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How Hampton Roads leaders are looking at transit to help boost the region’s economy

As leaders look to transit as a way to boost the region's economy, extensions of Norfolk's Tide light rail are still on the table, including potentially stretching into Chesapeake.
Ryan Murphy
As leaders look to transit as a way to boost the region's economy, extensions of Norfolk's Tide light rail are still on the table, including potentially stretching into Chesapeake.

Hampton Roads leaders say strong transit is key to attracting companies, while new development has cities like Chesapeake reexamining public transportation’s value.

When Hampton Roads leaped into the public competition to host Amazon’s second headquarters, its application included a laundry list of the region’s best features and the changes it would make for the megacorporation.

There were promises that if Amazon needed a huge campus location, Hampton Roads could run a water taxi and dedicated bus line for Amazon employees to Suffolk. If the company wanted to be close to the beach, there were already plans to build light rail to connect downtown Norfolk with the Virginia Beach Oceanfront

(At that point, Virginia Beach voters and leaders had rejected such an extension in a referendum vote two years prior, forfeiting state and federal funding).

That part of the region’s pitch was clear: Hampton Roads was willing to build a more robust transit system to attract big business.

Amelia Ross-Hammond, now a Virginia Beach council member and commissioner for Hampton Roads Transit, recalls the lack of strong transit was one of the big strikes against Hampton Roads when Amazon reviewed the applications.

“I said, ‘If some big company comes, and we don't have this infrastructure…’” Ross-Hammond said while riding an HRT bus to Tidewater Community College’s campus to promote ridership in April. “Well, they came, we spent good money with the consultants, and one of the reasons we didn't get (Amazon) was we didn't have a highly developed transit system. That was like the number three thing that they really needed.”

Northern Virginia, which ultimately won the project, called HQ2, also promised major transit improvements.

Despite setbacks and historical disinterest in public transportation from parts of the region, there’s a growing recognition from business leaders and economic development officials that transit can be an important tool to help grow the region's lagging economy.

A new look at transit

Bryan Stephens said everything in the business environment is either an inhibitor holding things back or an enabler encouraging growth.

“Public transportation right now is an inhibitor to our economy,” said Stephens, who leads the Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce.

Since the pandemic, Hampton Roads Transit’s bus lines have been running at reduced rates, lengthening waits at bus stops. Even before the pandemic, the federal Bureau of Transportation Statistics reported that less than 2% of the region’s workforce commuted via public transit between 2010 and 2014.

Leaders like Stephens said a stronger transit system says it can help with everything from getting seasonal workers to the Oceanfront to recruiting new businesses. And he says it is “an imperative” for addressing one of the biggest boogeymen for the regional economy — the ongoing exodus of young workers.

Experts have sounded alarm bells about Hampton Roads’ population declines. Stephens said the region’s losing 60% of its college graduates and needs to pull out all the stops to keep them here.

“When you look at creating a sense of place, which is what we need to do, think about having robust public transportation, light rail, buses, bicycle paths, all the things that the younger workforce want. We need to create that right here in Hampton Roads,” Stephens said. “We don't have that right now. Tampa has it. Charleston has it. Charlotte has it. Denver has it.”

Data shows Millennials are more likely to use public transit than older generations, and that 40% of Gen Z are entering the workforce without a driver’s license.

Some of those young workers are pushing for better transportation options locally.

“I think that transit is a good way to attract growth, but it's also a good way to mitigate some of the more negative effects of growth,” said 23-year-old Max Lichtenstein.

Lichtenstein started Tidewater Transit Advocacy after returning to Virginia Beach from Blacksburg, where he used transit to get all over the city as a student at Virginia Tech.

“Having transit as an amenity you can advertise is, to a lot of people, especially our generation, the more up-and-coming younger people, a very big benefit to have,” he said. “Saying ‘You don't need to drive downtown every single day of the week,’ is going to be a pro for a lot of people.”

