The Richmond City Council will wait until at least September to decide whether it will allow Greater Richmond Transit Company to shut down Route 16, the main bus line that connects the university to downtown.
City council's Land Use, Housing and Transportation committee met July 22 to discuss GRTC's proposal to eliminate seven bus routes in its system. GRTC proposed shutting down the routes to reduce costs after the city council cut the company's funding in April.
"This was never intended to go through a quick process," said Bruce W. Tyler, the councilman who represents Richmond's West End.
GRTC conducted an 18-month analysis starting in 2006 that revealed Westhampton Route 16 costs $912,300 to operate, but gains only $149,100 in revenue -- a $763,200 deficit that puts the route about 40 percent worse than the average, or 18th out of 36.
During the next few weeks, Tyler will study GRTC's proposal and said the route would have to become more efficient. But he has not reached a decision about it yet.
Carl Sorensen, associate vice president for human resources at the university, spoke on behalf of the school at the July 22 meeting. He said he asked GRTC to allow more time to study ridership characteristics.
"All buses in the system lose money," Sorensen said, "but ours falls just below the threshold -- it's the best of the worst."
He argued that the data GRTC presented is two years old and that he had seen an increase in ridership from May to June, bucking a trend of declining ridership seen in previous years. GRTC's records show this year that the number of rides on the route increased from 12,728 in May to 12,795 in June.
The slight increase is attributable to an initiative the university began in May that offered more than 150 free bus passes to school employees, Sorensen said. Those who regularly ride the Route 16 bus argued at the meeting that they need the route to commute, and buy groceries and medicine. Disabled people argued it was their lifeline to get around the city, Sorensen said.
University officials are optimistic the route won't be shut down, so there is no plan for university action if the route is eliminated, Sorensen said.
"We're looking for ways to make it sustainable," he said. That could include operating the bus only during peak hours, switching to a smaller bus, or connecting to a new stop such as Bon Secours Hospital on Glenside Drive to increase ridership, which Sorensen said would probably be the most difficult move for GRTC.
GRTC chief executive officer John M. Lewis Jr. said the issues with Route 16 were financial. He said he would prefer that the route continue, but with a $2.5 million to $3 million budget deficit in the transit system, there aren't many alternatives.
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Ways to reduce expenses include eliminating services, raising fares, or receiving more money from the city. Any of these decisions must be approved by the council.
Despite the increase in ridership from the university's bus pass program, Lewis said it was not enough to offset costs.
"Putting the driver behind the wheel and putting fuel in the vehicle are the biggest costs," Lewis said.
In 2006, GRTC had a fixed rate contract for gas at $1.40 a gallon, but this year's contract -- set to expire at the end of April -- put the gas price at $2.62 a gallon, and 2009 prices are likely to be even higher, Lewis said. GRTC is considering operating the bus only during peak hours, but Lewis said he isn't convinced it will have a broad impact on cutting costs.
"If I don't cut Route 16, then I have to go to the next highest route, which would impact more people," he said.
Both Sorensen and Lewis agree that increasing ridership is the best way to save Route 16.
"Students need to ride the bus," Sorensen said, but he and Lewis acknowledge the route isn't designed around the university. Driving is more convenient for most students.
Despite the university's largely residential student body, Lewis proposed drawing up a contract similar to the one Virginia Commonwealth University has with GRTC, where the university pays for several bus routes that specifically serve the school's community.
Sorensen said he would be meeting with GRTC the first week in September, but meanwhile would be working with other employers whose staff use Route 16, including St. Catherine's School and the Country Club of Virginia.
Lewis will meet with university officials next week, and several more are likely to occur before the next city council meeting in September, he said.
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