Imagine A System

Public transit services in Hampton Roads could be better. Much better.

I take pride in the work we do. Every week day, Hampton Roads Transit delivers more than 48,000 customers to work, school or along their ordinary errands. Few other regional activities involve as many diverse people on a daily basis as public transit.

But our service is just not good enough. What we have today is an inconsistent system of local and express bus routes, with inconsistent service hours and service days as well as a ‘starter’ light rail system that we don’t believe fully meets the existing and potential needs of Hampton Roads.

Some cities fund robust transit; Norfolk clearly leads the way in this regard. Newport News, second in transit funding, and Hampton, fourth behind Virginia Beach, are leading on a project to bring bus rapid transit to the Peninsula. But practically speaking, it’s years away.

When it comes to local bus service, many cities opt for limited service with almost none on weekends; large areas of the region simply have no service at all.

I’m not complaining. Each city pays what it believes is appropriate. All of them, after all, have other obligations: police, fire, schools and the like. But the way transit is funded means that HRT must cobble together a “system” based on these unequal contributions. The result? About half of HRT’s local buses come just once an hour. That means if you’re a little late out the door – or the bus comes early – you’ll likely wait another hour to board.

People who are on a schedule know that won’t work as a daily commuting option. So, most commuters in Hampton Roads pile into a car. In fact, nearly everyone in this region drives to work alone.

This funding system exists because Hampton Roads Transit is really nothing more than a transit contractor. Each city pays for what it can afford, then HRT assembles a system and runs it.

But imagine a bus system where customers could count on a core group of routes that delivered 15-minute service frequency during the peak commuting times to all major activity centers in the region. Imagine a system where the service day was the same in each city, so that no matter where you lived in Greenbrier or Ghent – you could count on regular bus service to pick you up.

Imagine one where customer amenities include even more shelters than the 232 we have installed in the last few years, so that on a rainy day customers would not have to stand in the rain waiting. What business wants its customers standing in the rain? Not ours, I can assure, you, but it’s a troublesome fact for us.

Imagine if we had the funding for technology that would allow customers to use their smart phones to accurately track and predict the arrival of the next bus. Interestingly, almost all our customers have smart phones, a fact recently uncovered by our Origin and Destination survey.

Next bus arrival is critical as no one wants to stand around and guess when the bus is coming, even though all our customers do.

A more reliable bus service like this would make it far easier to reach the military bases, the shipyards, and shopping centers, even the airports. It would connect more workers to jobs, help people save money on their daily commute because taking transit it cheaper than driving. It would help unleash the region’s potential.

Already, Hampton and Newport News are coordinating on the Peninsula Corridor Study. It has identified two Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) lines along Jefferson Avenue and Mercury Boulevard that would be good candidates to bring high capacity transit to the Peninsula. BRT would provide a faster, more efficient way for people to travel around Hampton and Newport News. Pending approval from city councils and the HRT Commission, we will conduct an environmental review to provide more detail on the benefits and costs of bringing BRT to Hampton Roads.

While these big projects are exciting, it’s the core local bus service that lies at the heart of regional transit.

Hampton Roads Transit has proposed an enhanced local system of the type I just described. We began serious work on this after the failure of the light rail referendum in Virginia Beach. While we were deeply disappointed in that outcome, we know that bus transportation will remain our central business regardless of what happens to light rail or BRT next.

But imagine a system on the Peninsula that combines the dedicated right of way travel of BRT with enhanced local bus. Imagine how easy it would be to leave the car at home a few times a week and just enjoy the simple pleasure of letting someone else do the driving.

In the absence of dedicated regional funding similar to what supports roads, it will be impossible to have a truly regional system that effectively serves customers as we envision.

But imagine the possibilities.

William Harrell
President & CEO, Hampton Roads Transit