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Modernizing Virginia’s Transportation

Three experts sitting on a television set to chat with Focal Host Angie Miles.
Elijah Hedrick
VPM News Focal Point
Three experts on different transportation methods sit down to chat with Focal Host Angie Miles.

How will travel by bus, plane and train change over the next few decades for Virginians? 

Transportation heavy weights in Virginia say their goal is to get drivers to consider mass transit as a way to improve safety, efficiency and help the environment. We speak with representatives from air, train and bus travel across the state.


ANGIE MILES: Virginians use many different modes of transportation to traverse the Commonwealth. How will travel by bus, plane, and train change over the next few decades? Here to address this are Bud Oakey, President of the Virginia Aviation Business Association, Adrienne Torres, who's Chief of Staff for the Greater Richmond Transit Company, and DJ Stadtler, Executive Director of the Virginia Passenger Rail Authority. Welcome to all of you, thanks for being with us.

ALL GUESTS: Thank you.

ANGIE MILES: So, to begin with let's hear a little bit about your organization and what your mission, what your goals are. Let's start with you.

BUD OAKEY: Well, our goal is to further the growth of the aviation and aerospace industry in Virginia. We're already very heavily seated in all forms of aviation whether it's unmanned passenger general aviation, going to the stars with NASA is all based here in Virginia.

ANGIE MILES: Okay, very good. And Adrienne.

ADRIENNE TORRES: Our goal is to open accessibility to the region for all with public transportation whether it's within the Richmond core. And we are now looking to kind of expanding throughout the rural areas as well.

ANGIE MILES: All right. And DJ?

DJ STADTLER: At VPRA, we are a relatively new authority created in 2020, and we're here to promote, sustain and enhance passenger rail transportation throughout the Commonwealth.

ANGIE MILES: Okay. Now what does that mean, DJ when you talk about passenger rail in the Commonwealth? What are the different forms of passenger rail?

DJ STADTLER: So, Virginia is really the epicenter for rail on the East Coast. And we have been for years where freight comes, passenger comes. If you want to get anywhere from the northeast to the south you've got to come through Virginia. And we were created a couple years ago because the congestion on the highway just became so non-sustainable. And so, we have been created to really make sure there's capacity for additional passenger rail. So, you talk about the different kinds of rail. We've got long-distance trains. We've got state supported trains and then you've got commuter trains, and they all serve very different passengers. But at the end of the day, they all have to work together seamlessly to keep on time and efficient performance.

ANGIE MILES: Okay. And Adrienne, you have of course the Pulse in the Richmond Metro area. Talk about what the Pulse, the changes with the Pulse have meant and what your goals are looking forward.

ADRIENNE TORRES: Absolutely. So, the Pulse was implemented in 2018, and it was done in parallel with a network redesign for the city as well as expansion routes in Henrico County. So, we operate fixed route poles specialized transportation. We also have a contract with a company with Vanpool services. So, kind of do a little bit of everything. But the Pulse itself was really successful where we had assumed we'd have about 3,500 individuals using it a day. And before the pandemic we were about 8,000. So, it really has meant accessibility. VCU came on board, a lot of state agencies used it and of course our essential riders who use it every day begin to use it as kind of the spine of our network.

ANGIE MILES: Okay. And you want to connect where with where? Whom with whom? What's the advantage of the Pulse over the old GRTC?

ADRIENNE TORRES: Absolutely, so we actually used to have - I'm going to say - about 29 routes that traverse on Broad Street. And with the whole redesign in the Pulse itself we made the Pulse be the trunk line. And the benefit of the Pulse, it has about 50% dedicated lanes on it. So, it made traveling on the Broad Street-Main Street corridor faster, more reliable. It has 10-minute frequency kind of at its peak pre-pandemic, also midday. So, it's just a faster commute for individuals. And then having the other routes connect to it also required connections. But once you're on that line it just made it more efficient.

ANGIE MILES: Okay. Rail, bus, air. So, Bud, what are your goals? What do you see looking forward when it comes to aviation in Virginia?

BUD OAKEY: Aviation in Virginia is very broad based and it's growing rapidly and the expectation on it especially as passenger movement increases. With the advent of COVID, you found a lot more corporate traffic going to general aviation as a part of their business because you could control times. You weren't restricted by gate access. You weren't restricted by flights. So, a lot of smaller businesses, larger businesses are using general aviation to go from point A to point B. But where commercial aviation is going, we still have very good connectivity in Virginia.

