Wednesday, March 31, 2010

One Region Connected By Mass Transit

On Tuesday I took Hampton Roads Transit (HRT) to the Peninsula, having a few things to get done.

After boarding Route 114 at the Peninsula Town Center in Hampton, a man bounded forward to sit across the aisle from me. He recognized me from my workplace in Virginia Beach, and wanted to ask me some "shop" questions.

Later in the day I was at the Newport News Transportation Center (NNTC) waiting on the Route 967 to Greenbrier. A woman getting off the Route 103 saw me and asked, "You're not at Pembroke today?" No, running errands on the Peninsula.

Yes, I'm from Virginia Beach and was twice recognized like that on the Peninsula. Virginia Beach Taxpayers Alliance (VBTA) Vice Chairman/Transportation Chairman Reid Greenmun has argued that we're at least three separate regions and that mass transit should be abolished. The above proves we are in fact one region and mass transit is bringing together people from throughout it. Just another case of Greenmun and the VBTA being dead wrong.

Monday, March 29, 2010

TEA Party Congressional Candidates Forum

A got an e-mail this morning from one of the contenders for the Republican nomination in Virginia's 2nd Congressional District. The Hampton Roads TEA Party will hold a candidate forum for all candidates contesting for the nomination. It will be this Thursday evening, April 1, at the Wyndham Hotel at 5700 Atlantic Avenue in Virginia Beach. The starting time is 7 P.M.

When I saw it, the obvious struck me: a TEA Party candidates forum on April Fools Day?!? Insert your jokes in the comment section.

[FYI, this is the 800th post on this blog.]

The Annual Drama Begins

In our poll on the Norfolk Mayor's race, 64% voted for Paul Fraim's reelection, 25% for Daun Hester, and 10% Other. I'd love to see Daun do well, if not win, for the political ramifications in Norfolk and elsewhere in the region. However, I've been on campaign committees of similar uphill fights before. The issue is that many people who would like to help you are afraid to, in CYA mode over a probable Fraim win.

That brings us to the new question: what should the tax rate in the next Virginia Beach Budget be? The current rate is 89 cents. The Virginian-Pravda has reported that the draft Budget will be released with a 92 cent rate. While that's a 3 cent rate increase, due to falling assessments, the average taxpayer would still pay less than in the previous year.

Virginia Beach Budget time is always great drama time, with the usual suspects giving us antics that make for better acting than with pro wrestling and most soap operas. Grab the snacks and take a seat as the fun begins.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Newtown SGA Plan Rollout Meeting

On Thursday evening, March 25, the City of Virginia Beach held the rollout meeting for the Newtown Strategic Growth Area (SGA) Plan. The meeting was held at the offices of Virginia's Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), which is in the SGA. A SRO crowd turned out for a nearly one hour Presentation. First there were comments by Virginia Beach Planning Director Jack Whitney. He was followed by Paul Ostergard of Urban Design Associates (UDA); UDA was the consultant that had point on the Plan. In turn, that was followed by a question and answer session of about 40 minutes. Afterwards, citizens could ask Staff additional questions.

As for the Plan itself, there would be a gateway park on the triangular block that now features a Rite Aid. The first light rail station in Virginia Beach would be at Arrowhead, with affordable housing adjacent. Northeast of the Newtown Road/Princess Anne Road intersection would be a Town Center-like development. Southeast of the Newtown Road light rail station would be housing (including Seniors housing) and some shopping (including a grocery store). The area around the current Virginian-Pravda production plant would feature offices and light industrial. Finally, the existing hotels would be maintained, with hope upgrades could be induced with the redevelopment in the area.

From the question and answer session:

1. A man had been circulating the light rail referendum petition from Wally Erb's VBTA front group prior to the meeting, claiming it was "simply to allow the citizens to vote". The same man asked the first question, in which he attacked the very idea of mass transit. (Yeah, that laid the lie to it right in front of everyone.)

2. I asked how many new housing units were projected. After a few fumbled with the question, one Staffer claimed about 1,000.

The reason behind it was that the Newtown SGA, being on the western city line, is unencumbered by AICUZ regulations.

