What will it take to modernize Virginia’s public transit systems?

June 15, 2021 12:02 am

A temporary bus stop sign at Broad and Seventh streets in Richmond. (VCU’s “The Bus Stops Here Project”)

A bus stop in a bucket is by no means representative of the average amenities provided by transit systems across the commonwealth, but the all-too-common sight is far from befitting 21st century public transportation.

In a way, it’s as much a testament to the resourcefulness of Virginia’s transit providers as it is to the decades of underfunding and disinvestment they face. What will it take to modernize the state’s public transit?

A newly launched multi-year study led by the Department of Rail and Public Transportation may offer policymakers answers.

Transit’s time

The General Assembly’s indefinite closure of the Government Center stop on GRTC’s Pulse bus rapid transit line to accommodate construction of a parking garage for lawmakers can seem too symbolic of Virginia’s approach to public transportation. Whereas DRPT received just $543.1 million to invest in transit this year, in the fiscal year that ended in June 2020, Virginia’s Department of Transportation enjoyed a budget of over seven billion dollars to spend on infrastructure for cars.

However, this year’s passage of HJ 542 — the Transit Equity & Modernization Study — sponsored by Del. Delores McQuinn, D-Richmond could prove a turning point.

“This study will be looking at how transit service is provided, its accessibility, the adequacy of existing infrastructure, how we can best deploy emerging technology, safety, electrification, how transit systems engage with riders and how riders are represented,” said Jennifer DeBruhl — chief of public transportation for DRPT. “With all that on the table, it’s not going to be a deep dive. It’s more of a strategic needs assessment to guide investment towards a more equitable commonwealth where transit serves the needs of everybody.”

Now three months into the study, DRPT has already solicited formal proposals, gathered together a bench of consultants and selected Kimley-Horn — a Henrico planning and design firm — to lead the technical team. The final results of the study aren’t due to the General Assembly until August 2022, but the legislation also requires DRPT to release an interim report on initial findings this December, just in time for the formation of Gov. Ralph Northam’s final biennial budget.

“Our hope is to have the high-level needs assessment completed this year, but some of these study areas are more straightforward and easy to accomplish than others,” DeBruhl said. “One of the key study goals is outreach to underserved and underrepresented communities. We don’t want to rush through that, but we also want to ensure we’re providing a meaningful report for the General Assembly this December.”

A climate equity coalition

With more than 32 patrons signed on to HJ 542, the Transit Equity and Modernization Study proved unexpectedly popular in a state that in 2017 boasted two of the three worst-funded public transit systems in the country per capita. Lawmakers’ outpouring of support didn’t surprise McQuinn, however.

Del. Delores McQuinn, D-Richmond. (Photo by Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

“Our General Assembly, especially in recent years, has taken a much firmer stance on climate change and transit equity,” said McQuinn. “This study will be huge for all of Virginia. From Northern Virginia, whose transportation system is famous throughout the country for being one of the busiest and most crowded, to Southwestern Virginia, where transit accessibility is a serious issue, this resolution will begin to address the issues that face our commonwealth. This resolution will ensure my constituents have access to a cleaner, safer and more economically efficient transit system.”

Messaging around the need for greater investment in fast, frequent and affordable public transportation resonates with two top priorities of the legislature’s Democratic majority: halting climate change and boosting economic and racial equity. 

“For decades, our transportation system has created more pollution than the entire electric power sector,” McQuinn said. “And sadly, most of this pollution ends up affecting Black communities and communities of color disproportionately. Additionally, our transit system is currently lacking in terms of equity. Black communities and communities of color especially need higher access to more affordable transit.”

Lawmakers aren’t alone in taking note of the connection between improved public transportation, racial equity and the climate. Advocacy groups ranging from social justice outlets like New Virginia Majority and Virginia Interfaith Power & Light to environmental nonprofits like the Southern Environmental Law Center and the Chesapeake Climate Action Network all testified on behalf of the study in committee hearings this past session.

“This study is in a sweet spot between reducing carbon emissions and prioritizing the needs of Virginia’s residents,” said Rev. Faith Harris — interim director of VAIPL. “Organizations that have been single-minded in thinking about climate change from a narrow perspective regarding renewables have an opportunity to understand how these environmental goals can be important for regular everyday residents of the state and make a big difference in the lives of individuals and communities, helping them to lift themselves out of stagnant situations in which they can’t reach better opportunities.”

With the transportation sector now comprising nearly half of all carbon emissions in Virginia and personal vehicles accounting for the state’s single largest source of carbon pollution, advocates see new synergy emerging between the goals of equitable mobility and limiting climate change. “If we want people to shift away from their reliance on cars and if we want to promote equity within this space, we have to make sure public transportation is safe, reliable and accessible,” said Kim Jemaine — Virginia director of CCAN. “That means modernizing our transit systems.”

Connecting vehicle pollution to detrimental health outcomes proved a winning strategy for Virginia’s conservation coalition in their push for the commonwealth to adopt clean car standards this year. The approach also convinced lawmakers of the need to modernize the state’s transit systems with an eye towards equity.

“Carbon emissions not only harm our climate and the environment, they also negatively impact public health,” Jemaine said. “Communities of color in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic breathe 66 percent more air pollution from vehicles than White residents on average. We need to invest in reliable and accessible public transit options and safe biking and walking infrastructure to decrease reliance on personal vehicles and reduce vehicle miles traveled. Like many of the challenges we face, this is an environmental issue and an equity issue.”

Finding the funding

Cobbling together a winning coalition to shift Virginia’s budget priorities away from ever-expanding highways and towards transit will prove much harder than passing a study. With advocates asking for a long list of modernization needs including electric buses, integrated payments systems, bus-only lanes and benches, shelters and real-time arrival signs at stops, the true test of the study’s success will ultimately come down to funding.

“Once we get the study, then the question becomes what kind of policies do we need to actually make public transportation equitable and accessible to a larger swath of our population and what the budget for implementing any of this will be,” Harris said. “We need to make it possible for people to move throughout Virginia without a car. That’s the bottom line: How do we expand services, make them more attractive and what kind of amenities are important to include? How do we make it unnecessary to own a car?”

Some issues the study will attempt to address ultimately fall outside the purview of the agency and the transit providers it supports such as the availability of sidewalks and good pedestrian infrastructure required in order to safely access transit. The folks at DRPT, however, see the expansive nature of the study as a plus, not a minus. 

“We haven’t found another state that has taken on a task quite as comprehensive as this or approached it through the lens of equity,” DeBruhl said. “That provides us with a unique opportunity to shape the future of public transportation in Virginia. This past year has shown us how important the provision of equity is to the success of transit going forward.”

Those interested in adding their ideas to the conversation on how to modernize the commonwealth’s public transit are more than welcome according to DeBruhl: “We want to come up with creative and innovative ways to engage Virginians. This is not going to be your traditional transportation study in terms of how we engage with our stakeholders and the needs of riders. I would encourage people to pay attention sooner rather than later.”

Correction: This article has been updated to correct Kim Jemaine’s title. 

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Wyatt Gordon
Wyatt Gordon

Wyatt Gordon covers transportation, housing, and land use for the Mercury through a grant from the Piedmont Environmental Council and the Coalition for Smarter Growth. The Mercury retains full editorial control. Previously he’s written for the Times of India, Nairobi News, Honolulu Civil Beat, Style Weekly and RVA Magazine. He also works as a policy manager for land use and transportation at the Virginia Conservation Network.