Making Sense of Greater Richmond’s Transit Governance

I am a Research Fellow for RVA Rapid Transit, and produced this work for them to help understand and steer our understanding of transit governance in the Richmond Region. I invite you to visit us at rvarapidtransit.org.

Before I became a Research Fellow for RVA Rapid Transit, I did similar transit advocacy work for non-profit in Miami called Transit Alliance. My first fellowship with them involved conducting the first rider-based bus survey in Miami-Dade County, and the second involved an internal audit of the 1/2 penny surtax in effect since 2002.

Transit Alliance embarks on projects left and right for the betterment of Miami, including mobility implications of Covid-19, the Better Bus Project, and most recently, a campaign advocating for a county-wide transportation authority. In the below video, they created and explained a flowchart representing all of the different agencies, boards, and players that make up Miami-Dade County, and the current structure is a convoluted mess.

The tagline for this video is “No wonder we don’t get much done.”

With that being said, they found it a great way to take an assessment of the state of transit decision making and understand things as they currently are. It inspired us to undertake a similar project here for the Greater Richmond region. We created our own chart detailing financial contributions and representation regarding transit governance in the region, and I invite you to take a look at it below.

On mobile? Want to be able to enlarge it? Here is a larger version.

Don’t worry if it’s a bit much to take in, we’re going to break down the chart and digest its parts throughout this post.

First and foremost — what is transit governance? Think of it as Government+, like how Disney+ is Disney plus a few other networks. So for governance, in additional to elected officials, laws and ordinances, and other formal institutions of the state, governance also can include “elected and non-elected government officers, nongovernmental organizations, political, parties, interest groups, …and other relevant actors in the decision-making processes that produce government action”. For example, bus riders, political parties, RVA Rapid Transit, and city officials all fall into the umbrella of transit governance.

In regards to Richmond’s transit governance, there are 4 main bodies that comprise most of the decision-making, funding, and operation of transit here in Richmond. They all have different roles. Different localities, agencies, and groups all have varying levels of influence for each body listed below. [The RMTA is the 5th body, but does not have a large role in RVA’s transit governance]

  • Greater Richmond Transit Authority (GRTC) in Purple
  • Richmond Metropolitan Transportation Authority (RMTA) in Orange
  • PlanRVA in Yellow
  • PlanRVA’s transportation arm, the Richmond Regional Transportation Planning Organization (RRTPO) in Brown
  • The newly created Central Virginia Transit Authority (CVTA) in Blue

Next look at the borders of the above figure. We have players symbolized in banner shapes, at the local (pink), state (red) and federal (black) level. These players range from the City of Richmond, to surrounding localities making up the region, to state representatives, to federal agencies, to other interest groups. All of these players have different stakes, funding, and involvement on the boards of the five bodies listed above.

Greater Richmond Transit Company (GRTC)

Whether it’s the Pulse, a regular bus route, or a CARE Van, GRTC is the singular transit operator in Greater Richmond. Their main role is to operate bus service in the region. They run a multitude of fixed (31 routes) and express bus services throughout Richmond, along with parts of Henrico and Chesterfield Counties. They also run one Bus Rapid Transit line, the Pulse, along Broad Street; and CARE, which provides service to those with disabilities. Petersburg City, Virginia Commonwealth University, Henrico County, and Chesterfield County also purchase bus service directly from GRTC.

While PlanRVA (discussed later) handles the long range planning for transit in Greater Richmond, GRTC handles short-to-mid range planning. GRTC is constantly refining things and examining how to best serve the community, reevaluating their routes and perform adjustments quarterly.

Additionally, in 2020, as part of the creation of the CVTA (covered later), GRTC is required to develop a Regional Public Transportation Plan annually and submit it to the CVTA. GRTC themselves does a good job of explaining the Plan: “GRTC will receive 15 percent of these new CVTA funds, in which about $10 Million is planned to be allocated toward expansion. The Regional Public Transportation Plan which is required to be submitted to CVTA annually in collaboration with PlanRVA will identify how GRTC will spend the regional dollars.” GRTC is currently preparing the first annual report, planned for completion in May 2021.

They also release the Transit Development Plan every 3–5 years, which has a 1–10 year scope. The Plan covers lots of detailed, intricate, and nuts-and-bolts topics of transit system, and goes into great depth. The most recent TDP covers planning through 2028 in Greater Richmond.

Finally, Henrico, Richmond, and Chesterfield all have some influence on GRTC’s planning process by their willingness to pay for transit service. However, the process is neither transparent nor streamlined. Historically, the localities also have generally approached potential new service with a jurisdictional perspective instead of a regional one.

GRTC gets their funding from no less than 9 sources as shown by the green arrows.

Lots of players fund GRTC that do not have a say in how it is run.

For FY2022, these are the funding bodies and estimated amounts budgeted for GRTC.

  • CVTA (est. $20 million)
  • VA DRPT ($11.9 million)
  • Federal ($8.2 million)
  • Richmond ($8.1 million)
  • Bus Riders (Fare Revenue) ($5.7 million)
  • Henrico ($4.3 million)
  • VCU ($1.7 million)
  • Chesterfield ($1.2 million)
  • Petersburg ($200k)

There are also other small miscellaneous revenue sources, such as advertising on buses and bus stops.

