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Transportation

VDOT preparing to use artificial intelligence to predict traffic

“We’re not just reacting to conditions, we’re actually using real time and historic data to predict future conditions and to prepare the network,” said VDOT Chief Deputy Commissioner Cathy McGhee at a meeting of the Commonwealth Transportation Board Tuesday.

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By Nathaniel Cline

State transportation officials are gearing up to use an artificial intelligence system that will monitor emerging conditions to predict the impacts of traffic disruptions in Northern Virginia and the Fredericksburg metropolitan area.

The rollout will mark the first time that artificial intelligence will be used to predict traffic disruptions in Virginia.

“If the system performs well, expansion to other parts of the state will be a distinct possibility,” wrote Marshall Herman, acting director of communications for VDOT, in an email.

The new AI support system is intended to improve the effectiveness of real-time integrated transportation information, an agency report states. Information is expected to be provided through digital message boards, 511 Virginia and third-party applications including Waze and Google Maps.

Officials hope the system will reduce congestion, improve safety, mobility and travel time and make travel times more reliable.

“We’re not just reacting to conditions, we’re actually using real time and historic data to predict future conditions and to prepare the network,” said VDOT Chief Deputy Commissioner Cathy McGhee at a meeting of the Commonwealth Transportation Board Tuesday.

The rollout is planned as part of a broader transportation monitoring program known as the Regional Multi-Modal Mobility Program, or RM3P, that started with a proposal from the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority in 2018 and has since expanded from the region down the I-95 corridor to Fredericksburg.

Staff from the Virginia Department of Transportation said the next step is to award the contract to develop the artificial intelligence-based decision support system for a rollout in 2023 and full operation by 2026.

The tool is expected to support both agency operations and travelers.

It will first be deployed within a single subregion of Northern Virginia and later expand to cover the whole region and the Fredericksburg area.

“We really believe that that’s the only way to manage a network like we have for Northern Virginia and metropolitan Fredericksburg because it takes all of the [transportation] modes together to serve the demand in those regions,” McGhee said. “So we’re looking for that proactive, predictive capability that RM3P gives us.”

The evolution of RM3P

In 2018, the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority submitted an initial proposal to VDOT for funding the development of a region-wide transportation management system.

Since then, the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation, VDOT and Northern Virginia Transportation Authority have all been involved in the development of the program that came to be known as RM3P, officials said.

VDOT is hoping to find ways to incentivize commuters and partners to use RM3P, which is focused on improving travel disruptions, making travel times more reliable, and supporting all transportation options for travelers.

McGhee said it’s unclear what the nature of the incentives will be, but the agency has been in discussions with stakeholders including major employers about instituting staggered work hours and releases that could help even out traffic loads and public transportation demand.

The contract for RM3P is also expected to be awarded in the coming months, McGhee said.

The deputy commissioner said staff have learned through the procurement process that there are private sector applications that have used elements of the artificial intelligence system idea, but she believes RM3P is the first program to bring it all together.

“I think we’re plowing new ground,” she said.

Traffic diversions

One of the Commonwealth Transportation Board’s concerns was that a new artificial intelligence system could detour travelers to secondary roads, ultimately leading to potentially worse conditions.

McGhee said VDOT is careful about detouring travelers and is in talks with third-party services about the potential for diverting traffic into sensitive areas and not recommending those routes.

“That’s a real concern for us because very often, particularly smaller companies don’t have GIS [geographic information systems] that are specific to heavy vehicles, and so they use Google or Waze and they often get routed inappropriately,” she said.

Secretary of Transportation W. Sheppard Miller III said that while VDOT is “sensitive” about the impact of diversions, “at the end of the day it’s a network.”

“The counties and the cities are part of that and we have to work together to make the best decisions for the traveling public and sometimes it’s not an easy choice,” he said.

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Transportation

GRTC to continue free bus rides through June 2024

Citing a 15-percent uptick in ridership since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, strong public support, and the importance of transit equity, GRTC’s governing board voted unanimously to extend the pilot program through June 2024 and possibly beyond.

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Riding the bus will continue to be free for another year in the Richmond region.

Citing a 15-percent uptick in ridership since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, strong public support, and the importance of transit equity, GRTC’s governing board voted unanimously to extend the pilot program through June 2024 and possibly beyond.

“I think we as a board stand committed to collaboratively supporting regional connectivity, and this vote supports that,” GRTC Board of Directors Chairman Tyrone Nelson said. “Ridership for our agency is trending in the opposite direction from what the industry is experiencing, and we believe our Zero-Fare program helps our region stay connected.”

GRTC recently received funding from the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation to support the program through June 2025 with assurances that a local match would be made to offset the total cost of the annual $5.6 million program. With its vote, the board committed as a region to support the funding gap of the local match for the fiscal year 2024.

“As ridership continues to outpace previous years, we are optimistic that the value of accessible transit continues to grow with it,” GRTC Interim CEO Sheryl Adams said. “As we remain focused on the ridership experience, we continue to work towards improving the lives of essential workers, which includes our bus operators.”

The board will continue to study the financial impacts of extending the program beyond June 2024.

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Transportation

GRTC receives $4 million to close rural transit gaps

Riders in parts of Powhatan, Henrico, Chesterfield, and New Kent counties, and the Town of Ashland, will be connected to existing high-frequency fixed routes.

