GRTC Transit System CEO David Green left the bus company last week after overseeing the biggest transformation of public transit in Richmond since 1948, when the city torched its old trolley cars in a grand pyre and switched to buses.
The company launched its new flagship service, the Pulse, a bus rapid transit line that’s consistently beat ridership goals. It also totally redesigned all its other bus routes from scratch. Both new systems opened at the end of June, and the transition was remarkably smooth by city standards.
But behind the scenes, things had gotten tense in the months leading up to Green’s abrupt departure, which he said was motivated by a desire to seek “new challenges and professional growth.”
In recent months, board members bickered during meetings, aggressively challenging Green and other staff. Meanwhile, the state conducted a rare 4 a.m. audit of GRTC earlier this year that ended with accusations that GRTC misused federal and state grant funding.
GRTC ultimately had to reimburse the state about $37,000 and repaint three extra Pulse buses they had purchased without permission.
During a GRTC board meeting earlier this summer, one board member accused another of “guerilla tactics” for his aggressive questioning of Green as he sought additional information about spending decisions.
“This has become a monthly mess,” said board member George Braxton.
Others, including retired-CEO-turned-board-member Eldridge Coles, expressed frustration that administrators were making big decisions without their knowledge or leaving them in the dark.
Attendees said the tenor and tone was typical of the board’s meetings as of late.
Ben Campbell, a transit advocate and relatively new appointee to the board, attributed the friction to growing pains as board members have begun taking a more active role in leading the company, which is entering a period of growth after decades of stagnation.
“It is almost impossible to overstate what an incredible kind of sea change there has been for public transportation in metro Richmond,” he said.
Green declined to comment for this story through GRTC spokeswoman Carrie Rose Pace.
An early morning audit
Amid the internal clashes, GRTC was also facing outside scrutiny.
The biggest issue to bubble up this year: A decision by GRTC administrators to buy three extra Pulse buses using state and federal funding that had been awarded for regular bus service.
GRTC then submitted a grant application to the state requesting funding for the buses that were already purchased and sitting on its lot.
When state officials found out, they conducted the early morning audit to confirm that GRTC had bought the extra Pulse buses, following up with a stern letter denying the grant request.
“Due to the magnitude of our concerns about this situation, we have initiated a more comprehensive audit of GRTC to be undertaken over the next 60 to 90 days,” wrote Jennifer Mitchell, the director of the state’s Department of Rail and Public Transit, in a Feb. 13 letter to Green and Gary Armstrong, the chair of GRTC’s board.
Grant funding dropped
Ultimately, the state didn’t just deny the request for the three buses, which cost a total of $1.45 million — they gave GRTC its lowest total capital grant funding award in recent memory: $1.68 million, down from $7.39 million the year before.
The state’s chief of public transportation, Jennifer DeBruhl, said funding naturally varies year to year, though she acknowledged GRTC got less funding than is typical this year.
She said there’s no “direct connection” to the bus-swapping dispute, and instead said the decision had to do with the number of GRTC projects funded in prior years that are still not complete.
That’s not the impression board members got.
“We really did mess up the process of applying for these grants,” Campbell said. “I don’t know how much it cost us, but it clearly cost us something.”
GRTC forced to repay portion of grant
To resolve the bus dispute, GRTC had to cover up the Pulse paint job on the extra buses with a wrap designed to mimic the purple and gray design of their regular route buses, which is what the funding was initially intended for.
GRTC also had to repay the state and federal government $37,000 to cover the extra cost of having the buses outfitted for the Pulse.
Asked for comment about the situation and Green’s departure, Armstrong said in a statement through GRTC’s spokeswoman that just like the state, GRTC’s board had always wanted the grant funding to be used for its original purpose.
“GRTC staff fulfilled this, and we were satisfied with the solution,” he said.
And, to be clear, no one is directly linking any of the issues to Green’s departure.
“Any time someone retires, resigns or departs, you can certainly look back in the year before they retire and find things that didn’t go right,” Campbell said. “And that’s even if they’re the most successful person in the world.”