In more recent news, the recently passed $1.9 trillion Stimulus Bill (The American Rescue Plan Act) is looking to give GRTC about $27 million in funding to offset loss of revenue and other impacts due to Covid-19. This could increase GRTC’s budget, and therefore bus service for the region.

In heavy contrast to the funding makeup for GRTC, there are only two players who have an ownership stake in GRTC. The City of Richmond owns 50%, and Chesterfield County owns 50%. Henrico County had a chance to join back in the 80s, but passed on the opportunity. Of the 31 local bus routes in operation, only one operates in Chesterfield. The other 30 are overwhelmingly within Richmond City limits. As a result of this discrepancy, there is renewed discussion on a potential overhaul of the ownership structure of the transit agency.

Visualizing GRTC’s funding and board representation.

Central Virginia Transit Authority (CVTA)

The role of the CVTA is to provide a dedicated source of funding to transit and transportation projects in Greater Richmond, funded with two new revenue sources: a sales tax and a gas tax. Previously, GRTC had no dedicated revenue stream, and was reliant on federal, state, and local dollars year after year, providing a lack of financial stability that is vital to a transit system’s success.

The CVTA is also a new creation: it was signed into law in March 2020, and many of the details are still being worked out, in part due to the ongoing pandemic.

The CVTA consists of 16 members; however, members have different numbers of votes according to the legislation. Four of the members do not have voting representation.

  • Four Votes: Chesterfield, Henrico, Richmond
  • Three Votes: Hanover
  • Two Votes: Goochland, New Kent, Powhatan
  • One Vote: Ashland, Charles City, State Delegate, State Senator, Commonwealth Transporation Board
  • No votes: Director of the Department of Rail and Public Transportation, Commissioner of Highways, CEO of GRTC, and CEO of RMTA.

It should also be noted that the State Delegate, State Senator, and Commonwealth Transportation Board member are only eligible for the board if they live in one of the nine CVTA localities represented.

One final addendum: starting July 1, 2021, the Virginia Port Authority will also have a non-voting seat on the CVTA.

CVTA In Funding

The CVTA is funded by two new taxes that are imposed in the 9 localities in Greater Richmond: a 0.7% sales and use tax, and wholesale gas taxes of 7.6 cents per gallon on gasoline and 7.7 cents per gallon on diesel fuel. For example, if you buy a 10 dollar meal in Greater Richmond, 7 cents will go directly to the CVTA. And if you fill up your car with 10 gallons of gas, 76 cents goes towards the CVTA. This new revenue is projected to bring in $20 million for Fiscal Year 2021 directly to GRTC, and upwards of $28 million in Fiscal Year 2022, out of an estimated $133 million.

Funding for the CVTA ultimately goes towards three pots.

  • 15% directly to GRTC.
  • 50% returned to the 9 localities that belong to the CVTA, proportional to the tax revenue each raised. That money can be used only for transportation purposes, which includes transit.
  • 35% to Regional Transportation Projects.

While the extra sources of money are quite promising, there is still potential cause for concern. In a low extreme, as little as 15% could ultimately go to transit, while the other 85% could go towards auto-oriented transportation. The 50% going to localities does not have any stipulation as to what money can be used for vehicular transportation and what goes towards public transit. On top of that, because “Regional Transportation Projects” is unspecified, the money could be used to exacerbate problems from car culture that public transit is trying to solve.

With that being said, there should be more clarity soon as the CVTA will be releasing its first Transit Governance Report by June 30, 2021, which hopefully will make funding goals,outcomes, and what defines a “Regional Transportation Project” more clear.

Richmond Metropolitan Transportation Authority (RMTA)

If you have ever found yourself crossing the Nickel Bridge, taking the Downtown Expressway, or driving on Powhite Parkway across the James River, you might have seen signs for the RMTA (f.k.a. the RMA). That’s because they manage those toll roads. Now, you might be asking, the RMTA and CVTA sound very similar! Surely the Richmond Metropolitan Transportation Authority and Central Virginia Transportation Authority must accomplish similar goals! After all, Central Virginia and Richmond Metropolitan sound like they are describing the same geographic region.

Well, not so fast. the RMTA’s role mostly starts and stops with managing those 3 toll roads (as of 2016, they also have the authority to construct, own, and operate coliseums and arenas). Besides having one (non-voting) seat on the CVTA, they really don’t play a major role in transportation decisions in Greater Richmond. With that being said, it could be worth exploring changing that, as toll revenues are shown to be quite effective for a transportation authority’s success.

The RMTA currently has 16 members on its board. Chesterfield and Henrico have equal Representation as Richmond even though all three toll roads are exclusively in Richmond. With that being said, the Downtown Expressway and Powhite Parkway are primarily to facilitate county residents working city jobs.

