Friday, February 26, 2010

Obama Administration Transit Changes

There have been a couple noteworthy changes in mass transit policy made by the Obama Administration.

First, in grading out light rail proposals, economic development and land use have now been put on par with cost-effectiveness. The last criteria was the top criteria alone for the Bush Administration.

An official of Virginia's Department of Rail and Public Transportation (DRPT) speculated that the effect of the change will be that it will now be easier to meet the Federal standard for funds, but that more localities will now probably seek to apply.

Second, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) is now partnering with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) on transit system development. The former is obviously in it for the positive environmental impacts, while HUD seeks to construct affordable housing near mass transit transfer centers.

My First Senior Citizen Discount

Coming home from yesterday's TDCHR meeting, I stopped at the Farm Fresh at Victory Crossing to pick up a couple items. The cashier rang them up, and I went to get the money out of my wallet. When I looked back up, the price was reduced.

The cashier had given me the Senior Citizen discount of 5%. At age 45. Maybe it's the lined bifocals....

TDCHR February 25, 2010

The Transportation District Commission of Hampton Roads (TDCHR), the governing board of Hampton Roads Transit (HRT), met Thursday afternoon at HRT headquarters in Hampton.

Issues were raised about getting the Federal government to release the final funds for Norfolk's light rail Starter Line. However, if it can be shown that cost increases happened due to an enlarged scope for the project, the Feds may cover up to 80% of those costs.

The agency is currently about $1.5 million under it's FY 2010 budget.

A draft budget for FY 2011 was presented. However, the figures are very preliminary, as a number of factors could change: state aid in the new state budget, what services the seven cities agree to contract for, and whether or not there is a fare increase and for how much (more on that later).

The first phase of the new Southside facility is on time and within budget. However, the new administrative building that was to be part of that project will now be delayed due to the state not making a planned bond issue with revenue down.

The draft of Phase II of the Regional Transit Vision Plan is due out in July. Those working on the project have been meeting with Staff in the seven cities. Also, there is a wish to include High Speed Rail and it's connectivity in the Plan.

Fun Facts from Thursday:

1. The cost of operating a HRT mainline bus is $58.01 per hour.

2. There are 59 mass transit systems in Virginia.

Finally, a couple of pieces of business of particular interest for my fellow bus riders:

1. The City of Suffolk is in talks with HRT about increasing service "in the northern part of the city". It wasn't mentioned exactly where.

2. Per TDCHR policy of allowing for a fare increase once every two years, the process has begun for considering one. Up to 4 options will be prepared for the TDCHR. There will be Public Hearings at the TDCHR meetings on April 22 in Hampton and May 27 in Norfolk, with a vote slated for the Norfolk meeting. The second Hearing was at the insistence of TDCHR Chairman Jim Wood, who noted the problems some bus riders have in crossing the water. (They thank you, Jim.)

Two facts to ponder on the issue. First, HRT's farebox cash fare has been at $1.50 since the 1999 merger of TRT and Pentran. Second, HRT's peer agencies now have an average farebox cash fare of $2.01.

A draft of the options is to go to HRT's Operations and Oversight Committee on March 12, with the final going to HRT's Budget and Audit Committee on March 24. A Presentation on it will be made to the TDCHR's March 25 meeting in Norfolk.

In addition, Henry Ryto, Chairman of HRT's Transit Riders Advisory Committee (TRAC) has requested that the information be provided to TRAC's March 17 meeting in Hampton. (As it's slated to go to O & O five days earlier, it should be ready.) It is hoped that TRAC can then provide recommendations from a bus riders prospective.

TPPC February 25, 2010

On Thursday morning the Transportation, Parking, and Pedestrian Committee (TPPC) of Virginia Beach's Resort Advisory Commission (RAC) met.

The first topic was a look at Ocean City's "Walk Smart" program. While committee members and Staff acknowledge we have a pedestrian safety problem in the Resort Area (worst in the city), questions were raised as to how cost-effective additional measures would be. Still, some further steps may be taken. Fact of the morning: you are 7 times more likely to be a fatality while walking than by any other form of transportation.

