League of Women Voters Explore Transit in Hampton Roads

Public transit has been a key study topic this fall for the League of Women Voters of South Hampton Roads. In October, the group held a Public Forum at the Hampton Roads Transit building on 18th Street in Norfolk.

People from all over the area arrived by HRT bus, paratransit vans, bicycle, on foot, or by carpools.  On entering HRT’s second floor, they found refreshments and a colorful art exhibit, then joined a building tour. HRT staff members explained that the structure, dedicated in 2011, was financed by a series of grants and that the main administration building was partly made possible by a grant from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. A lovely roof garden illustrated the building’s many environmental features. The history display was a favorite, with its very old trolley farebox, a foot-treadle sewing machine that once stitched bus seat covers, and old artifacts dug up during construction.

The tour then entered the Customer Relations Call Center, where visitors listened as HRT customer service representatives spoke with customers. By their comments, you could tell what customers were asking: “How can I help you?” “Just walk two blocks toward the supermarket, and you’ll see a lollipop bus stop sign.” “You can pay when you get on the ferry. Be sure to have exact change.” “What time were you riding The TIDE this morning when you left your jacket on board?”

Back in the lobby, citizens from all parts of Hampton Roads had arrived and were chatting. Some said they used public transit services every day, while others admitted they had never ridden an HRT bus. Several had served on transit advisory committees and boards.

The entire group moved into the large meeting room, where League President Martha Rollins introduced William Harrell, President and CEO of Hampton Roads Transit. Mr. Harrell spoke about the challenges and opportunities facing the region regarding public transportation. He said today’s transit is simply not connecting the region as effectively as it could be. We need more frequent and reliable service, including new buses and new technology upgrades. Mr. Harrell thanked the League for being engaged on the topic, noting that with adequate support in state and regional funding the region’s core system can be greatly improved.

After Harrell’s comments, an assembled panel shared experiences with public transit.

  • Mary Mathena, of Virginia Beach, described her dependence on paratransit vans, designed for people with disabilities. In Hampton Roads, Mary explained, paratransit services are restricted to areas near HRT bus routes, and they function only during bus service hours. If one city decides not to fund evening or weekend buses in some areas, paratransit services cannot function there either.
  • Joni Baker spoke of a recent family crisis when her Navy husband had just deployed, and she was told not to drive for health reasons.  Joni desperately asked friends to help take her young children to schools in Norfolk, then drive her to her job in Hampton. Finally she learned about HRT’s MAX express buses. One MAX route passed near her home, took her across the bridge-tunnel, and let her off not far from her workplace. “The independence that the MAX buses gave me was a practical and psychological lifesaver,” Joni said.
  • Portsmouth resident Jonathan Nye (a member of Hampton Roads Public Transit Alliance) told about his choice to use only his bicycle and public transit, and about the good and bad of transit services in our region. Jonathan encouraged citizens to use transit, get to know transit riders, then to advocate actively with the General Assembly for adequate and dependable funding to improve transit services.
  • Addie Petersen (current President of Empower Hampton Roads) spoke of faith communities and their desire to include and serve people who depend on transit for their jobs, their health visits, and their shopping. She told of church members who cannot attend services, because many HRT bus routes do not run on Sundays.  She concluded, “Public transit is clearly a matter of social justice”.

By the end of the evening, many attendees, inspired by what they had seen and heard, volunteered for further action –some to serve on citizen committees, and others to visit their legislators in the General Assembly, tell their stories and discuss reliable funding for public transit.

Judith Brown
Transportation Chair, League of Women Voters of South Hampton Roads