  • Richmond City: 5 Appointees
  • Chesterfield County: 5 Appointees
  • Henrico County: 5 Appointees
  • Commonwealth Transportation Board: 1 Appointee

PlanRVA (The Regional Commission)

PlanRVA, formerly known as both Richmond’s Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO), and Richmond’s Transportation Planning Organization (TPO), is our regional Planning District Commission responsible for the long term planning policy goals and outcomes in Greater Richmond. PlanRVA has three main branches: the RRTPO, the Emergency Management Alliance of Central Virginia, and one focused on Community Development & Environmental Planning.

PlanRVA’s main focus is on Long Range Planning. This means looking at the process from a generational prospective — think 20 or so years in the future. PlanRVA, along with the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation, is responsible for the Greater RVA Transit Vision Plan, which aims to be realized by 2040. Another report, the Near-Term Strategic Technical Analysis, was completed and adopted by PlanRVA last year; it provides a short-term approach to tackling the Greater RVA Transit Vision Plan.

Notably, PlanRVA does not have anything to do with the actual execution and operation of transit service, and PlanRVA has no direct board connection with GRTC.

PlanRVA’s Governance Structure is comprised of a 33-member Board of Commissioners, comprised of the 9 localities in the Greater Richmond Region. Representation is proportional to population, ranging from 1 to 7 seats on the Board.

Source: PlanRVA.com

PlanRVA gets it’s funding from Federal, State, and local sources, with Federal dollars making up a strong majority of the total. The following figures are for 2019.

  • Federal Funding: $2.03 million
  • State Funding: $392,000
  • Local Funding: $795,000

It should be noted that the staff members of PlanRVA do not work just on PlanRVA. They also perform work for the RRTPO and the CVTA. This means if these differing agencies are working on similar projects independently, it will actually be the same staff working on these separate projects. This strange phenomenon is shown on the chart.

Richmond Regional Transportation Planning Organization (RRTPO)

The Richmond Regional Transportation Planning Organization is the transportation arm of PlanRVA. They focus on long term planning for the Richmond Region through a transportation lens. But they don’t just look at transit, or vehicular traffic. They also account for airports, freight, and the Port of Richmond. Their current Long Range Transportation plan (LRTP), plan2040, covers all of the aforementioned aspects of transportation and more.

Part of plan2040 is the Greater RVA Transit Vision Plan, which “includes a full range of bus transit services, from frequent service on dedicated right-of-way in our most transit-supportive corridors to demand-responsive services in rural areas of the region”. In addition to the 2040 plans, the RRTPO has even started the process for the 2045 LRTP, titled Connect RVA 2045, which is slated for completion by October 2021.

Even though the RRTPO is a part of PlanRVA, and the same staff works for both of them, the board structures are separate. Even though the same localities are on both PlanRVA and the RRTPO, the board members appointed to each board are distinct. Furthermore, the RRTPO’s board has more members than PlanRVA. There are 17 members in total, 13 with voting power, and the voting structure is variable as shown below.

RRTPO Governance & Voting Structure source: planrva.com

What Do We Make of All This?

The first and most understandable conclusion is that this our current organizational structures are quite a mess, and arguably messier than it needs to be. One litmus test is who do you approach to inquire about transit questions (for example: Asking for a new bus route)? We aren’t sure, and the way things are currently organized, it would discourage anyone from trying to figure it out.

A second, and more hopeful conclusion, is that there does seem to be some order between the agencies themselves. At a basic level, PlanRVA/RRTPO plans for the region, the CVTA provides dedicated transit and transportation funding, and GRTC executes bus service (along with some short-to-mid term planning). While it’s good to have separate agencies handling different roles, there does not seem to be a straight-line path between the three of them.

A third conclusion, which I touched on above, is cause for concern. At a minimum, 15% of funds have to go towards transit. But that could also be a maximum — the other 85% could all go towards making Richmond more like car-choked metro areas all over the country.

As Stewart Schwartz, the Executive Director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth says, “We are not confident that Richmond’s suburban jurisdictions are yet committed to transit-oriented land use and the rural land conservation necessary to reduce traffic and preserve the livability of the region. Instead, with a big infusion of tax dollars for road expansion and accompanying auto-dependent growth, the region could repeat the mistakes of traffic-choked Northern Virginia.”

However, there is also evidence for a more optimistic outcome. Greater Greater Washington finds hope in the bill in Chesterfield County. “[B]eyond its road construction wishlist, Chesterfield has also indicated it plans to spend $20 million on its portion of the Ashland to Petersburg Trail (now known as the Fall Line Trail) and a further $78 million on other sidewalk and shared-use paths across the county.” That is an exciting news from a locality that traditionally has had its focuses elsewhere.

Finally, CVTA does give the region an advantage for applying for federal or state grants for transportation projects. With the new tax dollars coming in, the CVTA can now match potential grants with their own funding, which is a big advantage for the competitive grant process.

With all of that being said, there is still quite a bit of uncertainty of the future of Greater Richmond, especially with regards to how the CVTA dollars will affect transit outcomes in the region. Will we have an approach where significant amounts of money lead to a more walkable, livable, affordable, and sustainable region? Or will 85% of the money go towards exacerbating highway expansions, suburban sprawl, and car-dependent communities? Hopefully the forthcoming reports will answer some of those questions. For now, only time will tell.

If you would like to support RVA Rapid Transit, please consider making a donation at rvarapidtransit.org/donate.

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