The Radford City Council heard reports on various regional transportation issues at its regular council meeting on Monday.
One presentation focused on the extension of Amtrak services to the New River Valley, and the second summarized the operation of the local Radford Transit.
Ed Lawhorn, representing New River Passenger Rail 2020, spoke to the council about the effort to connect the NRV with passenger train service.
He said that “the City of Radford has been a strong supporter of this work right from the start, and we’re so grateful for that.”
Lawhorn reviewed the history of the project, the present status and the goals for the near future.
He pointed out the advantages of rail service and the fact that someone can have the same seat from Roanoke to Boston currently, and hopefully, that will soon be the case from the NRV.
Riding the train can help a person comfortably avoid tie-ups on roadways such as I-81 at a reasonable price. He said that costs change as with airlines, and special rates are sometimes available.
He explained that the site chosen for the NRV station is in Christiansburg near the Aquatic Center, and that town is currently looking at purchasing land for a stop. The location was selected because of nearness to a population center and the availability of land.
He discussed the fact that there is a bi-partisan effort by local and state representatives to help promote the project along with Radford and Virginia Tech Universities, counties, cities and private groups in the area. Lawhorn expects other partners to join as the project progresses.
He explained that student ridership from Radford and Virginia Tech would be critical. He pointed out that 50 percent of Virginia Tech students come from Northern Virginia and points beyond such as the states of Maryland, Pennsylvania and New York.
“This will be a good form of alternative transportation for students,” he said.
The Virginia General Assembly approved $350,000 for an operational study. The study will look at not just the potential in the NRV, but also Bristol, as that city would like to be added to the line, too.
The study will review needed upgrades for passenger travel, sidings, signaling, etc.
Lawhorn encouraged people to support this project by riding the train now and engaging with legislators about the importance of the rail system to the area.
A question was asked about the actual start of service to Christiansburg, and Lawhorn explained that Amtrak is monitoring passenger numbers in Roanoke, which have been good, and they will have to decide if they have enough data or will need another year of study. Another factor will be that operational study by Norfolk Southern.
There is bus service from Blacksburg to Roanoke for a hook-up with train service, but Vice-Mayor Dick Harshberger pointed out that Roanoke has good, lighted parking at the station, too, for those who may drive.
Mayor David Horton reiterated the council’s support for the project and invited Lawhorn back for a follow-up report in the future.
A transportation presentation closer to home was then made by the General Manager of Radford Transit Trevor Sakry, who shared information about ridership trends, routing and vehicle purchases.
The total ridership for fiscal year 2018 was 328,929 persons, which represented a 2.8 percent decrease from the previous year.
According to Sakry, this was due to lower numbers associated with Radford University riders and routes.
However, Radford citizen ridership showed an impressive increase. The 20 route was up 9.41 percent. The 30 route servicing the West End of Radford saw a 12.87 percent increase.
Over the last three years, there has been a steady increase in ridership from those city routes. While many cities are seeing a decrease in citizen ridership, Radford is observing a significant increase.
The transit service has been able to purchase eight vehicles this fiscal year with assistance from an updated grant, which will get all transit vehicles in a state of good repair with none beyond its useful life. These new vehicles should be in service by the end of this year or early next year.
The service has added a Passio data management system, which will provide ridership information, stop and route data and changes immediately.
This system will improve transit service efficiency as well as aid in planning for the future.
There is also the possibility of an advertising system that could share information about local businesses as well as possible revenue for the city.
Sakry also discussed interior and exterior advertising for businesses in the Radford area and ongoing discussions about how the advertising money may be used.
The transit service is studying automated bus washing systems, as opposed to the present method of washing by hand. This would make washing more efficient and effective.
Additionally, the transit system is looking at heavy-duty tire-changing equipment, a service that is currently outsourced.
This would prevent excessive downtime for the use of a vehicle since tires could be kept in stock and changed immediately.
Sakry said the transit system is increasing connectivity with the entire NRV with new stops in Blacksburg and Christiansburg. He also mentioned finding ways to connect with the new train service when that comes to the area.
He then explained how the transit service provided buses for Radford special events such as the Fourth of July Celebration, the Highlanders Festival, the Nesselrod Brewfest and Bike VA.
Sakry shared that five years ago, you could not get from Pulaski to Roanoke. Now you can travel “all the way from Pulaski…catch the Amtrak now in Roanoke and connect all the way [to Boston],” he said.
Horton asked about the service life of the eight new vehicles. Sakry answered that they are seven years/250,000 mile vehicles.
The additional eight brings the fleet up to 20 vehicles. The university pays for the majority of the cost of the vehicles. In fact, with the newest purchases, the university is paying for all of them.
Horton also said it would be interesting to see information about the amount of time it takes to get from one point in the city to another.
Harshberger asked about neighborhood penetration of routes, and Sakry explained that there is a current Department of Rail and Public Transportation study looking at routing possibilities for areas that need access and should have it.
Councilman Rob Gropman inquired about past information regarding capital improvements being cut by 50 percent and the cost related to the bus wash.
Sakry explained that it has been worked out so that there won’t be a cutoff to capital improvement grants for at least five years and added that the bus wash would fit in space already available.
