HRT replacement named

Published 11:18 pm Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The city on Wednesday announced a new public transportation service that will begin on Jan. 2.

Virginia Regional Transit, which already operates transportation services in 10 counties on the Eastern Shore and in the Piedmont region of Virginia, has signed a contract to provide services in Suffolk after the city’s breakup with Hampton Roads Transit becomes official Dec. 30.

“I’m very excited,” said Mayor Linda T. Johnson. “Our bus service has been broken for a long time.”

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The city decided during the budget process to end its relationship with HRT, because it was costing more than $700,000 each year, with about a third going to HRT administration. After an efficiency study, Hampton Roads Transit recommended eliminating two of Suffolk’s four routes, which would mean Suffolk was paying the same administrative costs to HRT for only half the service.

“HRT was a regional one-size-fits-all,” Vice Mayor Charles Brown said during a work session on Wednesday.

After a request-for-proposals process, the city found Virginia Regional Transit.

The new service will begin operating the old HRT routes 71 and 74 on Jan. 2. At the same time, it will conduct intensive studies, interviews with public transit customers and other investigations to develop a new public transit system.

“Obviously, this is a great deal for the city of Suffolk,” Councilman Mike Duman said.

Darrell Feasel and Dave Morgan, regional transit directors for Virginia Regional Transit, appeared at Wednesday’s City Council work session to introduce themselves and answer questions.

The company is headquartered in Loudon County, but it will hire a local director, officials said.

The company operates buses similar to those used locally by Senior Services of Southeastern Virginia for its i-Ride service. It also uses trolleys in some of its other service areas, the directors said.

No cost to the city has been nailed down yet. Nor have the routes or fares, though Feasel mentioned a potential fare of 50 cents. That information will be developed as part of the studies the company will do, Suffolk Public Works Director Eric Nielsen said.

After the study is completed, Feasel said, the company will ask the city, “Does this make sense to you?”

Councilman Leroy Bennett asked whether the bus drivers who currently work for HRT would be able to get positions with Virginia Regional Transit.

“They know the area, they know the customers, so we would be interested,” Feasel said, though he noted he could not legally guarantee them jobs.

Faye Artis, who was present at the work session and uses HRT to get around, said she hopes the new operators will talk to the public to get their insight.

“They’re making decisions that affect us, but they don’t include us,” she said, hoping the eliminated routes can be restored. “There’s ways it can be done if they take the time to listen.”