By John Hillegass and Joe McAndrew with Teresa Milio Birge (Greater Baltimore Committee)
As part of the Baltimore’s Transit Future campaign, the Greater Washington Partnership and Greater Baltimore Committee convene Baltimore leaders in Richmond to learn about Bus Rapid Transit as a tool for Inclusive Growth.
On October 13 and 14, the Greater Washington Partnership (the Partnership) and Greater Baltimore Committee (GBC) hosted a delegation of leaders from the Greater Baltimore region on a visit to Richmond, Virginia to learn about Richmond’s Transportation Revolution. The trip, sponsored by AECOM, was part of the Partnership and GBC’s Baltimore’s Transit Future Campaign, a collaborative effort between business, civic, and elected leaders to accelerate the transformation of Greater Baltimore’s transit system.
A cohort of 20 senior leaders and transportation officials from Baltimore City, Baltimore County, Anne Arundel County, Howard County, the Maryland Department of Transportation Maryland Transit Administration (MDOT MTA), and business and institutional leaders traveled to Richmond to learn more about the award-winning Pulse Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system and talk with Richmond area leaders instrumental in shaping the economic and community development spurred by the Pulse BRT.
Day 1: Transit, Economic Development, and Regionalism
On Thursday, October 13, the Baltimore delegation was greeted by Jen DeBruhl, Director of the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation, and Adrienne Torres, Chief Development Officer for GRTC, the Richmond region’s primary transit provider. Jen and Adrienne highlighted the partnership between the state and GRTC to build the Pulse BRT and the key role that elected leaders played in advancing the vision.
The delegation then walked to the Maggie L. Walker Memorial Plaza to meet with Faithe Norell to learn the history of the Jackson Ward neighborhood and the legacy of Maggie L. Walker, a Richmonder who devoted her life to civil rights advancement, economic empowerment, and educational opportunities for Black Americans and women. Afterwards, the tour continued as attendees hopped on the Pulse BRT and rode to Scott’s Addition, a former industrial neighborhood along the Pulse BRT corridor transitioning to mixed-use development.
In Scott’s Addition, the delegation was joined by Greta Harris, President and CEO of the Better Housing Coalition and Partnership Board member, Maritza Pechin, Deputy Director for the City of Richmond’s Office of Equitable Development, Todd Eure, Henrico County’s Assistant Director of Transportation & Development, and Jason Guillot, a principal at Thalhimer Realty Partners. The conversation focused on what planning and investment decisions helped energize the real estate markets along the Pulse corridor and what lessons from Richmond’s experience the Baltimore region should consider while planning for its own transit expansion.
Two major takeaways from that discussion were to plan for success and to lead with your values. Todd shared a story about how Henrico County did not expect the Pulse to be as successful as it has been and is now working to make investments better suited for the launch of the service, such as park and ride options at the end of the line, because ridership demand is outstripping expectations. Greta shared that the development of affordable housing along the corridor was not prioritized early on, which has become an even bigger challenge during the pandemic as the Richmond region has experienced significant appreciation in housing costs. If we want to create more inclusive communities, Baltimore should, “lead with your values” by deciding upfront what kind of communities we want to create and then putting in the policies and investments, alongside the transit project, to make it happen.
In the evening, the group was joined by Mayor Levar Stoney, as well as Meredith Weiss and Matt Conrad of Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), John Easter from Chamber RVA, and Kathy Hollinger, the Partnership’s new CEO. Kathy kicked off the night, with the Mayor then highlighting how the Pulse BRT has helped to change the narrative about what is possible in Richmond and how the project helped strengthen the spirit of regional coordination. With the announcement of the Diamond District’s redevelopment and a fresh look at redevelopment opportunities for City Center and the Coliseum, Richmond is reimagining itself and building a future with more opportunities for residents to live, work, and build a business, and a more inclusive transportation system that can bring people from their homes to jobs in the counties, and vice versa.
Meredith and Matt talked about why VCU supported the development of the Pulse BRT and how they made the switch from a private, university run shuttle system to sponsoring the Pulse and GRTC with free rides for its students, faculty, and healthcare staff. They learned that better transit was not just better for VCU’s primary constituents, but also the healthcare system’s patients and the economic health of the wider region. John reaffirmed that the region’s business community, by and large, supported the project because they understand transit’s benefits, but he also noted that smaller businesses along the Pulse BRT corridor are the most impacted by the disruptive impacts of construction and need support to weather those challenges.
Day 2: Bus Rapid Transit & Project Fundamentals
While the first day focused on the bigger picture of regional collaboration around economic and community development, day two dove a little deeper into the technical specificities of what makes a successful BRT system and how the Richmond region came together to successfully plan, design, and ultimately construct its first BRT project, with another corridor entering the planning phase. Jen Deci, the Deputy Secretary of Transportation for the Commonwealth of Virginia discussed the importance of the collaboration between the state, GRTC, and the local jurisdictions to successfully win the federal TIGER (now RAISE) grant that was essential to the Pulse BRT project, and what opportunities exist in the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.
Julia Suprock and Doug Tennant from AECOM, the trip’s sponsor, then presented on what makes a successful BRT project and how it compares to other transit modes, drawing on their wealth of experience working on more than $1 billion of BRT projects throughout the country. One of the biggest benefits of BRT is its flexible nature that allows for more context sensitive designs block by block, at a fraction of the cost of rail, while still providing high-quality transit infrastructure.
The rest of the morning was in discussion with Adrienne Torres of GRTC, who returned for day two, Chet Parsons, the Director of Transportation for Plan RVA, the Richmond Metropolitan Planning Organization, Dironna Moore Clarke, who leads the City of Richmond’s Office of Equitable Transit and Mobility, and Faith Walker, the Executive Director of RVA Rapid Transit, the region’s premiere transit advocacy organization. The conversation started with an overview from Chet on how the region is using data to plan for transit expansion and a presentation from Adrienne on how GRTC is using lessons from the Pulse BRT to think about investments in the rest of the system and the creation of a new north-south running Pulse BRT line. Dironna shared how the city has created a process and framework to guide its transportation investments to prioritize equity and investments in communities that have historically been overlooked, disinvested, and excluded from planning processes. Faith highlighted the importance of inclusive planning processes and meeting and listening to riders’ voices and needs. Community engagement cannot start and end with a project, it must be intentional, continual, educational, and meet people where they are. Building trust and relationships in communities, even when there is not a project, and being transparent with advocates will help them be better proponents for a project.
This trip was designed to capitalize on this historic moment for Baltimore’s transit system, including the historic federal investments from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, and MDOT MTA’s ongoing East-West and North-South Transit Corridor studies, and a new administration and General Assembly in Annapolis come 2023. Bringing a Baltimore delegation to Richmond was also an opportunity to strengthen super-regional connections across the Capital Region and share best practices to advance an inclusive vision of the future for our region.
A key theme we repeatedly heard on the trip was the importance of collaboration and coordination, not just across jurisdictional borders, local, state, and federal, but also across sectors. The Baltimore delegation hoped the collaboration and energy we experienced together was just the start of the coordination and commitment to align behind the projects and policies that will be needed to advance Baltimore’s Transit Future. At the Partnership, we look forward to continuing to work with organizations and leaders across the Capital Region to advance our shared goal of making this region the best place to live, work, and build a business.