William E. Harrell: Imagine a plan to transform public transportation

HAMPTON ROADS is lagging in economic growth compared to other regions in Virginia and across the United States. While there’s no one solution to unleashing the region’s potential, maintaining and improving our transportation systems is certainly key.

Thankfully, Hampton Roads is making progress on many transportation projects that have been long overdue. This includes widening Interstate 64 on the Peninsula, improving the interchange at I-64 and Interstate 264, beginning efforts to add capacity to the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel, and a host of other projects within each city.

We have work to do, however, to transform regional public transportation for the better. Great regions are multi-modal. They use a mix of ways to efficiently move people, not just cars and trucks. Regions that invest in robust multi-modal transportation are positioning themselves for success today and in the future.

Look at the 20 cities that made the short list in January for Amazon’s second headquarters. More than 238 cities and regions, including Virginia Beach, had applied.

Amazon is weighing many factors, including transportation. The company’s criteria are not “either-or” when it comes to connectivity. It wants solutions that include “all of the above.” Importantly, this includes access to a high-quality public transportation system. Northern Virginia, where more than 90 percent of all public transit investments in Virginia are being made, is still in the running to be Amazon’s final pick.

Big companies can be an economic game changer for any region. Amazon is promising 50,000 new high-paying jobs and $5 billion in new investment.

We should keep in mind that the majority of new job growth — about 86 percent nationwide, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities — comes from helping local businesses start up or expand. Providing efficient and effective public transportation options plays an important role in this as well. Every day, Hampton Roads Transit is supporting access to education and workforce training, and connecting workers to jobs and customers to businesses. These things help local businesses succeed.

In the most economically vibrant cities and regions that Hampton Roads is competing against, public transit plays a central role in land-use planning and the development of attractive, well-connected communities. These are places where workers and their families want to be, and businesses are following that talent. The buzz about Amazon is a prime example.

With new grant funding through the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation, this fall we will kick off a new project to see how we may be able to re-invent regional transit to be more effective, efficient and sustainable.

The time has come to lay aside old ways of thinking and doing business when it comes to public transportation in Hampton Roads. If we’re going to provide the most efficient and effective services possible — and get the most bang for the buck — it’s essential for local representatives and policy makers to think and act regionally.

Working with stakeholders, including experts at the Hampton Roads Transportation Planning Organization and Hampton Roads Transportation Accountability Commission, we will evaluate what future transit options should be pursued and how to better prioritize and fund transit investments that make sense for the region. For example, we could use a mix of different vehicles and service configurations to significantly improve connectivity among major employers, central business districts and hospitals, as well as colleges, universities and workforce training centers.

Imagine a new and improved HRT connecting more people where they need to go, in ways that are more cost effective than traditional public transportation or ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft. We can maintain significant geographic coverage for the region while also implementing a more reliable core transit network.

As business guru Peter Drucker once said, “The best way to predict the future is to create it.”

Working together, we can transform public transportation in Hampton Roads for the better so that, whether it’s supporting small business on Main Street or helping attract the next Fortune 500 company to the area, public transit will be doing its part.

William Harrell
President & CEO, Hampton Roads Transit