3. The hot issue of the night produced one of the ugliest displays I'd ever seen in Virginia Beach public affairs. A developer (Harmony) owns land in the eastern part of the SGA. It's currently zoned light industrial, but they want to build garden apartments on it. The civic league in the periphery opposes it on the grounds that (barf bag, please!) apartments will bring in lower income people than themselves, hurting their neighborhood.

Going back to the question I raised, I hope Harmony does get to build those apartments. Newtown is one of the few SGAs well-suited for housing, and I hate snobs.

There will be multiple opportunities for the public to comment on, and try to get amended, the Newtown SGA Plan. Briefings on the Plan are scheduled for City Council on April 13, then the Planning Commission on April 14. The draft Plan would go to the Planning Commission at their May 12 meeting. If Planning adopts it, it would go to City Council in late May or June.

Friday, March 26, 2010

TDCHR March 25, 2010

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

The one big issue discussed, which has yet to be covered in the traditional media, are paratransit costs. For all the talk about Norfolk light rail construction costs, paratransit has been the quiet driver in operating budget costs. Paratransit service costs HRT four times as much per passenger to provide than regular bus service. HRT is required under Federal law to provide such, which it contracts out. It is hoped a recent change in how the contractor charges HRT will help get the costs in line. However, additional measures may need to be taken.

The TDCHR approved a contract change that will give HRT more direct oversight and control of Norfolk light rail subcontractors, which will produce construction cost savings.

For FY 2011, HRT is $1.788 million under Budget.

In February ridership was 2.03% over the previous year. For the second straight month, it was an increase in Sunday ridership that bailed the overall figures.

The TDCHR approved the revised schedule for public meetings on a potential fare increase. There will be Public Hearings at the July 22 and August 26 TDCHR meetings, with the vote now slated for the September 23 meeting. In addition, there will be evening public meetings for those who can't attend the afternoon TDCHR sessions.

The meeting packet contained a number of service changes scheduled to become effective July 11. First, two transfer center relocations:

1. Victory Crossing - the new TC will open on Cavalier Boulevard, between McLean Street and Victory Boulevard. Construction on the new TC is due to be finished by the end of May.

It will replace "Victory Dump", IMO the worst TC in the system. Victory Dump is in a weed field in what used to be Fairlawn Homes. Nothing else is around, with the closest (a shopping center) under the I-264 underpass from there.

2. Suffolk - the new TC will be at the Social Services/Public Health facility, replacing Suffolk Bus Plaza. The recently constructed facility was built with bus bays for executing such a move.

Two other changes pending:

1. Leigh Hospital - buses will no longer enter the hospital grounds, with stops to be added on Kempsville Road to serve it. That will aid the on-time performance of Routes 20 and 25.

Having lobbied for this two years ago, I'm quite happy. Rarely do you have a pickup at the hospital.

2. Portsmouth Loop - the Shuttle service might be eliminated come June 30. Federal regulations require that first a public hearing be held in Portsmouth on the issue.

There are also a number of Southside route modifications in store:

1. Route 5 - will now serve Evelyn Butts instead of Wards Corner. The route change will have it go towards Ocean View on Tidewater Drive, adding service in that neighborhood. This change was proposed in the draft Comprehensive Operations Analysis (COA).

2. Route 13 - will be split at 20th & Seaboard, with the southern portion becoming Route 14.

3. Route 962 - will be extended from Magnolia Park & Ride to the new Suffolk TC. It's eastern terminus will now be County & Court instead of Cedar Grove.

Taking it into downtown Suffolk is something some of us (including myself) had argued for at the MAX's inception. Yes, cutting at County & Court will inconvenience those of us coming from Virginia Beach and Norfolk. However, the last few times I've rode the 962 I've noticed most passengers are travelling between Portsmouth and Suffolk, so it makes sense overall. In addition, the 962 now doesn't have to traverse the Downtown Tunnel.

4. Routes 29 and 26 - most have realized that changes have needed to be made between Lynnhaven Mall and TCC - Virginia Beach. Route 29 is chronically late while Route 26's ridership is absurdly low. What's been proposed will cut frequencies and may make some trips longer, but will maintain service to all current areas within existing service hours.

