By Calvin Pynn, contributor
Alec Dickey is waiting for the Number 2 bus to the Valley Mall, cleaning a skinned knee with a bottle of water and some wadded-up fast-food napkins after tripping on the way to the Harrisonburg Department of Transportation’s (HDPT) transit hub. It’s not the biggest hassle Dickey has endured getting around town, but the 24-year old city resident sees it as a regular part of life without a vehicle.
And even with access to city buses, that only alleviates only some of the stress of travelling from one side of town to the next.
“We definitely live in one hell of a maze, let me tell you,” Dickey said.
The transit hub, on the south end of the Rose’s parking lot at the corner of Mason and Gay, is just a block from Dickey’s home at the Lineweaver Apartments and represents the easiest way to get anywhere in town, as every city bus line departs from it. Still, the city’s transit system presents them with regular complications.
“It’s my only way around town, and for just about any route, it should be an hour each way. But with delays, traffic, all of that, it’s usually like, a four or five hour trip altogether,” Dickey said.
In addition, Dickey has been able to use the transit system because Harrisonburg has temporarily waived bus fares in response to financial hardships caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Harrisonburg city spokesperson Michael Parks, though, the city tentatively plans to resume bus fares in December – a dealbreaker for Dickey.
“The second they make us pay again, I’m walking,” Dickey said.
Improvements in the works
The HDPT hopes to alleviate some rider concerns with a new and improved transit hub currently in the planning stages. Since beginning in April, staff have been developing a work plan and gauging community needs with a survey that is open through July. A site for the new hub has not yet been chosen.
According to Director Gerald Gatobu, HDPT’s basic goal is to enhance transit operations. While that could mean changes to the city’s current schedule that regular riders rely on, he doesn’t expect anything dramatic.
“Disruptions should be minor, including schedule changes and learning new routes based on the new hub. This should be mitigated using a good community engagement strategy,” Gatobu wrote in an email to The Citizen.
Anticipated upgrades for the new transit hub include improved disability access and lighting for passengers waiting on buses, as well as an awning for shelter against inclement weather and designated smoking areas. HDPT also plans to develop the hub as a multi-modal facility that will provide bicycle and scooter access and storage, ride-hailing services, as well as a Park & Ride lot with electric vehicle charging stations.
The hub may also serve as a pickup and dropoff spot for taxis and regional bus services like the Virginia Breeze. Additionally, Gatobu said the new hub would provide amenities for HDPT’s drivers, including restrooms, office space and a breakroom.
The city has contracted with KFH Group to conduct a feasibility study, and the next several months will be spent defining a layout, analyzing costs, developing a site plan – and identifying possible sites.
“The consultant will be looking at different locations (parcels in the City) and three will be chosen and ultimately one will be recommended,” Gatobu wrote.
While the city expects to have results of the study by next spring Gatobu said it’s too early to guess when the hub would be open and operational.
“The schedule could change. Construction will only be achieved if or when a funding source is secured,” Gatobu said.
Looking down at discarded cigarette butts in the current transit hub’s covered waiting area, Dickey said a designated smoking area would be an important improvement. But more importantly, they said, more bus routes would benefit city residents – especially those with limited mobility.
“I’d like to maybe see a bus route that goes to more places for disabled people. And if you’re homeless, you don’t really have much in the way of transportation,” Dickey said.
Waiting on a bus to take him home to his grandmother’s house, Paul Watson said that expanded hours would be a huge improvement.
“We need to get buses on Sundays. If people could come in on Sundays, that would be a big help,” Watson said.
Running buses later in the evening would also be nice, he said.
“I know of a lot of families with people who are struggling to get home because they’re getting off from work late,” Watson said.
And Jeff Viers, waiting for the bus to take him to his job at Wal-Mart, said he would look forward to new benches at the planned transit hub. The plank he sat on was caving in, ready to break.
“You get a really big person sitting down hard here, and this thing would be done,” he said.
For the most part, Viers said he’s happy with his current bus route, and isn’t thrilled about it possibly changing.
“The change in time concerns me. How long would it take me to get to work, would I have to leave the house earlier?” he asked.
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