Will dispute put brakes on buses?
By James Peacemaker, Jr. Managing Editor
Jul 12, 2013, 14:11
JAMES PEACEMAKER JR./HOPEWELL NEWS/NEWS-PATRIOT A Petersburg Area Transit bus awaits passengers at the Petersburg Multimodal Center on June 27.
Petersburg officials have put forth a plan that would change several major bus routes that run outside the city, saying it cannot maintain a regional transportation service without other partners helping to foot the bill.
Petersburg Area Transit has stops at Southpark Mall in Colonial Heights, Virginia State University and Fort Lee, but they do not contribute any money toward the service. The city is also looking to reduce or combine other routes and is considering other ways to improve efficiency such as smaller buses. The changes would save the city about $500,000 a year.
The most recent plan would not eliminate the Colonial Heights and VSU routes but would make them self-sufficient, relying only on huge fare increases to pay for the cost of operating them while drastically cutting back the number of times a day the routes run.
Petersburg officials say their options are limited, as it would take a large fare increase to make up that difference unless the changes are made.
It brings up several tough questions that Petersburg City Council will have to weigh in the coming weeks, months and even years. Can the Southpark Mall and VSU routes maintain ridership with a fare that is three times the original price? Should the city pay for routes that benefit VSU students and send city residents to Colonial Heights businesses? Will changing the route in Colonial Heights make funding the service more palatable to leaders there? Will the bus service to Hopewell face the same situation when a massive grant runs out in 2014? Should Petersburg Area Transit make drastic changes to become a truly regional bus service?
Plan to eliminate routes draws backlash
Originally city officials planned to eliminate all routes outside of the city to places that did not contribute financially, including routes to Southpark Mall in Colonial Heights, Virginia State University, Fort Lee, Central State Hospital and Southside Virginia Training Center.
While eliminating some of the routes drew little opposition, other routes drew outrage from numerous Petersburg residents who say they rely on buses to Southpark Mall to earn a living and buses to Virginia State University to further their education.
At a City Council meeting on June 18, more than 30 residents spoke out against the initial plan presented that night to eliminate the routes, some on the verge of tears while others on the verge of yelling. Several people who spoke were disabled or elderly and said they relied on the bus routes for doctor’s visits, jobs or just to remain independent. Two people presented petitions against the changes. The packed crowd inside Union Station applauded at numerous points when people spoke out in opposition, and the meeting had to be called to order. More than a hundred people attended, filling every seat that could fit in the large meeting room and many people lined up around the walls.
Currently, routes include Blandford/Fort Lee/Hopewell Crossing, South Crater Road, Washington Street/Central State Hospital, Walnut Hill, Southpark Mall, Halifax Street, Lee Avenue, City of Hopewell, Ettrick/VSU/Pocahontas Island, County Drive, Mall Plaza and Virginia Avenue. The total cost is $2,447,172. The city gets about $1 million from the federal and state governments and about $450,000 is paid for by fares.
Although the Fort Lee route is a busy one, few people are using it on post. The plan would make it so the bus only stops at the gate and would save about $23,000 a year. Fort Lee said there were no funds available from the federal government. In fact with the sequestration, the base is having furloughs for civilian employees. Fort Lee also has its own taxi service for transportation on post.
Eliminating the Ettrick/VSU/Pocahontas Island route would save about $170,000 a year.
Eliminating of the Colonial Heights route was expected to save $244,000 a year, about one-tenth of Petersburg Area Transit’s entire budget.
Eliminating the stops at Central State Hospital and Southside Virginia Training Center would save $3,776.
There would also be route reductions for Mall Plaza, Virginia Avenue and Washington Street, and Lee Avenue routes. The Virginia Avenue school service would be eliminated and the Halifax Route would be every 30 minutes. Total savings on these routes would be $90,636.
The Lee Avenue and Washington Street routes would be merged on Saturdays for an annual savings of $39,276.
The total money saved from the route cuts would be $519,763.
But backlash against the plan to cut service was loud and clear at the meeting.
Del. Rosalyn Dance spoke out against the changes, saying the city needs to weigh not just the cost benefits, but also the people. Dance, a former mayor of Petersburg, said the bus service to VSU is important for education and said other routes are important too for people to stay employed and self-sufficient.
JAMES PEACEMAKER JR./HOPEWELL NEWS/NEWS-PATRIOT A woman speaks out at a Petersburg City Council meeting June 18 to discuss the Petersburg Area Transit routes. More than 30 people spoke out to save the routes.
The city “needs to raise up, not lower the possibilities for people,” she said.