Route 29 will have the Mill Dam Road deviation eliminated, with it's southern terminus to become Lynnhaven Mall.

In turn, Route 26 will become a loop route: it will cover it's existing route on one segment, and on the other the portion of Route 29 between Lynnhaven Mall and TCC that is being chopped.

TPPC March 25, 2010

The Transportation, Parking, and Pedestrian Committee (TPPC) of Virginia Beach's Resort Advisory Commission (RAC) held a lengthy meeting on Thursday morning.

It began with a Bike & Trail Update. Both general City policy was covered, and TPPC was asked to chime in on a couple Resort Area-specific issues.

The City had begun an experiment of outlining the white markings on concrete roads with black paint. Some had complained that white markings faded against the light colored concrete. The TPPC endorsed such markings for Pacific Avenue's intersections with 21st and 22nd Streets.

Finally, VB Wave service was discussed. What was supposed to be an answering of previous TPPC questions morphed into an animated conversation on Hampton Roads Transit (HRT) not offering a Shuttle 3 Day farecard. Some in the Resort Area believe VB Wave ridership could be boosted by offering such a product.

With the previous items having taken up more time than a normal TPPC meeting in full, discussion of the RAC's recently passed strategic planning goals was passed by until the April TPPC meeting.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Possible HRT Fare Increase Delayed

This morning the TDCHR's Operations and Oversight Committee (O & O) moved to delay a possible fare increase for riders of Hampton Roads Transit (HRT). Public Hearings had been scheduled for the April TDCHR meeting in Hampton and the May meeting in Norfolk, with a slated July 1 implementation date. At it's March meeting, the TDCHR would still have to rescind the previous schedule.

Some Commissioners have been uneasy over raising fares in such tough economic times on HRT's mostly poor ridership. However, the alternative is to cut service to those same people. The proposed new schedule would have Public Hearings at the July and August TDCHR meetings. In addition, there would be public meetings in the evening for those who can't attend the afternoon (normally at 1:30 P.M.) TDCHR meetings.

What does that mean for bus riders? As HRT's Budget for FY 2011 will have been passed prior to the meetings and Public Hearings, the extent service would have to be cut if fares are not hiked will be clear.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Divorce Court?

71% of poll voters wanted to rescind the 1999 merger of Tidewater Regional Transit (TRT) and Pentran to form Hampton Roads Transit (HRT), while 28% support keeping the consolidated agency. The only sense such lopsided numbers make is that people are very angry over recent events at HRT and think decoupling the agency could solve them.

The new poll is on the Norfolk Mayor's race.

TRAC March 17, 2010

Hampton Roads Transit's (HRT) Transit Riders Advisory Committee (TRAC) met Wednesday evening at HRT Headquarters in Hampton.

The meeting was dominated by a Presentation on, and discussion of, a potential fare increase for bus service. Neither TRAC members nor visitors objected to an increase. Not only that, but TRAC was aimiable to an even larger increase that what's currently on the table provided that the up and beyond portion of the increase not apply to Seniors and Disabled, plus be dedicated 100% to providing increased bus service. TRAC stopped short of endorsing a specific option, as new options may come out of TDCHR discussions of the issue during the next month.

TRAC was shown Insider Cards from the first batch printed for recruiting new members. Bus riders in the region should be seeing them onboard soon. TRAC Chairman Henry Ryto, who has long worked this issue, was presented a card out of the first batch.

A special meeting of TRAC was called for Wednesday, April 21 at 6 P.M. in Norfolk. At that meeting TRAC will be given a Presentation on shuttle/circulator options for downtown Norfolk once light rail begins service and given a chance to voice their opinion. Also, TRAC may take an official position on a specific fare increase option.

TPO March 17, 2010

The Transportation Planning Organization held it's March meeting this morning at The Regional Building in Chesapeake.