Virginia Beach Councilwoman and HRT commissioner Amelia Ross-Hammond rides the bus on April 22 to promote ridership.
Ryan Murphy
Virginia Beach Councilwoman and HRT commissioner Amelia Ross-Hammond rides the bus to promote ridership.

Studies show that spending on transit can translate to big economic benefits.

The National Association of Realtors found in 2014 that the presence of high-capacity transit improves property values. Other studies have shown access to public transit facilitates the creation of new businesses.The World Bank says being able to move around a region more easily leads to better wages for workers.

And the American Public Transportation Association estimates every dollar spent on transit translates to five dollars in economic return.

Stephens said Hampton Roads’ regional transit system is “grossly underfunded.”

He’s right, at least compared to virtually every other major metro area in the U.S.

Jacksonville — a metro with a slightly smaller population than Hampton Roads with a similar profile as a Navy town with substantial suburban sprawl — spent more than $180 million this year compared to Hampton Roads Transit’s $125.5 million annual budget.

HRT Deputy CEO Brian Smith said the agency “has ranked at the bottom of the list” for the levels of service it provides compared to other transit agencies in major metros.

“We have, as a region, historically invested less per capita on public transportation than many of the regions that people often compare us to, whether it's Jacksonville, or Charlotte or Kansas City,” Smith said.

“In order to build out a system and provide levels of service that we hear that people want (and) our businesses are looking for when they're thinking about relocating to a region and continuing to grow economically, it's going to require sufficient funding.”

Big suburbs, little spending

Part of HRT’s struggle is how it gets that funding.

For decades, the region didn’t receive dedicated support from the state. The General Assembly approved money in 2020 to develop express service along what HRT calls “regional backbone” routes connecting to major employers like Newport News Shipbuilding and medical centers.

About 40% of HRT’s budget comes from the cities where it runs service. Every city served by HRT decides how much service it wants to pay for, leaving uneven service from place to place in a region defined by its porous borders.

The area’s sprawling suburban cities pay less on transit per capita than their more dense neighbors. Virginia Beach, with a quarter of the region’s population, spends about a fifth per capita compared to neighboring Norfolk.

Suffolk doesn’t contribute at all to HRT, instead running its own city-bound bus system, though the city will benefit from one of HRT’s regional backbone routes connecting to Suffolk’s Amazon warehouse.

And Chesapeake — which recently became the second most populous city in the state after Virginia Beach — spends the least, both in total amount and in terms of per-capita spending.

That’s translated to transit systems with fewer routes and less frequency that many find difficult to use.

Mary Lou Burke is a retired high school teacher who lives in Chesapeake’s Greenbrier area. The first thing she did when she retired in 2022 was sell her car.

“(I) didn't really want the expenses of it. I really don't like driving in the Hampton Roads traffic one bit. And I'm also an environmentalist, and I believe in equity. And I just thought that transit was something I wanted to support. So I bicycle, take the transit system, or walk pretty much everywhere I need to go,” she said.

Burke said Greenbrier has enough of what she needs in close enough proximity that she can manage it. But riding the bus can be a big hassle, especially when she needs to cross city lines, since bus lines in Chesapeake start shutting down at 5:30 in the afternoon.

“My husband and I, we like to take Amtrak in Norfolk. We can get there by bus, but whether we can get there early enough to catch an early morning train, or whether we can get home from a late arriving train, like in the evening especially, you can't do it,” Burke says.

Chesapeake wants to be the center of it all

Car-centric Chesapeake is now taking a good, hard look at bettering the transit system as it takes more big swings at economic development.

Chesapeake’s suburban-style development since the 1960s meant “the car was king,” said city economic development director Steve Wright. Mass transit was an afterthought.

But he said recent changes in the city’s development patterns have Chesapeake reevaluating the value of transit. The creation of Summit Pointe, a new mixed-use development built around the headquarters of Chesapeake-based Fortune 500-company Dollar Tree, was a notable catalyst in the shift.