The biggest issue we're finding in meeting that demand in growing is a ready workforce. This is before we ever get to unmanned systems with advanced air mobility, larger topic but advanced air mobility are basically drones on steroids to move people from smaller hubs to commercial hubs. You see it used in New York City with helicopters. But we're testing this right now in Virginia down in Hampton Roads.

ANGIE MILES: I want to talk about safety. The future of travel in many people's and many experts’ estimation means getting fewer cars on the road, having fewer single passenger vehicles and moving to something that is more advantageous safety wise and otherwise. What are the advantages, DJ, of getting some of the traffic off the roads?

DJ STADTLER: Sure. You're speaking right to passenger rail because we, our goal is to get cars off of the road. It's safer. It's better for the environment. Passenger rail has seen such great improvement in safety thanks to technology over the last 15, 20 years with positive train control. And there's more technology that's coming that will make it even more safe. Really, that's the number one priority of any passenger rail system is ensuring the safety and reliability of the movement.

ANGIE MILES: We have been hearing in the news in recent days and weeks about derailments. It seems that we're hearing about a lot of derailments. I have learned recently that actually derailments and those kinds of train issues are not uncommon, but they don't tend to be catastrophic. That, and that there are fewer, as you said as the years have gone by. Talk a little bit about that.

DJ STADTLER: The industry is creating technology that will let you know through hot box detectors for example, when you've got an axle, it's getting hot. When you have problems on the train. It's similar to what you see in automobiles where 20 years ago if there was a problem with your car, you'd have to look around and say, well, what's going on here? Now something happens, you get a code, you know, B3 and you're like, oh, I know exactly what that is. That same technology is coming to passenger trains, and it's already here.

ANGIE MILES: Okay. And the safety of buses.

ADRIENNE TORRES: Yes, safety of course priority. Similar kind of goals of getting people off the road and into buses as well. But buses themselves are a calming for roads. And then with our, especially our Pulse, the dedicated lanes, keeping individuals out of them. And then our fleet itself, safety. I guess going to the environment, 85% of our fleet is compressed natural gas. And over the next two years, we are going to be 100%, but also exploring other alternative fuels, whether it's electric or hydrogen fuels, which is safer for the environment as well.

ANGIE MILES: I was hoping someone would mention that. That the environment, of course is another motivating factor for getting cars off the roads. Air tends, it maintains its status as the king of safe travel, right?

BUD OAKEY: Well, it does and we're very proud of it and it's a strong partnership with the Federal Aviation Administration. Our air traffic control system is second to none. The Virginia Department of Aviation has done an exceptional job over the last 15, 20 years in assuring that we have more approaches at more Virginia airports. And what the approaches mean is we can come in as instrument pilots and fly those approaches to lower altitudes, come in at lower altitudes, make those approaches which make those airports more accessible. And as a pilot that makes it more safer for us to fly.

The FAA, we would ask that the FAA could move faster to keep up with advancing technologies because we have technologies that enable a safer flying environment. But we need a regulatory environment that can keep up with the changes in the technology. That's an ongoing task for every single mode of transportation. But the technology is evolving at light speed and the faster we can keep up with that in administering we're going through that right now with remote tower at Leesburg. The faster we can adapt to these technologies and utilize these technology the safer environments we're going to have.

ANGIE MILES: So, it sounds like we have a wealth of aeronautic resources and locations but what is it that we still need for the future?

BUD OAKEY: We need a ready workforce. And to get a ready workforce, you have to start in grade six, seven, and eight and interest these kids in aviation and aerospace. Whether it's NASA whether it's Boeing, whether it's Delta or American or United or whether it's the small maintenance shop they all need the same skill sets coming out of high school. We need to be developing it in high school and middle school is the attitude within five. If you get a young person in ninth grade within five years chances are they're going to be in the workforce. That's a drop in the bucket in time. We need that. Then we need a regulatory environment with the FAA that is helping to facilitate technology that is changing on a dime. The technology we have in aviation is second to none. And that technology as assures a far safer environment than it's training. And training assures us as pilots that we do it right. Assures the ground personnel, crew personnel and all do their jobs right.

ANGIE MILES: Okay. But still no personal spaceships? Not yet. Right?

BUD OAKEY: You'd be amazed at what's going on at NASA Langley.

ANGIE MILES: Oh, wow! Okay. Okay. Let's talk about the workforce thing with buses and with rail, you all have similar staffing desires I suppose.