Jayne Sampson, a single parent who works two jobs at Southpark Mall, said she needs the bus and questioned why the city would consider cutting mass transit when other places are expanding it.
Hannah Parrish said she has four children and depends on the bus to get to her job at the Southpark Mall Chick-Fil-A.
“You take away this bus, you take away my livelihood,” she said.
She said that if the bus route is taken away, the city will just have to pay more for social service programs for the unemployed.
Many said they could not afford to pay $8 or $9 it costs for a taxi to take them one way.
Others said that it will just create more crime if you eliminate employment and educational opportunities.
Several VSU students spoke out against eliminating their route and noted that the plan was brought up while students were out for the summer.
Bernadette Williams said her son was just accepted to attend VSU and now she wonders how he will be able to get there.
City Council reacts
Petersburg City Council members were not happy with the plan either.
Treska Wilson-Smith said the route into Colonial Heights is a relationship builder.
“You take that bus route away, we are severing that relationship,” she said.
She said that doctor’s offices and restaurants have moved away from Petersburg and that people now go to Colonial Heights for these services.
“Our people here are in dire need of that Southpark Mall route,” she said.
She noted that the Southside Virginia Training Center is expected to close in July 2014, and said the stop should continue until then. She said the city needs to go back to the drawing board, and she won’t approve any measure that would eliminate the VSU or Southpark Mall routes.
She said they need to consider combining routes and reducing frequency.
Mayor Brian Moore said the city needs to consider fare increases as well.
Councilman W. Howard Myers questioned why the city should spend money to encourage Petersburg residents to spend their money elsewhere.
“When I hear someone say that the doctors have moved away, the businesses moved away, and all these things have moved away to Colonial Heights and then we encourage our citizens to go to Colonial Heights and spend their dollars and cents and we lose the revenue here in Petersburg where we live, and then one sits here and wonders why we have to reduce the routes,” he said.
Councilman Ken Pritchett said that Petersburg residents should voice their concerns in Colonial Heights as well.
“I’d love to see all these people go to the Colonial Heights City Council meeting and present this to them since they are unwilling to participate and are benefactors in the revenue,” he said.
Pritchett also encouraged people to support local restaurants and other businesses.
“Just think if all the people who are riding the bus to Colonial Heights would spend some of that money in the city of Petersburg,” he said.
Vice Mayor Horace Webb said the people should go to Colonial Heights merchants and ask for their support for the bus routes. He also said there should be coordination between the localities to make the bus service successful.
“We can’t run it for free,” he said.
Council members called for a new plan to be presented at a special meeting the next week.
Back to the drawing board
City officials came back June 27 and presented a plan that would save the Colonial Heights and VSU routes, but not with city money. It would make them self-sufficient, relying only on huge fare increases to pay for the cost of operating them while drastically cutting back the number of times a day the routes are run.
The changes would make it so that instead of a bus stopping at the VSU dining hall every hour from 6:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., it would only stop at VSU at 7:15 a.m., 1:15 p.m. and 5:15 p.m.
And instead of base fare being $1.50 it would jump to $5. It would also use a passenger van rather than a bus. The times could also change when VSU is not in session.
The Colonial Heights route would change so the bus would no longer stop every hour from 6:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. It would run only at peak hours: 9:15 a.m., 10:15 a.m., 1:15 p.m. and 5:15 p.m. The cost would jump from $1.50 to $4.
The plan would also change the transfer policy, reducing the time period from two hours to one. It would also only allow transfers at Petersburg Station, Walmart, AMF Bowling, Shiloh Library and Food Lion in Hopewell for 20 cents. It would also eliminate the one-hour extended service on Fridays and Saturdays because it has an average of fewer than three riders. It would save $30,000.
VSU Chief of Staff Cortez Dial praised the effort to save the route to the university.
He said the morning and evening buses were important to people who work there. He also said a midday route was important for students.
“We have some people who really need [the bus service],” he said.
Councilwoman Treska Wilson-Smith said the fare is too steep. Councilman Horace Webb agreed, saying $5 is a lot of money when you are in school.
Mayor Moore noted they were making progress and liked the idea of having a VSU-branded van to transport students.
Council said they needed to hear more options and would discuss the issue again at a later date.
The view from Colonial Heights
At the June 18 meeting, Petersburg Mayor Brian Moore summed up the challenge that Petersburg Area Transit is facing.
“The real issue is that we are trying to run a regional transit system, trying to get the regional support,” he said. But support isn’t there.
Moore said the city needs to consider all its options.