Staff from Hampton Roads Transit (HRT) presented some requested information: a 2007 vs. 2009 VBWave ridership comparison, Ticket Vending Machine (TVM) figures for the Resort Area, and written answers to questions the TPPC asked but HRT Staff didn't know the answers to off the top of their heads.

As part of the City's ongoing maintenance of traffic signals, the stoplights at Pacific Avenue's intersections with 21st and 22nd Streets are going to be replaced. Not only are the current lights far short of national standards, but they utilize utility poles of Dominion Virginia Power. The new signals will utilize a single 72 foot mast arm.

A Briefing of City Council on The Hippo, the waterslide that would go on the beach at the 24th Street Park, is slated for next Tuesday, March 2. The Hippo would require Council granting a franchise for it's operation.

Finally, the TPPC approved it's list of Top 5 Priorities for the upcoming March 4 RAC strategic planning meeting:

1. Extension of a mass transit mode (i.e. LRT) to the Oceanfront, including expansion of VB Wave and HRT bus feeder network.

2. Improving/enhancing resort parking (including employee parking).

3. Dome site and 19th Street redevelopment.

4. Development of Laskin Road Gateway.

5. Promoting development of a Resort Area Master Transportation Plan.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Shucet Holds Initial Session With Bloggers

On Monday morning new Hampton Roads Transit (HRT) CEO Phil Shucet held a roundtable session with bloggers. 5 of the 6 invitees were able to attend: Vivian Paige, Brian Kirwin of Bearing Drift, Eileen Levandoski of VB Dems, Archie Whitehill of Sparkling Diversity, and myself. It is hoped to be the beginning of a series of such sessions. Two ideas for subsequent meetings were discussed later: after the General Assembly session, and in June (after the cities have passed their budgets).

I'd give you a writeup, but Vivian actually did video of it. For those listening, I asked two questions: the one on budget tracking and the one on the "culture of fear".

Thursday, February 18, 2010

71% Think Bellitto Has A Good Chance

Our previous poll question was on the chances of Rita Sweet Bellitto, just appointed to a vacancy on the Virginia Beach City Council, of winning a full term this November. 71% think she has a good chance, 10% Fair, 12% Poor, and 6% think She's Toast.

I'll be honest with you: I've never voted for Rita before. In her three previous runs for office, City Council in 2002 and School Board in 2004 & 2008, I have yet to cast a ballot for her. Also, just being named to City Council will require her to stand up a campaign team and raise money on a compact schedule. Possible, but problematic.

The new question is on today's rollout of a figure for Norfolk's light rail Starter Line: how much credibility do you give it?


The Transportation District Commission of Hampton Roads (TDCHR), the governing body of Hampton Roads Transit (HRT), held a special meeting this afternoon in Hampton for the rollout of the final Norfolk Tide construction cost and an explanation of the figures.

New HRT CEO Phil Shucet gave everyone the number he had promised: Norfolk Tide construction will come in at no more than $338,284.251. While a significant increase over the original cost figure, the line would still be only $45.7 million per mile, the cheapest of any light rail line in the country in the past 12 years. While $13 million of that figure is for contingencies ($10 million unallocated; $3 million allocated), Shucet warned Commissioners not to use a $325 million figure, as such a result would require everything to go perfectly the rest of the way. In addition, Shucet stated he could find no analytical basis for the $288 million revised figure from 2008.

Almost as interesting was that fact that "one employee" (never identified) had done an in-house cost analysis during August & September of 2009. Completed in October, the in-house report put the Starter Line's cost at $324.7 million. Randy Wright was incensed that no one from the City of Norfolk had seen the in-house report before; in fact, Wright didn't see it until just before today's special meeting.

Moving towards completion of the Starter Line, contracts have been renegotiated to cut costs by $14.5 million. In addition, soft costs for the remaining 38% of construction are down to 9.75%.

