Sunday, December 4, 2022

Virginia Beach City Council wants to hear from public before introducing public transportation alternatives

Norfolk Southern Right of Way
The Norfolk southern right of way is the subject of improving connectivity in Virginia Beach. (Justin Belichis)

More public transportation is on its way to Virginia Beach, but don’t expect it to happen overnight.

Virginia Beach City Council met Tuesday to explore new ways to increase public transportation in the city for the first time since the light rail referendum failed in November.

Transportation and Transit Planning Manager Brian Solis presented a few options to city council for potential uses for the Norfolk southern right of way and improving citywide bus services.

“I think what’s clear when you look at all three [light rail] referendums, is that we need one with a better set of solutions that gets consensus among the community in terms of providing public transportation in our city and what part we are in the region,” Solis said.

Norfolk Southern Right of Way

“We believe that the $40 million investment … the city should reinforce it has a commitment to setting aside that corridor for connectivity,” Solis said. “That means utilities, technology, bikeways and trails and potentially high-capacity transit or innovation in the future.”

At this point, the city has advised that it wants to retain the corridor for connectivity. The Commonwealth has a $20 million interest, the federal government has a $5 million interest and the city has a $15 million interest in the corridor, according to Solis.

Solis said Delegate Ron Villanueva filed House Bill 2021 to create a legislative fix for the city’s commitment. It would open the corridor’s use to more than just light rail with new language for broader opportunity. This would also extend the agreement to implement connectivity along it until 2027.

Options for the corridor include a new path for fiber wire, a $131 million express lane project for high-capacity transit, a $62 million bikeway and trail and an autonomous vehicle path.

Citywide bus services

There are currently 11 bus routes in Virginia Beach — five connecting to Norfolk and Chesapeake, three seasonal trolley routes at the Oceanfront and seven park-and-ride shuttle routes. Solis said about five million people ride the bus in Virginia Beach every year, which is trending down because of low fuel costs.

The busiest route in the the Hampton Roads Transit system is Virginia Beach’s Route 20, which runs from Downtown Norfolk to the Oceanfront.

Solis said the insight from transit-dependent people, choice riders and stakeholders will help the city develop a plan. Choice riders are people who have cars, but still use transit because it’s convenient.

Solis said his team is making a commitment to improving infrastructure, which includes sheltering more of the 500 bus stops in the city, and creating better connectivity to them.

“I believe we have a relatively unhealthy multi-mode split for commuting in Hampton Roads,” Solis said. “We are currently only 0.8 percent of folks commuting from work to home and back via public transportation.”

An option to improve the citywide bus system is simply to increase its services and extend its hours. Price estimates for this concept include a $9.2 million increase in its operating budget and $13.5 million for 26 new buses, according to Solis’ presentation.

Council remarks

Learning what the public wants is important to city council, especially to Councilwoman Barbara Henley.

“I think it would be very backward if you develop a plan and took it to the public,” Henley said. “I still say, since I’ve been saying when we got through the referendum, we need to go to the public first to get their feedback.”

She also said limiting the corridor to bikeways and trails might be too niche of a demographic.

“I know bikes and trails folks, we’ve been getting emails to build this path, but we may only have a small segment of the community that would be available to that,” Henley said.

Councilman John Moss said it may be too late to start public outreach before city council’s private retreat in February, where they will be talking about transportation.

“I don’t think you can competently execute a meaningful engagement with the public when we’re having a retreat in February,” Moss said. “I think one of the things that people already feel out in the street is that no one has listened to what they already told us.”

Moss also said it wouldn’t hurt to increase bus frequency to see if it attracts choice riders to gauge where transit sits on people’s minds in the current free market.

“I think we have to understand the narrative behind these numbers,” Moss said. “I think the only way to find out is to take a test somewhere. Increase the frequency and extend it past those late hours and work with hotels so [employees] can make it home after midnight. Try it and see if there’s a latent demand.”

Vice Mayor Louis Jones said it may not even be Virginia Beach’s job to sort out the transit issue.

“It may be that somebody else is going to have to solve the transit issue in this region first,” Jones said. “That’s probably Norfolk… unless Norfolk solves its transit issues of getting people to the naval base, getting people to the airport and so forth, we’re throwing money down the drain.”

At this point, there is no planned meeting for public input regarding transit.

“Let’s not try to push this thing before the retreat,” Mayor Will Sessoms said. “I don’t want to fit something in without something well-thought-out.”

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