Residents call for better bus service

Published 10:02 pm Monday, November 11, 2019

Val McKinney said it is unsafe for her to walk home from her job at the Family Dollar on East Washington Street, but without a bus and a means of transportation, she said she has no other alternative at 10 p.m. than to walk home.

McKinney, who lives in Cypress Manor and works a little more than two miles away at the Family Dollar on East Washington Street, said the daytime walk is fine, but because she works an evening shift and isn’t getting off of work until 10 p.m., after the buses stop running, she has to walk home in the dark.

“I get off late because I work the evening shift,” McKinney said. “And there’s no transportation, so I’m walking home. If my sons are working, then there’s no one to meet me, and it’s unsafe.”

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The other issue for her, she said, was the frequency in which the buses come. It eats into her budget and because of that, she said, she has to use public resources to put food on her table. It’s not something she said she is ashamed of, but she wants a more convenient option.

“The other portion for me was not having the convenience of having a bus come every 30 minutes,” McKinney said. “So you’re hopping on these buses trying to go pay bills, trying to get food and supplies for your home to get to the bargains, but it’s taking you an hour to get to one of those destinations, and it wears you out. Then you’re not able to complete, so you opt for convenience by shopping at the local stores, which cost too much money.”

McKinney was one of a group of residents who protested outside the Downtown Transfer Center last week and called for increased bus service, saying it does not currently meet the needs of working families.

Though the city has undertaken its own surveys, Tony Jones, the Suffolk organizer for Virginia Organizing and the rally organizer, said residents responding to its own survey said they were not satisfied with Suffolk Transit.

Elaine Carroll, 61, who lives in the Chorey Park Apartments off of West Constance Road, said she wants to have a stop closer to people who are disabled, who have a more difficult time accessing bus stops and also need extended hours of operation. Carroll said she alternates between using a walker and an electric wheelchair to get to the bus stop, which she said is across the street by Hardee’s. Rainy weather makes the trip to the bus stop more difficult.

“I’m trying to get the buses over our way because the handicapped and the disabled people that live in our building, we’d like to get out early in the morning, and we don’t have no way, really, to get out,” Carroll said.

Hakim Muhammad, 44, lives off of Suburban Drive and represents the ACTION (Active Counseling Toward Issues In Our Community) Foundation, said in his work with people who are just getting out of prison, transportation is a barrier to employment. He said there are too few buses running, and the ones that do don’t run early enough, late enough or frequently enough. For those with jobs that start at 5 or 6 a.m., or end after 6:30 p.m., Muhammad said the buses don’t work for them.

“Dealing with guys coming home from prisons and jails, transportation is a must to get them gainful employment,” Muhammad said. “Without a vital means to get back and forth to work, the transition is that much more difficult for them to not reoffend.”

Most bus routes run from 6:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, but some routes have slightly different times. On Saturdays, bus service for most routes runs from 7:30 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. When running, buses make designated stops each hour.

Virginia Organizing and residents at the rally called for several changes to improve Suffolk Transit. They include:

  • Beginning morning hours at 5 a.m. Monday through Saturday and extending evening hours on those days to 10 p.m.
  • Providing Sunday hours between 7 a.m. and 8 p.m.
  • Researching and updating routes to best meet needs of regular bus riders
  • Providing bus shelters throughout the city
  • Having buses run every 30 minutes
  • Purchasing new buses

Director of Public Works L.J. Hansen said the city has heard from residents over the years about making improvements to the bus service. Suffolk Transit is a division of the city’s Public Works Department.

“We have, over the years, heard a few times that the service hours are challenging for some shift work,” Hansen said. “It is not the most frequent request, though.”

He noted that the city, partnering with the state Department of Rail and Public Transportation, has been involved in a Transit Strategic Plan process to look at bus service and develop plans for service and equipment maintenance and upgrades.

“It is a plan that identifies potential objectives and costs associated with it,” Hansen said. “We have been involved in this process for close to a year. We are getting close to finalizing this plan, and it will then be presented to City Council for their review and eventual adoption.”

Hansen said the city has found no evidence that Virginia Organizing has reached out to the city about bus service, though he said “it is possible that they have spoken informally with the city’s service providing contractor, Virginia Regional Transit.”

Jones said he has had one conversation with a city official, but said he expects to have more. Three people at the rally said they have not spoken with anyone in the city about improving the bus service.

Some of the recommendations from the two surveys taken were to add weekday service hours to two routes, adding a weekday lunch circulator in North Suffolk, and adding Saturday service on two of the routes. There were also recommendations to add on-demand service to the Chuckatuck, Holland and Whaleyville areas, which would allow for connections to downtown.

The city ended its contract with Hampton Roads Transit at the end of 2011 because it was costing it more than $700,000 per year to provide bus service in the city, with about a third of the money going to HRT administration. An HRT efficiency study recommended eliminating two of the city’s four bus routes, which meant it would have paid the same administrative cost for half the service.

In 2012, the city signed a contract with Virginia Regional Transit to provide services in Suffolk.

At the time, Mayor Linda Johnson had said the city’s bus service “has been broken for a long time.”

City spokeswoman Diana Klink said Suffolk Transit is paid for through the Transit System Fund of the operating budget, with the adopted transit budget for the current fiscal year being about $1.7 million, which comes from numerous sources of revenue. They include federal and state assistance, local funds, fares and advertising.

Klink said that while it is listed in the operating budget, it also includes items that might be considered as capital expenses, such as purchasing new buses and making bus stop improvements.