Mass transit corridor options to be released in coming weeks

Theresa Clift
Contact Reportertclift@dailypress.com
Newport News proposes corridor that runs mostly adjacent to the CSX tracks

Hampton Roads Transit is preparing to release a dozen corridor options that show where a mass transit system could travel in Newport News and Hampton.

The corridor options, which will be released in the coming weeks, are the product of an ongoing 18-month Peninsula Corridor Study that will ultimately select which mode of mass transit is the best fit for the Peninsula and most likely to earn federal funding: Bus rapid transit (generally the least expensive), light rail (like the Tide on the Southside), or streetcars.

"Bus rapid transit will likely show itself to be the most appropriate," said Samantha Sink, a transit development planner for Hampton Roads Transit.

Referred to as "light rail on wheels," bus rapid transit uses buses that look somewhat like two regular HRT buses stuck together. They can run in existing traffic lanes on streets that are transformed into designated "bus rapid transit" lanes by being painted, fenced off or separated by a raised barrier. Bus rapid transit can also run on an entirely new right of way that is built, similar to the way light rail does. The system can also be a combination of the two.

Rapid transit buses travel faster than city buses by having their own designated right of way, at least for the majority of the route. At some points, they can also share the road with regular traffic.

On the Peninsula, the project would aim to alleviate congestion, attract millennials and new companies, and accommodate population growth, said Sink.

In addition to selecting a mode, the study is also evaluating a variety of corridors where the system could travel to transport Peninsula residents to various destinations faster than the regular city buses.

Many of the potential corridors connect the downtowns of both cities, Newport News Shipbuilding, City/Tech centers, the Southeast Community, Peninsula Town Center, Phoebus and the Coliseum Central area.

The bus would travel mostly on local streets in an existing lane that would be dedicated for the service under most of the potential corridor options.

Newport News proposes route, Hampton waits to weigh in

Newport News city staff have proposed a system that would travel mostly on a new right of way that would be built adjacent to the CSX railroad tracks on land the city owns or has easements to. The city's proposed corridor shows the system traveling a route of up to 25 miles, from downtown to Lee Hall, while spurring off to serve City/Tech centers and into Hampton.

City Manager Jim Bourey says he and his staff prefer that option because the bus could move faster.

"A bus rapid transit line can be designed and built almost exclusively on a separate right of way with very few (road) crossings, therefore it could achieve a very high speed," said Bourey. "That would be a real advantage for some people."

HRT included Newport News' proposed corridor among the 12 options that will soon be released.

The city of Hampton is waiting to weigh in with a preference for a mode or corridor until the study is complete, said Keith Cannady, the city's planning services manager.

"It's still early, and part of the purpose of the study is to figure that stuff out," said Cannady. "It's a good process in the sense that we're all at the table."

Cannady said he is open to the city dedicating an existing lane of Mercury Boulevard for the bus rapid transit in some spots. CSX also has tracks that run adjacent to Pembroke Avenue that could be explored as an option to build an adjacent bus rapid transit right of way, similar to what Newport News wants to do, Cannady said.

Tough competition

The project will eventually be competing for federal funding through the Federal Transit Administration's New Starts program, along with other mass transit proposals from around the country.

The average mass transit project costs about $1 billion, Sink said. About four projects are chosen each year for federal funding.

If chosen, the federal program typically funds about half the cost of the project, or $500 million. For the rest, HRT will apply for state funds through the new House Bill 2 (now called Smart Scale) program, and local funds from Newport News and/or Hampton, Sink said.

"We want to make sure we have a project that is competitive in the federal arena," said Ray Amoruso, HRT's chief planning and development officer.

To that end, the HRT Transportation District Commission hired Raleigh, N.C.-based Kimley-Horn and Associates in February for $1.4 million to conduct the 18-month study.

When the study wraps up in about a year, it will have determined a total cost, a mode (most likely bus rapid transit), and the 12 corridors will be narrowed down to two or three using research and public input, Sink said.

The project will then go to both city councils and staff for evaluation, and an environmental study will begin, followed by engineering/design.

Construction is at least five years away, and the opportunity to ride it is at least 10 years away, Sink said.

In planning for Peninsula mass transit, HRT is also paying attention to the Virginia Department of Transportation's study on a new water crossing between the Peninsula and Southside. All four alternatives currently being considered for that project include a transit component, such as a bus rapid transit designated lane, according to the VDOT project page.

Clift can be reached by phone at 757-247-7870.

Public hearings scheduled

•Oct. 4, 6 to 8 p.m., Downing-Gross Cultural Arts Center, 2410 Wickham Ave. in Newport News

•Oct. 6, 6 to 8 p.m., Denbigh Community Center, 15198 Warwick Blvd. in Newport News

•Oct. 13, 6 to 8 p.m., Hampton Roads Convention Center, 1610 Coliseum Drive in Hampton

Can't attend? Email comments or questions to peninsulacorridorstudy@hrtransit.org.

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