“At some point we might have to talk with Richmond and forming a full, true regional transit system because its not fair for the Petersburg citizens and taxpayers to bear the full brunt of a regional transit system. Everyone benefits. Everyone has to share,” he said.
But Colonial Heights City Manager Thomas Mattis said officials there are looking at it from a different perspective.
“It really is your simple cost-benefit analysis,” he said.
Mattis said that both cities are facing tough financial times and he understands Petersburg’s effort to reduce costs, but he pointed out that the bus route is set up to only serve Petersburg residents.
“If you are asking us to pay for it, show us where our citizens are getting benefit ... from a bus route that only goes from their bus station to the mall and back,” Mattis said.
Because the bus doesn’t have stops near any homes in Colonial Heights, “I don’t know how a resident of Colonial Heights could derive any benefit from that,” he said.
Mattis said other localities have asked for data on if their residents are using the bus service.
“Everyone has said the same thing ‘Tell me how my citizens are using it.’ And they can’t do that,” he said.
Mattis also said the officials with Southpark Mall don’t see a big impact from the bus service.
“We reached out directly to the owners of the mall and they said on the record it doesn’t have any benefit to them,” he said.
JAMES PEACEMAKER JR./HOPEWELL NEWS/NEWS-PATRIOT The Petersburg Multimodal Transit Center has a waiting area for Greyhound buses as well as Petersburg Area Transit buses.
When the route was started it was hoped that it could bring Fort Lee soldiers to the mall, but as it is now, soldiers would have to take one route all the way into Petersburg and another route back to Colonial Heights.
“A soldier will do that one time and figure out I can about walk it as fast as I can do that,” Mattis said.
The city could be supportive of an express route directly from Fort Lee to Colonial Heights, he said, but then it doesn’t make sense for Petersburg to run a bus that never goes into Petersburg.
He said some changes could make the route more appealing for Colonial Heights.
“Now a bus that made a more circuitous route and had multiple stops at different places in town where a person from Colonial Heights could get on the bus in Colonial Heights and ride it to another spot in Colonial Heights, now if you came up with that kind of plan, that at least would get some kind of traction with some members of the council,” he said.
Petersburg City Manager William Johnson III said he and Mattis discussed conducting a survey using interns to collect information from businesses on the Boulevard in Colonial Heights. He said that data could be presented to Colonial Heights council to try and get support for a bus line.
Mattis said he doesn’t think Colonial Heights has ever contributed money toward PAT and said the problem lies in the very foundation of the service.
“They may be operating a quasi-regional bus service, but they should’ve asked everyone in the region if they wanted to pay for it before they started it. That’s the inherent problem here,” he said.
Petersburg Area Transit was started in 1977 when the city took over Tri-City Coaches, a private bus service that could no longer afford to operate, according to a Transit Development Plan from 2010. It started with nine routes through Petersburg, Colonial Heights, Hopewell, and parts of Chesterfield and Prince George, including Fort Lee.
By 1993, routes only ran in Petersburg and Ettrick. The 1993 Transit Development Plan recommended a regional authority and adding service back to other localities.
Currently, Petersburg Area Transit is run by the city Department of Public Works. Without a regional authority, it means that even if Colonial Heights contributed money, the city doesn’t have a voice in how the transit system is operated. It would still be under direct control of Petersburg.
With Greater Richmond Transit Company, for example, it is owned by the city of Richmond and Chesterfield, while Henrico purchases services from it.
Still, Mattis said he doesn’t want the bus route to end.
“It’s one of many things that represents our partnership with Petersburg as a community that we are connected on and I’d hate to see it go away,” he said.
Fight is down the road for Hopewell
The dispute that Colonial Heights and Petersburg are having now could foreshadow a fight for Hopewell and Petersburg next year.
PAT buses came to Hopewell in September 2011, the first time the city has had service since the 1970s. The route, which goes from Petersburg all the way out to Route 10, has been possible through a three-year grant for about $500,000 -- 80 percent from the federal government and 20 percent from the state.
Petersburg has a brand new Multimodal Transit Center where buses load and unload passengers for transfers. The $17 million project was completed in 2010.
But the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality grant is meant to jumpstart mass transit, not be an ongoing source of funding. The grant will not be renewable.
That leaves Petersburg and Hopewell to debate who will pay for the route or if it will continue at all.
Petersburg Area Transit is seeking additional state and federal funding for the route, but if Hopewell wants to continue the 10-mile route, it could cost an estimated $232,500 to operate with the same number of passengers and 29 stops.