Good news, RVA!  After years of city-wide planning and discussions forums by various Richmond-based transportation groups like GRTC, VDOT and VHSR, mass transit is finally coming to Richmond.

Officially underway and expected to launch in 2015, GRTC will be implementing a “Bus Rapid Transit (BRT)” system from Willow Lawn to Rocketts Landing, with Main Street Station as a passenger drop-off/pick-up hub.

The first step towards bringing mass transit to Richmond, the idea of BRT is to have a large passenger bus run on a dedicated track lane that will bring large amounts of travelers to point-to-point destinations.

Ultimately, the BRT system will lay the foundation for an INTER-city passenger rail service, the “Light Rail,” to connect the whole Central VA region; from Norfolk to Petersburg to Fredericksburg to Washington, DC.

In a recent interview with Danny Plaugher, Executive Director for Virginians for High Speed Rail (VHSR), we discussed VHSR’s recent 16th Annual Meeting, “Connecting Virginia: How Regional Intercity and Light Rail are Changing Virginia.

“VHSR hosted the meeting, because we felt there is so much positive news happening right now, in terms of rail development throughout Virginia.  Norfolk launched a Light Rail system called “The Tide” in August 2011, and in less than a year has exceeded more than one million riders.  More than 50,000 riders used the Light Rail service this past weekend alone.

Richmond needs to take this same initiative.  As an organization, VHSR wants to highlight all of our successes, including Norfolk, and focus on utilizing these models in other VA cities such as Richmond.”

As for what VSHR’s 2012 plans mean for Richmond business, Plaugher reveals the City’s latest plans for mass transit, details of where BRT will run and answers some burning questions weighing on the mind of Richmond residents.

Question 1: What other US cities – similar to Richmond’s size and demographic – are already using or implementing mass transit? 

Plaugher: “One of my favorite Light Rail transit systems that I’ve ridden on is St. Louis, Missouri.  Connecting the airport, major educational institutions, train station, convention center and downtown business district, the St. Louis Light Rail was efficient, reliable and easy to use for business travelers.  Also, because it linked the airport to the train station, business travel was instantly improved – business persons could fly or train-in, do their work and never need an automobile.”

Question 2: What is the difference between Light Rail, High Speed Rail and Regional Inter-city Rail?

Plaugher: “Light Rail is a fixed mode of transportation within a region or intra-city.  Think Short Pump to Downtown Richmond.  Regional inter-city and high speed rail are a fixed-rail system that connects whole regions like Washington, DC to Richmond or Richmond to Newport News/Norfolk.

VHSR sees Virginia’s intercity regional trains as the foundation of high or higher speed rail. However, to have a successful intercity passenger rail system, you need adequate, reliable and efficient “last mile” connections, i.e. Light Rail, metro or bus rapid transit.”

Question 3: Where would this BRT and Light Rail connect exactly in Richmond?

Plaugher: “The vision of Light Rail is to connect population centers within a region to work/retail destinations.  By connecting Willow Lawn to  Rocketts Landing, this BRT system or inter-city passenger rail would serve multiple neighborhoods, Virginia Commonwealth University, the Medical College of Virginia, retail shops and and major businesses in the central business district downtown.

Imagine living in the Willow Lawn area, Museum District or Fan and never needing a car again, because Happy Hour at the Boat House at Rocketts Landing, dinner at Bistro 27 or Comfort, concerts at the Carpenter Theater, VCU basketball games or your downtown office are all accessible via mass transit.

Check out GRTC’s vision in this above map.

Question 4: What does BRT mean for local businesses that already located downtown? And, what about those businesses who aren’t?

Plaugher: “For businesses with downtown offices already, a BRT line would no doubt be a major pro, as business visibility would exponentially grow and parking and pollution would be drastically reduced.  In the same token, this BRT line system would also be a vital transportation source for residents living downtown or business professionals needing to travel to the Fan, West End or outskirts (like Manchester area) for meetings and events.

All in all, implementing a BRT line would encourage visitors to travel up and down these main BRT line corridors and spur new urban development projects in once run-down areas.

Question 5: In a recent report from GRTC, they even say, “The absence of a dedicated trunk line route, with improved speeds, consolidated operations and less time-consuming transfers is affecting the ability of GRTC to operate effectively.”  So, how does VHSR propose to work with the City to solve Richmond’s mass transit problem?

Plaugher: “VHSR’s mission is to improve rail service between the major destination points in Virginia and the East Coast. Basically, a city-to-city connection service.  However, lately we’ve seen and heard a serious need for reliable, last mile connections.

For example: If a business professional is traveling from NYC to Richmond, they’d take the Subway to NYC’s Penn Station, then regional train to Richmond’s Main Street Station or Staples Mill.  But, then what about the last mile.  Travelers could attempt to navigate the GRTC bus schedule or hail a cab, BUT if given the option, most choose a fixed-line transit system such as BRT or Light Rail.

Question 6: With any new development, there’s always opposition.  Are you hearing any opposition about BRT and Light Rail?

Plaugher: “The idea of bringing mass transit to Richmond is generating concerns in Shockoe Bottom, where some business owners oppose GRTC’s proposal to develop a bus-transfer center at Main Street Station’s vacant train shed. (Read more on RTD)

But, the pros of having Main Street Station as a main focal point are great for multiple reasons.  Main Street Station would be reserved for intercity passenger trains, which would connect Richmond to major cities along the East Coast.

Also, the city would certainly discuss any realignment issues that might affect Shockoe Bottom during the final environmental planning process.”

Question 7: Seems like the City of Richmond and many state-wide organizations, including yours, are behind BRT and Light Rail, but what other Richmond groups are in favor of BRT and Light Rail?

Plaugher: “So far, we’ve seen a wide mix of emotions for mass transit: excitement, hesitation, skepticism, disapproval and rejection.  That being said, what is really needed now in Richmond is a dedicated organization of citizens and business leaders to advocate for a dedicated fixed-line transit system.

There are a lot of “BRT and Light Rail Advocates”, but what’s lacking is a dedicated grassroots group focused on educating and advocating for BRT and Light Rail to the average Joe Citizen.”

Overall, GRTC is currently planning implementation of the BRT line system, which is expected to launch 2015. Once the inter-city passenger rail service is in place, plans for the Light Rail will be discussed.  However, as with all important initiatives, Plaugher says the most important thing Richmond citizens can do?

“Inform their public officials  that mass transit is needed and supported!”

Want to learn more about GRTC’s vision for Bus Rapid Transit? Read GRTC’s 2015 Bus Rapid Transit Strategic Plan.

Want to get more involved with VSHR? Make a donation to VHSR, follow VHSR on Facebook, watch VHSR’s most recent High Speed Rail Update, join the email list or hear what other Richmond-ers are saying about rail on Twitter.