By: Jon Cawley; DailyPress.com
Last November, Hampton Roads Transit was awarded a $640,000 federal grant to update its stock of old and damaged bus shelters and install new ones in areas where none previously existed.
But six months later, only five new shelters have been installed in Newport News – all at a recently redeveloped Patrick Henry Mall transfer station.
Twenty additional shelters, which are designed to look like the Norfolk light rail platforms, are sitting idle in storage due to a new requirement by the city of Newport News that HRT sign an official agreement laying out specific rights and responsibilities regarding shelters placed in public rights of way.
In all, the plan will eventually have 200 new shelters added to HRT’s current Hampton Roads inventory, while other existing shelters are rehabbed. The work is being funded by the federal grant and smaller state grants received by individual localities.
The Newport News requirement is being made now despite the fact that HRT bus shelters have existed throughout the city for years.
At an HRT meeting Thursday, new transit CEO William E. Harrell said progress in resolving the issue was being made, but he also described the city’s request as a “bit overkill.”
Kim Lee, a Newport News spokeswoman, said the city requires the same agreement of any entity (like Verizon or Dominion Virginia Power) working in the right of way, although she could not say exactly why the city has decided now to make the change.
“it’s nothing unique to HRT,” Lee said. She added the large number of shelters being installed in the current project spurred the decision to require an official agreement. “We should have required it in the past and didn’t for whatever reason. Now we’re going through the process.”
“Newport News city wants a license agreement for all shelters in the right of way – even ones that already exist,” said Tom Holden, an HRT spokesperson. “It’s a trend nationwide for cities to exact more control over easements and rights of way.”
But other Hampton Roads cities do not appear to be humping onboard – at least where HRT is concerned. Newport News is the only locality so far to require a licensing agreement for shelters, Holden said.
In Hampton, four new shelters have been installed and five more are in waiting while site suitability is evaluated – “a part of the normal process,” Holden said.
Robin McCormick, a Hampton spokeswoman, said the city has no current plans to change its policy regarding bus shelters.
“We’ve looked at HRT as a public entity, whereas utility companies are different,” she said. “It’s a public body versus a private entity – there is a distinction. We obviously partner with HRT and pay money toward the service.”
The Newport News City Council adopted a shelter plan in 2009. Even so, the agreement is required before HRT can get the needed permits to install the shelters.
“It’s a little unusual in Hampton Roads,” Holden said. “Every city has its own approach to how they want to run their property.”
Holden said several grants that are funding the work have sunset provisions that are set to expire in June and July, but there is no threat of losing the money because shelters have already been purchased.
Lee said the agreement will cover all HRT bus shelters in the city and new agreements will not have to be signed in the future as new shelters are planned.
“From our perspective, the ball is in their court,” Lee said. “We’ve given them a draft agreement.”
Michael King, the manager of community planning for Newport News, said the agreement is important to ensure right of way work is done correctly.
“I don’t think it will be a problem coming up with an agreement,” he said. “Nobody more than me wants to see these shelters installed.”