturerichmond.com/about-us/reports/2020-ida-study-richmond/

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