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Most bus stops in Richmond lack adequate shelter or benches

Two people are seated on a bench at a GRTC bus stop in Richmond.
Ryan M. Kelly
/
For VPM News
Cynthia Bacon (right) and Alison Dembo wait for a Pulse bus at the Government Center station on June 7, 2023 in Richmond.

Of more than 1,600 active bus stops, roughly 25% lack basic amenities for riders.

Nearly 75% of bus stops in Richmond lack shelter or benches, according to a recent “State of Transit” report by RVA Rapid Transit and from the Greater Richmond Transit Company’s own reports.

This means only about 25% have either a shelter or a bench — and according to GRTC’s essential infrastructure plan from last year, less than half of these stops have the necessary landing pads required by the federal American with Disabilities Act.

It can take more than two years and thousands of dollars for a bus shelter to be put in, according to an earlier story VPM News reported.

RVA Rapid Transit, the nonprofit advocacy group, recently held a webinar to explain why it takes so long to improve the infrastructure with Alan Saunders, director of engineering at the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation.

The agency works with over 40 state transportation agencies — including the Virginia Department of Transportation, the National Association of Cities and the American Association for State Highways — to help develop and design bus shelters. The agency also makes sure all the required building codes are met.

“They all prescribe [building] requirements for transit stops and amenities,” Saunders said. “So, we're really diving in and trying to figure out what are the requirements. And then how can we resource those with the transit agencies to find solutions.”

One of the first things DRPT needs to figure out is who owns the right of way where a shelter is, or where a proposed one will go, because each equates to two different scenarios to who they’ll work with.

“Is it on public property that a municipality owns like the city of Richmond?” Saunders said. “Or is it state-owned property, what we call VDOT’s 'right of way'?”

Saunders said if a transit stop is connected to the Virginia Department of Transportation’s right of way, then his agency starts the collaboration process — first determining if VDOT has any infrastructure upgrades already in the works.

If the transit stop is on city property, then it’s a different collaboration.

“Within the city of Richmond, the city has building officials that govern the installation of transit stops, amenities and shelters on city property,” Sauders said. “But when you ease over in the Commonwealth property, now the Department of General Services is the building official. Again, the requirements don't change. The building official does.”

A habitable space

Though building officials may be different with each shelter, the building requirements for a transit stop don’t change because of what right of way it lands on.

“The building code has very specific requirements; a shelter is considered habitable space,” he said. “It needs to be in a safe location that doesn't cause an obstruction to the traveling public and provides a safe area of refuge for the transit rider.”

Once that’s determined, there’s a laundry list of requirements to build and design a shelter.

“All of these designs are based on building code requirements—it's not simply something you can go out to Amazon.com and purchase,” Saunders said.

Shelters must also meet federal environmental standards, adhere to the American with Disabilities Act and be built for all types of weather. Each design, structural step or change must be signed off by licensed engineers to make sure they’re safe.

“We don’t want to go so quickly that we neglect a safety facet that needs to be a consideration that we would regret in the future,” Saunders said.

Improvements are coming. Officials with GRTC said they have a goal of installing 160 new shelters and 627 new benches by the year 2027.

According to GRTC spokesperson Henry Bendon, there’s a catch with that goal.

“The Board voted to support – but did not provide funding for – the ‘Aspirational’ 28.6M Dollar investment, which is to install shelters or seating at 50% of stops,” Bendon said in an email to VPM News.

He said GRTC is in the process of trying to secure funding from sources such as VDOT or from the Central Virginia Transportation Agency, which helps distribute state dollars collected through gas and other taxes.

In the meantime, Bendon said the transit agency is looking for other ways to improve bus stops: “GRTC is in the process of ... piloting different technologies, like pole-attached seating that will help improve essential infrastructure across the system.”

Ian M. Stewart is the transportation reporter and fill-in anchor for VPM News.