Television crews arrived early from WVEC, WAVY, and WHRO. Also, a fourth crew (who I couldn't identify) arrived after the meeting had begun.

The TDCHR's regular February meeting will be next Thursday (the 25th), once again at 1:30 in Hampton. (HRT's website has read Norfolk for next week.)

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Poverty In Hampton Roads: Bundling Up

As I went to take the bus to today's TPO Retreat, it was snowing and the wind was whipping through. Therefore, I was surprised when the man who joined me in my home bus shelter was wearing only a fleece, with neither a hat nor gloves.

With my attention now on the issue, I started looking at what people were wearing when I reached the Military Circle Transfer Center. About one-third of those waiting weren't wearing proper Winter coats. In that weather.

Not smart enough to bundle up? Our region's notoriously low wages making a Winter coat unreachable for some? Has the recession just made things harder for many? I don't know the answer, but it was a sad sight to see.

TPO February 10, 2010

Today the Transportation Planning Organization (TPO), Hampton Roads' Federally-mandated transportation planning group, held a Retreat.

The meeting began with remarks by Sean Connaughton, Virginia's new Secretary of Transportation. He made clear the importance of regional cooperation on transportation planning: for years he crossed three jurisdictions driving to work, and for a period served as a Prince William County representative on their MPO. With his maritime background, he stressed moving freight in and out of our port. Connaughton emphasized that he wants to complete the deal to build a second tube for the Midtown Tunnel. In addition, he sees increased passenger rail and mass transit as part of our region's transportation solution. Connaughton made clear (please note, VBTA) that mass transit is key to solving Hampton Roads' transportation problems. Connaughton needed to get back to Richmond, so he spoke first and left immediately afterwards.

There was only one speaker under Public Comment: an employee of a Norfolk developer wants the region to seek Federal aid for clearing snow from our roads. His rationale is that it's a military readiness issue: Navy fighter pilots and SEALs would have to report to bases here quickly in case of a national security situation.

Retired military officers spoke on the importance of transportation for the military in the region. One General told Senator Webb that he can't recommend any additional commands be based in Hampton Roads until we tackle our region's transportation problems. In addition, one of the criteria in grading out for shifting commands is (note again, VBTA) mass transit service to the base in question.

Probably overshadowing Secretary Connaughton was what broke out later on High Speed Rail. Speaking was Dr. Alexander Metcalf of Transportation Economics & Management Systems, Inc. (TEMS) of Frederick, MD, the consultant hired by the TPO to help the region land Federal High Speed Rail funding. Dr. Metcalf has 30 years in passenger rail business planning, including having served as Chief Economist for British Rail. Dr. Metcalf gave a fascinating presentation that had to leave you optimistic about our chances with his help.

The problem is a turf battle. After the TPO thought all issues had been resolved, Virginia's Department of Rail and Public Transportation (DRPT) objected again on Wednesday morning. They fear a duplication of efforts by TEMS and DRPT. The issue was tabled pending a later conference call between TPO Executive Director Dwight Farmer, DRPT Director Thelma Drake, Metcalf, and Staff.

Some interesting things from Metcalf's presentation. First, Amtrak's model overestimates the operating costs of High Speed Rail by nearly double, meaning our subsidy payments would only need to be half of what's been discussed so far. Second, he can model and demonstrate that 110-125 mph service makes much more sense for our region than 79-90 mph service. Third, his model estimates that 110 mph service would carry 1.88 million passengers per year between Hampton Roads and Washington by 2025. That would mean 14 trains daily with a capacity of 400 passengers each.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

70% Have Their Taxes Done Professionally

70% of you have professionals do your income taxes, while 30% do them yourselves.

Personally, since I started working at age 16, I've done my own income taxes every year but one. (I was in the hospital at tax time.) I've never found it difficult. I filed my taxes online, and received both my state and Federal refunds this past weekend.

