COVID relief and the Afton Express
All this week we've been taking a road trip across Virginia — checking out what localities and state agencies are doing with their COVID relief dollars.
One regional planner called it the largest investment from the federal government since the New Deal.
Today, we'll take a bus ride over Afton Mountain...
The Afton Express is the first ever public transportation line over the mountain in central Virginia. It connects cities on the western side, Staunton and Waynesboro, to Charlottesville.
“People just want to live in the valley, they don't want they want to live in the mountains and in these beautiful areas. But the commute can be really daunting,” says Paula Melester – a regional planner with the Central Shenandoah Planning District Commissioner.
And I joined her on the bus ride for an after-work shuttle. The ride itself, sometimes bumpy… but otherwise comfortable. AC, Wi-Fi, only $3 a ride….and not a bad view.
“And I get to see the beautiful view of a mountain.”
Cindi Dellett lives in Waynesboro and works at UVA’s med school. And takes the bus most days.
“I mean, honestly, it's a great reminder of the gorgeous area that we live in,” Dellett says. “And so, I can relax on the bus, do whatever I want.”
She reads, listens to music, takes a nap, appreciates the savings on gas and feels like she’s helping the environment.
“I ride the bus. I'm a regular rider,” she says.
So is Alan Bergland, who lives in Staunton and works at UVA. He commuted by car for seven years.
“And then last summer I made the switch, and I haven't gone back it's been the best thing in my life,” Bergland says.
He laughs, correcting his statement to the best change in his life. He says it takes all the stress of the commute.
“It makes it doable and makes me feel like it’s something that’s doable for a long time,” he says.
The Afton Express has been on the road for about a year and a half. But it had a bumpy start. Like so many other things, COVID threw a wrench into the initial plan. Melester says they had gotten a grant from the state to start, but then everything shut down.
“So, I mean, did you have a moment when you had your first grant, and you were like, you know, elbow deep in the old, the planning, and it was middle of COVID, and funds were drying up? Where you were like, ‘Oh, this isn't gonna happen,’” asks Noe-Payne.
“To be able to get this up and running so quickly, during a time of national crisis was really remarkable. And I'm fairly sure it would not have happened without those extra CARES funds.”
“Yeah, I think a lot of planners can say that we live, live and die by different phases of projects,” Melester responds. “A lot of times, you're in the thick of a project, and you don't even know if it's gonna be funded for the next phase, but you do the work anyway, and have it ready in case a pot of money comes along, or an opportunity is available, so that you can seize that and get your project rolling.
In this case that pot of money was CARES Act funding from the federal government. One of several huge spending packages that provided flexible funding to localities and state agencies.
“To be able to get this up and running so quickly, during a time of national crisis was really remarkable,” Melester says. “And I'm fairly sure it would not have happened without those extra CARES funds.”
Jennifer DeBruhl, director of the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation, agrees. She says when the pandemic started it brought a ton of financial uncertainty.
“You know, we didn't know what the long-term implications were going to be on the one state funding levels. And so, we kind of stepped back,” she says. “And we were very conservative.”
But one of the provisions of the CARES Act funding for transit was that agencies maintain essential services. And this line helped connect workers to UVA’s hospital.
“And making that connection to the workplace. For those, you know, essential workforce and making sure that they got there,” DeBruhl says. “It was a no brainer for us to try from an expansion perspective, even during a pandemic.”
So, the CARES Act funding helped get things rolling when it was a risky endeavor. Since then, the state and localities have picked up the tab.
Back on the bus, Paula Melester the Afton Express averages between 65 and 80 passenger trips a day. She says it’s rewarding to hear from commuters who say the service has changed their life.
“And that's what public service is supposed to do. We're here to help people, and we're here to provide services that may not seem like there's a really good cost return on that,” she says. “But that's not what public service is about.”
Localities, and UVA, have agreed to fund the bus for the next year – but haven’t committed to continuing the service after that.