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Jan 22

New Transit Facility - Why Downtown and Why Now?

Posted on January 22, 2019 at 11:35 AM by Whitney Slightham

Earlier this month the City Council announced their intent to partner with the Greater Roanoke Transit Company (GRTC) and Hist:Re Partners in the development of a new transit transfer facility downtown.  In addition to the new transit facility, plans also include the redevelopment of the current facility on Campbell Avenue into a multi-story mixed-use development, and the establishment of a new train station adjacent to the Amtrak platform.  Based upon this announcement and the actions the GRTC Board and Council will take this week and over the next few months, I thought I would discuss why the city needs a new facility, why it needs to be downtown, and why this transition is happening now.

Why a New Facility?

The current transfer facility on Campbell Avenue is more than 30 years old and though it has served its purpose well and, in its time, represented a contemporary and cutting-edge facility design; it no longer represents best practices in transit operations. The current facility inhibits the ability to alter bus operations. Currently the buses line up essentially one behind the other, virtually guaranteeing that if a delay occurs with one of the buses, then it results in further delays.  Additionally, the building is physically deteriorating. Last year a section of masonry fell from the building.  Finally, the current building’s layout subjects riders and operators a dark, noisy, and at times fume-laden environment. It is time to offer riders and operators a better, safer, and more enjoyable facility.

Why Downtown?

Essentially all urban transit systems depend upon a central transfer facility. Some may have complimentary satellite transfer points, but generally, all rely upon a central location for most transfers to take place.  Roanoke is no different. While recent operational assessments have identified a series of changes that are being introduced, the system will continue to rely upon a central point of transfer for nearly all routes.  Additionally, downtown remains a vital origin and destination for many riders enabling access to local government, municipal and federal courts, cultural institutions, and service providers.  The downtown transfer location also serves as a key connection to the  Star Line Trolley, providing free access to the medical complex located along Jefferson Street.  Taking all of this into consideration, it is clear that downtown remains very important for successful and efficient transit operations and must be the location of a new facility.  We are fortunate that a property within a couple of blocks of the current facility is available and meets the needs of the system. Further, this site readily accommodates the thousands of residents now living in downtown and may someday facilitate seamless connections between bus and train service.

Why Now?

As I mentioned, the current facility is nearing the end of its useful life and is in need of replacement.  Public works projects of this size and cost take time to implement.  Formal design of the new facility won’t even begin until late summer or early fall of this year, with construction anticipated to last over a year once design is complete.  These activities won’t occur until the anticipated millions of needed dollars are secured from existing sources, the Federal Transit Authority, or a combination of these funding streams.  We simply cannot wait to get started if we are to continue to provide quality transit services.  

Additionally, opportunities exist now that may not be available in the future.  At this moment we have the rare opportunity to secure property very near the current facility, accommodate $25 million in private redevelopment of the current facility, while also converting an existing property directly adjacent to the Amtrak platform into a multi-modal train station.  Opportunities such as these are fleeting and must be acted upon or we risk losing such an opportunity.

Most significantly, the reason to act now is because it’s time - the City Council and GRTC are committed to acting upon recommendations that will make the transit system better, more convenient, and more attractive for those who rely upon public transportation.

Care will be necessary to ensure the new facility’s design and operation contributes to the recent economic activity near the new site, and there is no reason to believe that this can’t be accomplished while delivering a 21st Century facility we can all be proud of.

- Bob Cowell

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