Dr. Alexander Metcalf of TEM, the consultant hired to help Hampton Roads land Federal High Speed Rail funding, gave an update. What he is doing has now been dubbed the "HRTPO Strategic Campaign and Vision Plan for Passenger Rail". Most intriguing is that, at the suggestion of Virginia's Department of Rail and Public Transportation (DRPT), he will model using 150 mph trains on the U.S. 460 Corridor to South Hampton Roads as one of the options. All work should be done by early Summer for submission to the Federal government.

A representative of the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) gave a Presentation on hurricane evacuation. Virginia has a plan for evacuating the region that would see I-64's eastbound lanes reversed for additional westbound traffic 30 hours prior to a strike. The counterflow lanes would extend from 4th View in Norfolk to I-295 east of Richmond. Before, that, supplies would be prestaged to aid the evacuation, including portajohns along the route. (Wouldn't they blow over in high winds?) However, VDOT's plan calls for closing the crossharbor tunnels once winds reach 45 m.p.h. Also, VDOT has concept designs and has budgeted preliminary engineering money for similar counterflow measures on U.S. 58. Norfolk Mayor Paul Fraim noted the need for dealing with the transit-dependent in such a crisis, as they wouldn't have cars to evacuate in.

However, the court jester was Virginia Beach Taxpayers Alliance (VBTA) Vice Chairman/Transportation Chairman Reid Greenmun, who showed up to make a fool of himself. His complaining during Public Comments focused on two areas:

1. The composition of the recently formed Citizens Transportation Advisory Committee (CTAC):

a. Did getting passed over for an appointment shatter his delusions of grandeur?

b. He complained about the selection process being "secret". Reid has been around politics long enough that it's implausible that he doesn't know such a process is required by law to be confidential.

c. Out of one side of his mouth, he complained about the VBTA not being supplied information on applicants so it could weigh in on them. Out of the other side of his mouth, he claimed 24 of 28 were special interest representatives. If the VBTA didn't get the former information, how could it ascertain the latter?

2. The TPO has failed reply to 4 By-Laws changes the VBTA requested it make:

a. Let me point out that the recent By-Laws revisions were covered by the TPO Committee...which was dissolved once the reform process was completed.

b. What Greenmun infers is that the TPO should send a formal reply to every suggestion the VBTA sends over. Should the TPO waste Staff time on any other group in such a manner, the VBTA would be first to complain. (The Virginia Beach City Council - rightfully - ignores the monthly rants the VBTA sends it.)

Monday, March 15, 2010

They Don't Get It

The Beacon reported yesterday that the City of Virginia Beach has purchased a teleprompter at the cost of $10,500 for use by the Mayor, City Council, the School Board, et al. The rationale given is that it cost $1,799.18 to rent a teleprompter for the Mayor last year for one event.

Where do I start? Exactly what is the need for a teleprompter? God forbid that City officials in giving remarks have to shuffle notes citizens going to address them. Also, how does purchasing a teleprompter improve the quality of life for residents? (Please, I'd love to hear someone try to explain that one....) Local government is suppose to be about the well-being of the residents, not those sitting in high posts.

What happens when the teleprompter breaks down and needs maintenance? Oh, that's right: we'll then have the "need" for a backup teleprompter....

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Mass Transit To Busch Gardens

Having made the trip to Williamsburg by mass transit buses, I thought I'd post the directions for anyone wanting to go with the season just around the corner. I'll give the directions coming from South Hampton Roads:

1. Take Hampton Roads Transit (HRT) Route 961 to the Newport News Transportation Center (NNTC).

2. From there, take HRT Route 107 to Patrick Henry Mall.

3. Travel HRT Route 116 the length of the route: from Patrick Henry Mall to Lee Hall.

4. At Lee Hall, take the Gray Line of Williamsburg Area Transport (WAT) to Busch Gardens.

Heading towards Williamsburg, get off at the stop at the Anheuser-Busch Brewery. The England entrance of Busch Gardens is within sight. Heading back, the bus stop is on the other side of the road.

There is no WAT service on Sunday. For other Williamsburg attractions, continue on the Gray Line into downtown.

Visiting WAT

On Monday I made the trip to Williamsburg to check out Williamsburg Area Transport (WAT), their mass transit agency. I liked the small operation.