“Historically, transit has been somewhat stigmatized,” Wright said. “There's a tendency … to think that transit is for segments of our population that have fewer resources. But you know, at the end of the day, many people want to get from point A to point B, and transit, I think, is just another option to do so. And that's how it's viewed in other places in the country and in the world.”

When talking up the city to potential businesses, Wright and his staff emphasize Chesapeake’s central location within the region. It’s the only city on the Southside that borders every other Southside city.

“When companies or employers are trying to determine where they will operate their business, they want to operate their business in an area where they have the best access to employees, the best access to the over 1.8 million people that we have here within the region,” Wright said.

“It's critically important for Chesapeake now to start considering mass transit, because we want to be able to make sure that when we're talking to companies, we can give them the access to the workforce that they need.”

He said connecting the different centers of activity, like Summit Pointe, and moving workers and shoppers quicker and easier will be key to Chesapeake’s long-term economic success.

HRT's director of transit development, Sherri Dawson, shows the public concepts for new routes for transit in Chesapeake. Getting feedback on those routes is the first stage of potential expansion of the system.
Ryan Murphy
HRT's director of transit development, Sherri Dawson, shows the public concepts for new routes for transit in Chesapeake. Getting feedback on those routes is the first stage of potential expansion of the system.

To that end, Chesapeake and HRT are currently working on what’s called a corridor study - the first step in a long process that may result in more robust transit in the city and potentially even an extension of the light rail system currently confined to Norfolk.

Sherri Dawson, HRT’s Director of Transit Development, is overseeing the Connecting Chesapeake corridor study. She spent one afternoon in April on the sidewalk in Summit Pointe getting feedback from workers and residents on where they actually need to get to in Chesapeake and beyond.

Dawson pointed to a series of maps that looked like they were covered in colorful cobwebs - an array of potential routes, any of which could end up the subject of further study. Dawson said the biggest requests have been routes to quickly connect to the Oceanfront and Naval Station Norfolk.

Getting feedback on this initial corridor study will wrap up next spring, after which HRT will bring recommendations to Chesapeake’s City Council. That body will then decide which routes should get a deeper analysis and planning.

The whole process could take about a decade until potential riders are seeing changes on the ground.

“Let the results speak for themselves”

HRT Deputy CEO Brian Smith said there’s been an either-or perspective on investing in transportation infrastructure like roads and bridges or investing in transit in Hampton Roads.That’s shifted to an “all-of-the-above approach” in recent years.

“I think that over time, there has been more of a realization that public transportation is a vital part of the overall transportation network,” he said.

That regional funding for these regional backbone express routes is part of that recognition, helping workers better get to centers of employment.

But even with more funding, HRT is still running into roadblocks. It’s rolled out 757 Express lines on the Peninsula, but hasn’t been able to recruit enough people with commercial drivers’ licenses to expand the routes to the Southside.

Many routes in the region are still running at reduced frequencies, a cutback plan implemented at the start of the pandemic. Driver shortages mean HRT hasn’t been able to restore those reduced routes. The agency is currently about 50 drivers short of what it would need to restore service to pre-pandemic levels.

The lack of drivers has also been holding up efforts to increase frequency on routes in Norfolk — a redesign that’s been ready to implement since 2021.

Wright, Chesapeake’s economic development head, said what many do when asked about riding the bus: “I would love to take mass transit, if I could be absolutely certain that if I leave my house at a certain time, I'm going to arrive at my destination at a certain time.”

That frequency and reliability is a major issue in the transit business, Smith said, with 15-minute service being the benchmark.

Smith says the 757 Express routes, which aim for that, could be the first step toward a renewed interest and investment in regional transit.

“As we continue to roll out that regional backbone and provide reliable, consistent bus service in this case, then that may lead to people saying, ‘How can we build on this?’” Smith said. “I think one thing is focusing on continuing to provide reliable service, and let the results speak for themselves.”

Ryan is WHRO’s business and growth reporter. He joined the newsroom in 2021 after eight years at local newspapers, the Daily Press and Virginian-Pilot. Ryan is a Chesapeake native and still tries to hold his breath every time he drives through the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel.

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