Thursday, February 2, 2023

To start, this Newport News advocacy group took action in seeking public transportation reform

(WYDaily/Courtesy Hampton Roads Transit)
(WYDaily/Courtesy Hampton Roads Transit)

Albert Williams is a Newport News resident who relies on Hampton Roads Transit to get to classes daily at Thomas Nelson Community College.

In a recent Newport News City Council meeting, he described how the system is inadequate at best and asked officials to intervene.

“What I’m requesting is somehow, someway that the HRT be held accountable for interruptions in their services,” he said. “There has to be communication on each bus so why not inform those people who are out there waiting for that bus to say it’s not coming within a certain amount of time?”

This would be the first City Council meeting Williams had ever attended but after he apologized for stumbling over his words would make his and the demands of Virginia Organizing clear — more frequent and reliable bus services to cover more routes in the region and span a wider range of times to serve working people.

Janice ‘Jay’ Johnson, Newport News resident and Virginia Organizing state board member, said the issue is about so much more than riding buses — it’s mentoring and developing residents to become civic leaders, part of the group’s bigger picture.

“By giving [residents] enough information to understand the issue so that they’re confident about speaking to it and explaining it to someone else…we develop a segment of a community who are no longer voiceless,” she said.

A more than 20-year volunteer during the group’s 25-year history, Johnson said the members of Virginia Organizing with its newest chapter in Newport News seek to take on “matters of fairness, equity, and justice in the community”

“If you’re spending two to four hours of your day waiting for buses, this keeps you from being able to spend time with your family, to do something productive for yourself, and to be a more active citizen in your community,” she said. “All of those things are part of your well being and makes you then become unequal in the sense that you can’t be a viable participant.”

A more reliable public transportation service is the top priority for the more than 2,400 Hampton Roads residents who participated in the Transit Transformation Project’s regional survey earlier this year.

Although the company agrees with the community, William Harrell, president and CEO of Hampton Roads Transit, said with its outdated funding model, the desired changes will require more than the 45 percent it receives from the city’s general fund for its operating budget.

“In fiscal year 13 when the General Assembly created the Hampton Roads Transportation Fund they created funding for roads, bridges, and tunnels but excluded public transportation,” he said. “The challenge is, public transportation right now competes with schools and public safety.”

Harrell said in the City Council meeting, the transportation company’s Transform Transit Project is an undertaking to strategically improve the service and develop regional standards.

“We’re going to need the members of Virginia Organizing to help us when General Assembly time comes so that our leaders understand that part of the quality of life needed for our community is good bus transportation — the core of what we provide,” he said.

The advocacy group can’t say they’re any closer to reforming public transportation in the city than they were before the Oct. 22 meeting, nevertheless, Johnson said she’s satisfied with their work and performance on the action.

“I am very pleased with the persistence that this chapter and its members have shown about this issue and how knowledgeable they are about the transport system,” she said. “And, for that reason, they are recognized at least by City Council…as a group that means business.”

Working on civic issues as a member of the Newport News chapter of Virginia Organizing is free and they’re always open to residents who are ready to work toward the next initiative, Johnson said.

Those interested can join them for their next meeting at the North Newport News Community Center on Nov. 19 at 6 p.m. or contact Ciera Killen, Hampton and Newport News organizer, for more information — ciera@virginia-organizing.org

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