Public transit in Hampton Roads eyes major changes

NORFOLK, Va. (AP) — A light-rail train known as The Tide departs downtown Norfolk during the afternoon rush hour. It carries scores of passengers who want to avoid driving on the region’s notoriously congested roadways on their way back to Virginia Beach, the state’s largest city.

As the train zips alongside a gridlocked Interstate 264, it comes to a stop less than 100 yards away from the Virginia Beach border. From here, passengers must disembark and either take a bus or hop in their cars to make it home.

It was never meant to be that way. But Hampton Roads Transit’s ability to determine routes for light rail is hampered by a system that allows each of its six member cities to only pay for the service it wants within its borders, regardless of what the intertwined region’s broader desires may be.

Without an overarching county government to coordinate projects like in other states, a disjointed system persists.

When Norfolk said it wanted a light rail line to the oceanfront more than a decade ago, Virginia Beach balked at the idea. It’s now reconsidering, but the city will have to foot the bill for any service expansion. Every other city in the region faces the same choice — regardless of whether it’s light rail, buses or ferries.

It’s an arrangement transit officials say is no longer practical if they want to provide the more frequent, expanded service they believe the public wants.

“I think the funding system that established Hampton Roads Transit worked to kind of protect cities from each other, but it’s not going to be the funding plan that really positively expands transit offerings in the region. We have to rethink the way we do business,” said William Harrell, president and CEO of Hampton Roads Transit.

Traffic congestion routinely tops the lists in surveys of the region’s top concerns, and numerous officials have noted it’s a threat to economic development in a region that’s heavily dependent on getting goods to port and that needs to diversify away from its heavy reliance on the military.

Jeff Newkirk takes a bus from his Virginia Beach home to the Newtown Road light rail station each day on his way to a welding job in Norfolk. He complains about the infrequency of bus service and said it makes no sense that the train doesn’t go to Virginia Beach.

“That train needs to go all the way to the oceanfront,” he said. “If they go ahead and connect it city to city, hey man, some big things will happen here in the Hampton Roads area.”

Harrell knows of the region’s public transit shortcomings firsthand: he has to drive to work from Chesapeake and to meetings because public transit isn’t a viable option. Many riders complain about long waits between buses, ferries that don’t run late and light rail that doesn’t leave early enough to make connections to Amtrak. While HRT says it will always remain a bus-dominated system, light rail is what’s shown people with a choice will ride transit — if it’s safe, convenient and dependable, officials said.

Believing there’s a pent-up demand for public transit, HRT is undergoing its first massive public outreach effort to quantify exactly what kind of transit options people who live in the region want. The idea is to develop a transit plan based on that feedback, then figure out what kind of funding or governance changes might be needed to support it.

In other metropolitan areas, regional transit systems typically have a dedicated source of funding that allows them to plan and pay for major projects. HRT says it is unaware of any other agency operating a fixed-guideway system that relies entirely on general funds that compete with education, public safety and other services for its local share of capital and operating expenses.

The American Public Transportation Association’s 2014 Outstanding Public Transportation System of the Year, the Salt Lake City-based Utah Transit Authority, gets about 65 percent of its funding through a local option sales tax each county in its system sets. It used that money to pay for 80 percent of a massive rail project that resulted in the construction of 70 miles of rail in six years.

Unlike in northern Virginia, a recent change in state law that dedicates new sales tax revenue for transportation projects prohibits its use on public transit in Hampton Roads.


Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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