ADRIENNE TORRES: Absolutely. At GRTC, we actually are experiencing I think this is kind of public transportation across country, but operator shortage in order. I mentioned expansion earlier. We currently have 235 operators and pre-pandemic we had 280. And our goal is to have between 300 and 310. So, we have kind of held steady. So, we are continuously recruiting, continuously trying to retain. But just like the perception out there. As far as operators, I mean we really saw that they were an essential service during the pandemic. And the perception is - that I would say - that they are heroes. I mean, comparing to these two, like, they are in it with the public. There is no block between it in terms of looking at train or airplane. But it is such an essential service. Right now, we are operating zero-fair. So, we have even more passengers than actually we had pre-pandemic and we were on the rise compared to a lot of other agencies across the nation. And I see that continuing to go on because, we'll be zero-fair at least over the next year and potentially beyond. So yes, operators are something that we need and are continuously going to recruit and train. We have a great training program, very aggressive.

ANGIE MILES: So, as we traversed Virginia asking people about their concerns about public transportation, the cost of it was one of the things that was mentioned. And so, I'd like you to talk about cost but first about your workforce development concerns as well.

DJ STADTLER: So we have similar workforce issues. You know, not only for operating the trains, we struggle to get engineers and conductors. And the big challenge there is that there's such a long training window. It takes 18 months for folks to get trained. That's an Amtrak issue that they're dealing with. We have staffing issues on a different front. One of the big things we're doing is adding capacity. So, we're building bridges. We're laying track. And you just don't have skilled folks that can do that at the time when so much money is being put into the infrastructure nationwide everyone's fighting for that same talent. So, that's a big challenge for us.

ANGIE MILES: Okay. And fighting for ridership or for passengers. What about the cost of travel by rail?

DJ STADTLER: So thankfully, we haven't struggled with ridership. We were setting records before COVID. During COVID, of course, we went down to virtually nothing. But since COVID, we have continued to grow. In fact, since last July or August every single month we have set a record for high ridership. In 2022, we had over a million riders. We're a public transportation system, so we're not going to cover all of our costs through the fair box, but we set reasonable prices so folks can take their trips where they want to go at a decent cost to them.

ANGIE MILES: Okay. I want to ask you to just say a word about light rail and VRE. What are those, what do Virginians need to know about those?

DJ STADTLER: So light rail is a... is a slightly different technology. VRE is actually still heavy rail, which is the same as the longer passenger. But they're just designed for shorter trips, more for commuters. That's an interesting topic as well post-COVID because there aren't as many five-day work weeks, and folks aren't going in the office at 7:00 AM and coming out at 5:00. They're going in in the morning and then working remote in the afternoon or in the office two days a week. And so, we're working with VRE to look at different schedules, less of the “northbound in the morning, southbound at night,” and a little more flexible schedules that that meet the needs of the people that are traveling.

ANGIE MILES: And those are affordable options for people as well.

DJ STADTLER: Absolutely.

ANGIE MILES: Okay. We already know zero is affordable for most people. So how about with air? How's the pricing for people who want to travel commercial who want to use air as their mode of commuting through the state or or out of the state?

BUD OAKEY: All of us are facing the same issue that demand is continuing to increase. It's our ability to meet demand issues is the bigger challenge. That again, comes back to having a workforce to meet those needs. And it does take time. For me to get an FAA certified what's called an airframe and power plant A&P mechanic. It takes 12 to 18 months to get them in the field. To get a pilot it takes me four years if they're going to be in the commercial track. Three and a half to four years. They’ve got to get 1500 hours of flight time. And there's got to be a pathway and it is not inexpensive to create a pilot. And we have a demand need. If we created 7,000, a little over 7,500 new commercial pilots a year, we would just be touching the tip of the iceberg in North America alone. Our maintainer numbers are higher than that. Our unmanned system pilot numbers are higher than that. And all that requires training. That's our biggest issue in there.

ANGIE MILES: All right. Gazing into that crystal ball. Looking 10 years, 20 years, 50 years into the future, what are we seeing if not personal spaceships or flying cars? Are we seeing fewer cars on the road, fewer personal vehicles? Are we seeing a need for workforce ready jobs for people in public transportation? What does that look like?

DJ STADTLER: So, I think we're definitely seeing fewer personal cars on the road, but one thing that's important that we've got to see is integration. So, we're three very different modes, but we all need to work together. You can take the train to Richmond, but if the Pulse isn't there to pick you up and take you to your home, you're missing that leg. And so that continued integration, perhaps even one ticket that'll take you from the Pulse to the train to the airport, that's really the technology and the connection that needs to happen.

ANGIE MILES: It sounds exciting, is how it sounds, and we can look forward to technology and human innovations. And we can also look forward to job opportunities for people who want to train for those types of jobs. So, thank you all for joining us to talk about the future of air, bus and rail travel for Virginians. Bud Oakey, Adrienne Torres and DJ Statler, thank you for being with us.


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