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GRTC has received Commonwealth Transportation Board approval to close transit gaps in rural and suburban areas of Richmond through microtransit, an on-demand system that allows people to book rides in real time and get picked up and dropped off in designated areas.

GRTC will get $4,057,766 from the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation’s Transit Ridership Incentive Program (TRIP) to fund the three-year pilot program, which starts fall 2023.

Riders in parts of Powhatan, Henrico, Chesterfield, and New Kent counties, and the Town of Ashland, will be connected to existing high-frequency fixed routes.

The program will cost a total of $6.7 million with state and local funds. TRIP funds will apply to the Henrico, Chesterfield, and New Kent routes. Other sources will fund the Powhatan and Ashland routes.

The Richmond region covers 2,165 square miles and is home to over one million people. However, GRTC’s fixed-route service area only covers 9% of that area, leaving much of the region without access to transit. Much of this unserved area is comprised of suburban and rural districts where traditional fixed-route transit service would be inefficient to operate.

“These parts of our region need more mobility options,” said GRTC Chief Development Officer Adrienne Torres. “They are home to families sharing a single car, retirees wanting to age in place, and others that don’t have the option to make all their trips by single occupancy vehicle and need an alternative means of transportation.”

The five microtransit zones are designed to maximize opportunities to connect to major regional employers, medical facilities, and government and community services for residents across the region that have limited or nonexistent transit options. They will provide transit service and regional connections to major employers such as Amazon and Randolph-Macon College; government services such as a Social Security office and Powhatan County courthouse; large shopping centers such as Brookhill Azalea Shopping Center and Ashland Hanover Shopping Center; and healthcare facilities such as VCU Health Emergency Center.

Torres said the program should also reduce traffic congestion. “Since microtransit service is anticipated to be used by citizens with limited vehicle access who may have had to rely on others to help make their daily trips, it should provide an overall reduction in single occupancy vehicle trips in the region as it replaces these trips with shared rides.”

The program will replace a peak-only fixed-route bus line with all day microtransit service. Where zones are contiguous to the GRTC service area, microtransit will provide connections to GRTC stops, giving patrons access to the wider Richmond-area transit network.

GRTC received TRIP funding in fiscal year 2022 to continue offering free fares and its local bus ridership has exceed pre-pandemic levels. It expects systemwide ridership to recover to 2019 levels by 2023 and grow by 2% per year each year through 2027.

Microtransit Zone Details

Ashland Zone: This zone will operate 6:30 AM – 11:59 PM Monday-Saturday and require 1-3 vehicles. Major destinations and trip generators include Randolph-Macon College, Ashland Junction Shopping Center, and Ashland Hanover Shopping Center.

Sandston-Elko Zone: This zone will operate 6:30 AM – 9:00 PM Monday-Saturday and require 1-2 vehicles. Major destinations and trip generators include the Social Security Office, VCU Health Emergency Center, and two Food Lion grocery stores. The service would provide connections to GRTC routes 7A and 7B.

Powhatan Zone: This zone will operate 6:30 AM – 7:00 PM Monday-Saturday and require 1-3 vehicles. Major destinations and trip generators include Powhatan Plaza and the Powhatan County library.

North Chesterfield West Zone: This zone will operate 6:30 AM – 11:59 PM Monday-Saturday and require 2-4 vehicles. Major destinations and trip generators include Commonwealth Center Mall and shopping centers along Route 360. The service would provide connections to GRTC routes 82 and 1C.

Washington Park – Azalea Avenue Zone: This zone will operate 6:00 AM – 11:59 PM Monday-Saturday and require 1-2 vehicles. Major destinations and trip generators include Amazon (opening Summer 2023), Brookhill Azalea Shopping Center, and senior apartments. The service would provide connections to the reconfigured GRTC route 1, 2A, 2B, 2C, 14, and 91.

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People

More comfortable, accessible GRTC bus stops coming, transit authority says

At least half of all GRTC bus stops in the City of Richmond, Chesterfield County, and Henrico County will soon have a more comfortable, accessible, and dignified place to wait for a ride.

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At least half of all GRTC bus stops in the City of Richmond, Chesterfield County, and Henrico County will soon have a more comfortable, accessible, and dignified place to wait for a ride.

Only five percent of GRTC’s 1,609 active local stops have a shelter, and 21 percent have seating. Less than half of those stops predate the Americans with Disabilities Act and are not compliant. And most stops lacking adequate infrastructure are in low-income areas throughout Central Virginia.

Under a plan approved by the transit system’s board of directors, GRTC will install 160 shelters and 225 benches over five years. Work is expected to begin in the summer of 2023. GRTC also will coordinate with jurisdictions to improve ADA compliance at stops to further the agency’s push to be more inclusive.

“This is one of several GRTC strategic initiatives planned that aim to address the various impediments to transit access and ultimately inequities,” said Director of Planning and Scheduling Sam Sink. “GRTC champions social and economic mobility by prioritizing connecting people to essential human services and needs. With proper operational and capital investment, transit is a factor that can improve overall quality of life.”

The Essential Transit Infrastructure (ETI) plan will cost between $11 million and $28.6 million, and be funded through a combination of local, state, and federal grants.

GRTC will use a scoring system that considers usage and equity to determine which stops qualify for improvements. Anyone may request a bench or shelter via email at [email protected], through the GRTC website, or by calling 804-358-4782.

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