Monday, January 17, 2022

Public transportation on the Peninsula: How effective is it?

The Williamsburg Area Transit Authority saw an eight percent decrease in total ridership last year but saw a 20 percent increase in paratransit riders. (WYDaily/File photo)
The Williamsburg Area Transit Authority. (WYDaily/File photo)

The Historic Triangle still remains very much cut off from the rest of the Peninsula in terms of public transportation, which could pose a problem.

Access to a good and reliable public transportation is one thing. Add the landscape of the coronavirus when many have lost jobs and are continuing to struggle to make ends meet, and things get more complicated.

The Williamsburg Area Transit Authority, which mainly serves Williamsburg, York and James City counties, has one connection to Newport News at Lee Hall. Then there is the Hampton Roads Transit system, which serves Newport News, Hampton, Portsmouth, Norfolk, Virginia Beach and Chesapeake.

While there is one HRT line which connects Newport News to Williamsburg via the downtown Newport News Transit Center, 150 35th St., stopping at Patrick Henry Mall before arriving at North Boundary Street, there is no other transit service going from Newport News or Hampton directly to Williamsburg, York County or James City County.

HRT has a service called the HRT MAX, which connects riders from one city to another with limited stops such as Newport News to Virginia Beach or Newport News to Norfolk.

So why doesn’t WATA have a service similar to the HRT Max connecting the Historic Triangle to nearby localities? Or better yet, why doesn’t the HRT MAX connect Newport News or Hampton to the Historic Triangle?

Both WATA and HRT officials said it has to do with money, specifically federal funding.

“One of the main things to think about in regards to the HRT Max service deals with the UZA zones [urbanized areas set by Federal Highway Administration] that are tied to our funding mechanisms,” WATA Deputy Director Josh Moore said in a prepared statement. “The UZA that WATA operates in is just a small urban area reaching just south of Williamsburg, north into Toano.”

He said funding is different compared to a large urbanized area like Virginia Beach and any service WATA has within the area would have to be approved by not only the localities but the Hampton Roads Transportation Planning Organization, too.

WATA spokeswoman Michele Canty wrote in an email the organization had worked with consultants in 2015-2016 about “making adjustments to our routes to fit ridership needs,” adding most of the people who use WATA are based in Williamsburg and James City County.

“Many commuters come to this area to work but live in other areas,” she wrote. “We also service a large population of working families, service workers and college students right here in the region who are not as interested in such a service. However, if the interest was there, it could be something we look into while working through the proper channels and with regional transit officials.”

HRT Chief Planning & Development Officer Ray Amoruso wrote in an email each of the cities in the service area figures out how much money they provide each year to the transit body.

“While Max service is funded “off the top” from Federal funding operating assistance the agency receives, since the cities and counties of James, York and Williamsburg are not member jurisdictions of Hampton Roads Transit, they cannot “benefit” from the Federal funding assistance we receive annually,” he wrote.

But what about adding more connections from the Historic Triangle to Newport News and Hampton?

“HRT currently operates the 121 route which facilitates a level of transfers between the historic triangle and Newport News/Hampton,” said WATA Transit Planner Ben Goodill in a prepared statement.

Amoruso said WATA is separate from HRT and the decision to add more service routes is up to the agency.

“If Williamsburg Area Transit Authority, WATA, wants to extend their services into the city of Hampton and Newport News that would be up to the agency to decide,” Amoruso added.

On July 21, Newport News “broke ground” on a new transportation center off Bland and Warwick Boulevard near I-64, which will connect riders to HRT buses, taxis and shuttles to the nearby Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport and the new Amtrak station, according to a joint news release from Newport News, the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation and Virginia Department of Transportation.

The $47 million project is expected to be complete in summer 2022.

But does WATA or HRT plan to connect buses to this new transportation center?

HRT already connects to the downtown Newport News Transportation Center and Amoruso said once the new Amtrak station is built in two years, they plan to have Route 108 stop at the transit center, possibility adding Routes 11 and 116 if Newport News agrees to it.

Even though Williamsburg is part of the airport, WATA has no plans to add buses there at this time. However, adding bus routes to the new transit center off Bland Boulevard is a possibility.

WATA had identified the airport “as an area to consider” in the agency’s 2016 Transit development plan and while the decision was discussed internally, “other stakeholders have not proved fruitful to developing a solution,” Goodill said in a prepared statement.

“WATA has a demonstration route that is being developed for possible service in 2023, the new transportation center is a point of interest that will be looked at when considering the path of the new route,” Goodill said in a prepared statement. “However, see first response, we would still have to resolve the matter of UZA’s and reach new agreements with any localities involved.”

Canty wrote in an email HRT, WATA and Suffolk Transit are part of a regional transportation group to “address issues such as connections and major points of interest” but she did not name the group or elaborate further.

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Julia Marsiglianohttp://wydaily.com
Julia Marsigliano is a multimedia reporter for WYDaily. She covers everything on the Peninsula from local government and law enforcement agencies to family-run businesses and weather updates. Before WYDaily, she covered Hampton and Newport News for WYDaily’s sister publication, HNNDaily before both publications merged in December 2018. Julia was born in Tokyo, Japan and moved to Long Island, New York in 2001. A true New Yorker, she loves pizza, bagels and good Chinese food. Send comments, tips and other tidbits to julia@localvoicemedia.com. You can follow her on Twitter at @jmarsigliano

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