Overcoming Challenges, Seizing Opportunities

Hampton Roads Transit (HRT) serves six of Virginia’s ten largest cities: Chesapeake, Hampton, Newport News, Norfolk, Portsmouth and Virginia Beach. We’re the largest public transit system in Virginia outside the DC Metro area. Until 2020, however, HRT was one of the few mid-sized agencies in the nation with no dedicated funding source at the local or regional level.

By William Harrell | 8/4/2023

William Harrell
Hampton Roads Transit, VA

WHILE THIS PRESENTED SOME challenges to sustain existing services and a state of good repair, it made it even more difficult to expand and improve services in a meaningful way.

That changed in 2020. After years of planning and consensus building, the Virginia General Assembly authorized the creation of the Hampton Roads Regional Transit Program and Fund. In doing so, policy makers affirmed that a balanced and effective multimodal transportation system is essential to the region’s economic growth, vitality and competitiveness.

The goal of the new program is to provide a modern, safe and efficient core network of services, all supported by a mix of new funding. This includes new technologies, expanded customer amenities, upgrades at major transfer hubs, new buses and increased frequencies along major corridors.

I believe the Hampton Roads Regional Transit Program embodies much of what we know is true about the enduring importance of public transportation in communities across the country. Citizens everywhere deserve access to safe, reliable and affordable transportation options.

The cities that make up Hampton Roads, just like elsewhere, need quality transit to support access to jobs, education and workforce development opportunities, attractive and sustainable placemaking, and a host of other positive outcomes.

Our most recent bus service changes have included operating 15-minute frequencies for the first time ever on some corridors, with ridership up more than 20 percent. And new passenger shelters have also been installed at more than 165 locations.

“Existing state of good repair needs are significant, and nationwide aspirations for large-scale electrification far exceed today’s authorized funding levels”

Thankfully, the crisis days of the pandemic are over. But many challenges are lingering in a post-pandemic world. Inflationary pressures, supply chain concerns, workforce availability and shifting commuting patterns represent just a few.

I believe our next horizon is one focused on resilience and sustainability. This is oriented to our long-term success. It is also well aligned to our mission “to connect Hampton Roads with transportation solutions that are reliable, safe, efficient and sustainable” and our vision as “a progressive mobility agency that promotes prosperity across Hampton Roads through teamwork and collaboration.” As we continue working to implement the Hampton Roads Regional Transit Program, this work will include:

  • Deploying a viable and sustainable mix of services.
  • Embracing and leveraging new technologies that make us more efficient and effective in meeting customers’ needs.
  • Continuing to solidify and phase-in increased service levels across our bus network that fit the evolving marketplace and growth potential.
  • Expanding partnerships and innovative models for paratransit and other on-demand services.
  • Carefully implementing electrification as funding becomes available.
  • Establishing and maintaining fiscal stability and agility to meet future challenges. 

There are, of course, significant challenges in each of these areas, common for agencies across the country. Funding always rises to the top of concerns. The new regional funding established here in 2020 is just one essential part.

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) certainly bolstered federal funding to historic levels. It’s heartening to see progress being made with grant awards and new projects moving forward. Just last month, FTA announced 130 grant awards totaling nearly $1.7 billion for the current round of Bus and Bus Facilities and Low/No Emission programs. HRT is thankful to receive $25 million to support the replacement of our extremely outdated Oceanfront trolley facility and new facility electrification infrastructure that will support 100 buses.

The funding afforded through the BIL is certainly worth celebrating. It’s now imperative for Congress to follow through with appropriations that meet authorized levels. With an eye toward sustainability, policy makers and stakeholders already recognize the need to advocate for full implementation of the BIL and begin planning for what’s next. Existing state of good repair needs are significant, and nationwide aspirations for large-scale electrification far exceed today’s authorized funding levels.

Ongoing workforce recruitment and retention, especially for bus operators, also remains a challenge. Thankfully, we’ve begun to see some positive growth in this mission-critical area. We’ve increased jobs fairs and outreach; streamlined hiring; increased wages and benefits, including bonuses; and provided wrap-around support for applicants, such as free CDL prep courses; and new hires.

I’m tremendously proud of the work Team HRT has done over the past several years. I’m sure my colleagues across the industry would say the same of their teams. HRT and its member cities have remained committed to a vision of a core regional bus system and mix of mobility options, including ferries, light rail and on-demand services, that will significantly improve access to jobs, support economic growth and enhance quality of life.

Like our peers nationwide, we’ve weathered the unprecedented disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic. Remaining vigilant, it’s time to turn a page. Our communities are counting on us, and I know we’re up for the challenges and opportunities ahead.