City unveils transit plan

Published 9:39 pm Thursday, December 26, 2019

Suffolk Transit buses would operate more frequently, routes would be modified and new services would be introduced under a Transit Strategic Plan recently adopted by council.

Public Works Director L.J. Hansen presented the plan from consultant Foursquare ITP to council at its Dec. 18 work session, and it adopted it in its consent agenda by a 7-0 vote.

The Virginia General Assembly, as of 2018, requires transit agencies operating in urban areas to develop a transit strategic plan to make sure services meet the mobility needs of residents.

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“We wanted to know what our current riders thought, and we wanted to know the barriers to people that are not riding,” Hansen said.

Among the proposed improvements:

  • Expanding weekday service hours on two routes that do not currently run Suffolk Transit’s full 6:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. operating time
  • Adding Saturday service on two routes
  • Increasing frequency of service along North Main Street and East Washington Street to every 30 minutes
  • Implementing a new fixed-route service
  • Introducing commuter and on-demand service
  • Realigning routes to create more direct and accessible services

Some changes, such as realigning routes on four routes, expanding weekday service, adding Saturday service and running buses every 30 minutes along the North Main Street corridor are proposed for fiscal year 2021.

Additional changes, such as more realigning of routes, further weekday route expansion, increasing the frequency of buses on East Washington Street and additional Saturday service are not proposed until fiscal year 2024.

“We had these long, loopy routes, and while they had served a lot of area and they served the purpose of the time,” Hansen said, “as Suffolk Transit continues to grow and become more adept at what it is that we’re doing, what we’re finding is that it’s causing some issues, specifically as it relates to on-time service and also the amount of time that somebody waits at a bus (stop), waiting for a bus.

“A big part of what we’re doing here is realigning routes so, instead of having long, loopy routes, we’ll have a bus that goes out and back along the very similar corridor. That’s going to result in shorter wait times.”

Hansen noted that one current route results in that bus making 96 train track crossings per day, which can result to up to an hour of lost service.

“We’re trying to get away from that,” Hansen said. “We want to get back to on-time service, and give riders something that they can count on when they need to be there.”

The proposed North Suffolk Lunch Circulator would not begin until fiscal year 2026, while commuter service between Windsor and downtown Suffolk, and on-demand zones in Chuckatuck, Whaleyville and/or Holland are not proposed until fiscal year 2028.

Proposed capital improvements in the transit plan include the completion of a new maintenance facility by fiscal year 2027. The plan notes that funding for the 10-year plan period has been identified to improve sidewalks, lighting, signage and possibly adding cameras at some bus stops, as well as replacing vehicles and expanding the bus fleet by two additional light duty buses, three vans and one SUV as a support vehicle.

Suffolk Transit’s capital needs are expected to total $4.28 million in the next 10 years, which includes a maintenance facility, fleet replacements and expansion and amenity improvements, largely funded with federal money, Hansen said.

“Riders, non-riders and the operators themselves were generally supportive of the recommendations we came up with,” Hansen said. “Riders and non-riders were generally supportive, to very supportive, of extended hours of service on weekdays and Saturdays. … They said they were more inclined to having more hours of service, and more service during those hours.”

Hansen said the drivers were “generally neutral to not-supportive” of extended hours of service on weekdays and Saturdays.

“That’s the feedback they were getting,” Hansen said.

However, it has received feedback from the group Virginia Organizing called for extended and more frequent daily bus service. The group organized a protest at the Downtown Transfer Center in November asking the city to address those issues because they said the current service does not meet the needs of working families.

Councilman Donald Goldberg asked whether any of Suffolk Transit’s improvements would improve bus shelters.

Hansen said it is included in the capital improvements, but shelters could only be put in areas with enough space for them, and those can only be put on public property. He said the city is also looking at adding benches at stops.

“The overall issue with shelters is that we try to do it fairly,” Hansen said. “So, we look at those stops that have the greatest density where we’re picking up people, and those are the ones that we prioritize first.”