Townes stresses, “But the bottom line is, because of our APTA association, we came in with knowledge, we came in prepared, we were able to advocate for projects, we were able to communicate to the decision makers the need for the projects, the process for getting them funded.” He continues, “My mayor from Newport News particularly became very knowledgeable about what he needed to do and he used that knowledge to get the favor of the transit project.”
Formation of HRT
Hampton Roads Transit is in a region of seven independent cities, but it’s really one big urban area. When the area wasn’t built up to one urban area, it worked with two separate agencies. But as Townes explains, the visionary people understood that the region was growing and that, in terms of public transportation, the region needed to be looked at as one; it was going to be impossible to do with two transit agencies.
“Two agencies also created a natural sense of competition for funding, principally at the state level,” Townes says. “They came together on the basis that it’s good for the region to look at one agency that can advance major transit goals and obviously, the vision was to start a light rail system and grow it into a regional rail transportation network.”
Not only was there the natural competition between two agencies, the governmental structure of Virginia sets up natural competition between jurisdictions. In Virginia, every community is separate from every other community, Townes explains. And, being a Dillon’s Rule state, no community can raise any fee or assess any tax without the express permission of the Virginia General Assembly. Townes adds, “Virginia is a state where our governor serves one term and is a lame duck the day he or she is elected.
“Despite all those conflicts, we looked in Northern Virginia and we saw that in terms of transportation, and specifically public transit, they had a way of getting together before each Virginia General Assembly session and arguing among themselves and developing a consensus and coming to Richmond and advocating for that consensus to be very successful in attracting state resources to support public transportation needs.” He adds, “Far more successful than Hampton Roads.”
By eliminating the additional layer of competition between two agencies in the region, they could overcome that and achieve some of the success that they saw happening in Northern Virginia. “I think both of those visions have turned out to be reality,” Townes states. “We are in construction for light rail and we now have a much greater, robust, full voice in the Virginia General Assembly and we are achieving significant support from the Virginia General Assembly, including enhanced financial support.”
In Townes’ candid way he does say of the two agencies merging, “We needed to improve and advance public transportation. A goal we still have to achieve. We haven’t gotten there by any stretch yet; we’re working on it.”
Hampton Roads Transit was formed in October 1999, after the merger between Pentran and TRT. It serves the cities of Chesapeake, Hampton, Newport News, Norfolk, Portsmouth, Suffolk and Virginia Beach, servicing an area population of 1.3 million.
“The seven cities came together under state law to form HRT,” says Townes. “The state law requires that the transportation district has a method for allocating the cost of revenues among its members. “ As Townes describes it, the cities come to the “transit store” and buy services from HRT. “It’s HRT’s job to put it together and make it operate in a regional fashion.
“The bad news is, because we don’t have a dedicated source of funds and because we’re looking for general fund money to fund transit operations for seven municipalities, it’s almost impossible to grow transit service,” he states. “It’s difficult because the cities are under a lot of strains for municipal services. It’s not that they don’t want to run transit, it’s just the way it works out.”
Talking to Townes, it is clear HRT is headed in the right direction and still has a lot of hard work ahead. It was hard work and strong belief that got it as far as it is today. “The conventional belief was that HRT would never make it through the New Starts process and that the project would never receive federal approval,” he says. “We believed in the project, we believed in our region, we know that the statement of purpose and need is real and it was, in a matter of working, very hard to give complete, honest information to the FTA and to advocate to the FTA and Congress to understand the tremendous growth in this region.”