Councilwoman Jessie Critterton emphasized the need for a stop at Bisset Park to access outdoor resources. Sakry said that they would look at the study being done and also look at what may be most beneficial to the city in determining new stops.
The council approved a $117,310 appropriation to pay for engineering services to plan repairs to the University Drive bridge joints, deck and approaches, as well as general maintenance.
The proposal by Whitman, Requardt and Associates was accepted after appropriate adjustments to the contract as per the city lawyer. The funds will come from the Urban Highway Maintenance Reserve fund, which is appropriated to the city by the VDOT for this type of service.
The bridge was built in 1981 and has had no significant repairs since its construction. Repairs are needed to keep the bridge at a “satisfactory” or higher rating.
Oasis Church Outreach Director Steven Reese spoke to the council about the use of the Norwood Square parking lot Oct. 31 from 2-7:30 p.m. for HarvestFest. This festival would be in conjunction with the Radford Chamber of Commerce and the Trick-or-Treat Trail.
This year several groups are planning to join Oasis for this event, which serves 600 or more children and their families. Activities will include character photo booths, games, blow-ups, music, popcorn and more. Everything will be free. Council approved the use of Norwood Square for HarvestFest.
Reese mentioned that a group of volunteers and Sams Brothers Inc. are also planning to refurbish the facade on the buildings used for the Farmers Market in the past at no cost to the city.
In citizen comments, Emily Stoots, who is director of sales with the local Best Western, mentioned that Radford Transit might want to consider using the hotels in Radford as bus stops. It would help the hotels provide another service to guests and increase revenue for the city.
Bobby Farmer asked if Radford University would be paying anything for the University Drive bridge repairs. City Manager David Ridpath explained that it is the responsibility of the city to maintain bridges and roads within its perimeters.
The city council approved a proclamation designating October 7-13, 2018 as Fire Prevention Week in Radford City.
The fire prevention theme is “Look. Listen. Learn. Be aware—fire can happen anywhere,” and citizens of Radford are “urged to be aware of their surroundings, look for available ways out in the event of a fire or other emergency, respond when the smoke alarm sounds by exiting the building immediately, and to support the many public safety activities and efforts of the Radford Fire Department during Fire Prevention Week.”
Chief Rodney Haywood and members of the fire department were on hand to accept a copy of the approved proclamation from the city council. Horton said, “We are fortunate to have the best of the best right here in the City of Radford, and they take good care of us.”
The council also proclaimed the week of October 7-13, 2018 as Public Power Week. The city council recognized the Radford Electric Department “for its contributions to the community…to educate customers and employees on the benefits of public power and provide reliable electric services to all…”
The proclamation also said the employees of the Radford Electric Department are “dedicated to providing Radford residents and businesses with reliable electric service, and they prove this by coming out to fix power in all weather conditions.”
Horton added, “We thank you all so much for all that you do.”
The city council presented a copy of the approved proclamation to Director of Electric Utilities Tim Logwood, Engineer Scotty Whitt and Civil Engineer Jay Jones.
Council approved a number of surplus vehicles and equipment for public auction. These items came from all departments, and the auction will be conducted by sealed bid. All vehicles are at the end of their usable lives and were all planned for replacement.
The city council approved a contract between New River Valley Community Services and the State Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services. The NRVCS provides the community with behavioral and mental health services. Gropman said, “They do yeoman’s work” and recommended approval by the council.
In City Manager’s Comments, David Ridpath said the area was fortunate to avoid significant damage from Hurricane Florence. He also mentioned that the cleanup work was completed in Wildwood Park in one day. He said that he would like to see the council chambers building have a backup generator so it could be used as an emergency operations center in the future.
In Council Member Comments, Councilwoman Naomi Huntington thanked everyone who came out for the Main Street program.
She felt that a lot of community members were energized and excited to create a vision for the downtown districts.
Gropman highlighted the Highlanders Festival coming up on Oct. 6. Harshberger mentioned that RU Homecoming was occurring soon and everyone could get involved.
Critterton also said that the Main Street process was very enlightening, and she shared a few points stakeholders shared. One was the importance of tying the East and West areas together.
The concept of a year-round Farmers Market was something to consider. The question of whether residents want the city to be a destination for tourism should be explored.
Increased bus stops in residential areas and the park would encourage access for all citizens. She also mentioned highlighting a Merchant of the Month. Harshberger added that an amphitheater came up, too, for musical, drama and other performances.
Critterton said that planning is continuing for the refurbishment of the American Legion. Horton shared that there will be a meeting on Thursday, Oct. 4 at 5:30 p.m. at a place to be determined to discuss plans.
Horton reminded everyone that the Farmers Market is still taking place for three more weeks: Sept. 29, Oct. 6, and Oct. 13.
He also mentioned the Highlanders Festival on Oct. 6 and said the following weekend is the Glencoe 20th Anniversary Celebration on Oct. 13.
He noted that Radford High School Homecoming, Radford University Homecoming, and Radford University Parents’ Weekend are Oct. 19 and 20 this year, so there will certainly be a lot going on in the city that weekend.