WAT passengers were happy campers. The only complaints I heard were from buses holding for late buses to lineups, then having time to makeup.

WAT offers an $1.50 Day Pass, which it doesn't advertise on it's website. The unusual part is you're not suppose to swipe it for subsequent boardings, but simply show the stamped side to the Operator.

The real fun was that the small agency has open radio. Riding WAT you hear radio chatter that's only a memory at Hampton Roads Transit (HRT).

Most of all, their Operators are very friendly, offering a level of customer service much higher than on HRT.

Finally, I liked their New Flyer buses better than HRT's Gilligs. A nicer interior plus I felt they ride more comfortably than anything in HRT's fleet.

Happy Birthday Timbaland

Today is the 38th birthday of Timbaland. Enjoy!

Saturday, March 6, 2010

64% Believe In The Revised Budget Figure

64% of poll voters believe in the revised construction budget figure of no more than $338 million for Norfolk light rail. 8% have some faith in it, while 27% have none.

The new poll question: should the 1999 merger of TRT and Pentran to form HRT be undone? It's become an issue in the May elections for the Hampton and Newport News City Councils, with some on the Peninsula wanting to go their own way.

I don't like to ask back to back mass transit questions. I thought I was going to get a question out of the RAC strategic planning meeting, but it was pretty dry. I had a phone conversation on the new poll question's issue with an elected official earlier this week, so I thought I'd ask.

RAC March 4, 2010

Virginia Beach's Resort Advisory Commission (RAC) held a strategic planning meeting on Thursday afternoon. It normally does so about once every two years to set new priorities for the Resort Area.

The Top Priorities:

1. Implementation of the Resort Area Strategic Action Plan.

2. Monitor/Review Funding For Resort Projects And Advertising.

3. Doing a Resort Area Master Transportation Plan. (One was recommended by Sasaki in the Resort Area Strategic Action Plan.)

The High Priorities:

1. Green Projects.

2. Corridor Improvements.

3. Dome site redevelopment.

4. Work with City on information sharing.

Each of the RAC's five committees had submitted a list of priorities. In turn, those 23 (in total) were then partially consolidated before voting.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Westboro At The Convention Center

One of the prominent topics of conversation over the weekend was picketers from Westboro Baptist in Kansas bringing their God Hates Fags campaign to Norfolk and Virginia Beach. I had coemployees at work who normally don't discuss such things talking to me about it. I thought it would make a great blog story, so I planned to observe their demonstration this morning at the Virginia Beach Convention Center.

Waking up early, I got online and read how one planned protest never materialized in Norfolk on Monday. Were they still coming? A check of their website still had three Virginia Beach events on the schedule. With the day free (unusual for me) and being already up, I decided I'd still go. After all, I'd kick myself if they showed up and I missed it. I'd go to the convention center, sit on one of the benches across on the south side of 19th Street, and see what happened.

Yards away from the bench, at 8:40 I saw them unloading their gear from a car. There were four of them: three adults, and one boy maybe 11-12 years old. They crossed to the north side of 19th Street and began their protest. Their target, a Navy conference, was going on inside.

In under a minute, the first group of nine counterprotesters arrived. Within a half-hour, it had grown to just over thirty counterprotesters. They roughly fell into four groups. There were liberal pablum-pushers, a few gays, and those who wished to show solidarity with the military who were being protested against. Also, there was a man with a sign that read "Yahweh Hates Christianity" who was yelling at the Westboro contingent.

Nearby was a duo taping the events. Did the counterprotesters think they could bait Westboro's professionals into something?

The Virginia Beach Police Department (VBPD) was present. One officer stood just behind the protesters, a couple were nearby, while patrol cars were regularly heading up and down 19th Street.

At first both the protesters and most of the counterprotesters were on the north side of 19th Street. By 9:10 VBPD had figured out what I had earlier - that such a mix in close proximity was combustible - and the counterprotesters were moved to the south side of 19th Street, with four lanes of asphalt as a buffer.

Around 9:20 the Westboro group left, with the counterprotesters yelling at them on the way out. In the end, no serious incidents.