The new question: what are the chances of Rita Sweet Bellitto being elected to a full term on the Virginia Beach City Council? On Tuesday Council appointed her to fill Ron Villanueva's vacant seat, which will be up for election in November. I offer the same four answers from the poll on the chances of Councilman/VBTA puppet Bill DeSteph getting reelected.

Cops As Librarians?

Arriving in the Resort Area early for this afternoon's RAC meeting, I went into the Oceanfront Library. A VBPD policewoman had security duty...and was behind the desk helping with librarian duties.

That raises some obvious questions. Are we so short library help that security has to be utilized in such a manner? With contracted security cheaper, why is VBPD providing library security? Why is a police officer pulling library duty when we need more cops on the street? With City Budget time just around the corner, I'd like to know.

RAC February 4, 2010

This afternoon Virginia Beach's Resort Advisory Commission (RAC) met for about 80 minutes.

The Minutes from the January meeting were approved without correction. That was the only vote of the afternoon.

Barry Frankenfield gave an update on the Laskin Gateway Project. A few Commissioners who had been at the stormy December 10 Citizens Advisory Committee (CAC) meeting agreed it would have helped had the information that evening been formatted as presented to the RAC this afternoon. Not only are property owners looking to redevelop their holdings within the area, but developers are trying to assemble land in the periphery. The CAC doesn't currently have another meeting scheduled, but probably will meet in late February.

JT's Grommet Park rolls along, and will probably open in May. The playground for the wheelchair-bound will be on the beach at Rudee Inlet. It will be double wide (so two wheelchairs can pass), have a soft play area in addition to the playground equipment already considered, as well as sand tables. There will be access from the Boardwalk at that elevation so wheelchairs don't have to go down to the beach level then back higher again. There will be wheelchair areas at the front that will allow families to gather. The design of the front area is such that it should deflect fairly heavy storms. In the wake of the November Nor'easter designers went out and took photos and measurements to calculate storm surge on that part of the beach.

Speaking of Rudee Inlet, money is currently in the City Budget to allow design of an extension of the planned Rudee Walk out onto the jetty.

There are three potential operators seeking to bid on The Hippo, the proposed huge waterslide on the beach. City Staff is currently finalizing the language for a possible franchise.

As expected, revenues collected for the Tourism Growth Investment Fund (TGIF) are down in the recession. There will probably be a TGIF Presentation to the RAC this Spring.

Running the Shamrock Marathon through The North End is now go, with issues stemming from the current drainage pipe construction in the neighborhood having been overcome. There were talks between the City, marathon organizers, and the neighborhood's civic league to resolve the matters.

The next RAC meeting will be a strategic planning meeting. It will be Thursday, March 4 at 3 P.M. at the Virginia Beach Convention Center.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Phil Shucet To HRT

Okay, some of you are probably wondering about my opinion on Phil Shucet being named interim CEO at Hampton Roads Transit (HRT).

The bottom line here is that the TDCHR has now placed a much higher priority on light rail extensions than operating it's existing bus and ferry (don't forget Route 90!) network. Shucet is an engineer who has experience (as VDOT Commissioner) at contracting, construction projects, etc. Tackling the issues involved in light rail construction should be fairly easy for him.

What Shucet doesn't have experience at is mass transit operations. How much does he know about the issues involved in keeping HRT's buses rolling daily, planning new routes, etc.? Phil took office on Monday morning. Now imagine if our Winter storm had struck 84 hours later, on Tuesday morning. What does Shucet do? (At least by Monday morning HRT was back to "roll with caution" status.)

Kerry Dougherty Botches It Yet Again

In her column today, Kerry Dougherty attacks the City of Virginia Beach for having cleared the Boardwalk of snow and ice while many city streets remained covered.

It's an apples and oranges argument. The additional services provided in the Resort Area are paid for through the Tourism Growth Investment Fund (TGIF). It's the same pool of cash that gets Resort Area sidewalks cleared each night overnight during the Summer. So while the crews and equipment could have been potentially used elsewhere afterwards, there were no funds to cover the costs.

Can someone stop Kerry from continuing to embarrass herself?