For several years Vinton Town Council has been discussing the sharply rising costs of the Valley Metro transportation system within the town limits and its impact on the town budget. Costs to the town, mitigated only in part by fares paid by riders, have increased much more steeply than the cost of inflation.
In recent months the Finance Committee recommended that several Valley Metro stops on Washington Avenue with low ridership be eliminated to increase efficiency and cut costs, saving between $16,000 to $20,000 annually. This step was based on information on ridership from a survey conducted by Valley Metro.
The conclusion of the committee was that riders could catch the bus at other stops within a block or two of those currently used. The proposal would affect fixed route transportation, not the paratransit RADAR buses.
On October 30, the town hosted a community meeting at the Vinton War Memorial to receive public input on the proposal and also created an online survey for riders to complete. Information gathered from both, indicated that most of those using the regular bus routes walked to the bus stops to catch the bus because they did not have alternate transportation and in fact did not have a vehicle available in their households. Their destinations included work, medical appointments, or shopping, for the most part. They tended to use the bus five or six days a week at a variety of times.
Council held a public hearing on the issue on November 7 to allow comments on elimination of the proposed stops. Representatives from Valley Metro attended as well to answer questions.
Several citizens brought their concerns to council. Pastor B. Failes from Thrasher Memorial United Methodist Church said that elimination of the Washington Avenue stops would negatively impact quite a few individuals who disembark at the stops near the church. Fifteen to 20 use the bus to attend free community dinners at Thrasher on Wednesday nights. Others take the bus to Thrasher on Mondays to participate in the assistance program offered as a ministry of the church. Vinton Baptist also holds Wednesday night dinners and is served by nearby bus stops on Washington Avenue.
Failes pointed out that the alternate bus stops on Cleveland Avenue involve walking up a steep hill on Pine Street where there are few accessible sidewalks and suggested a different loop for the buses.
Another citizen told council that in past years, she and her children used the Vinton buses extensively to get to medical appointments, to day care, to the grocery store, to Virginia Western– none of which would have been possible without the stops near her home.
Another questioned the accuracy of the ridership surveys, conducted by Valley Metro in January and February when ridership is down due to the weather, especially by the elderly.
Council members indicated that their desire is to have the transportation system meet citizen needs, but to run more efficiently and fit within the town budget or other services to citizens will have to be cut. The conclusion reached at the end of the process was that council will need to study the issue further and consider other alternatives such as cutting stops on Cleveland Avenue instead of Washington Avenue.
In other council business, David Hill from Hill Studios briefed council on a conceptual planning study for the Gish’s Mill property used to assess its redevelopment potential. A structural assessment, historical inventory, land-use/zoning assessment, and the development of three conceptual renderings representing possible uses of the property made up his presentation.
The “Quirky Hospitality” plan would include guestrooms, a small breakfast restaurant, an outdoor grill and bar, and retail space in a “Mill Store” for the sale of local products.
The “Destination Restaurant” plan would include a larger restaurant, bar, and outdoor grill featuring local foods and seating about 100, and a Mill Store. There would also be space for an outfitter retailer with hiking and climbing gear for the greenway and potential climbing walls using the concrete silos on the property. This plan also envisioned movie nights in warm weather using the blank walls of the mill.
The “Curated Mercantile/Residential” plan includes a Vinton Welcome Center, space for a Vinton Winter Market/summer Landscape Retail Center, with several apartments on the upper level. There would also be an outdoor grill.
After the presentation, council members approved a plan to hold a community meeting before the end of the year to solicit public input on the three concepts. Assistant Town Manager Pete Peters said that once the public helps shape the plans, Requests for Proposals could be issued to evaluate the private sector interest in redevelopment of the historic site. The town seeks to maintain the historic value of the property, but put it back into public use, financed by the private sector.
There was some discussion of possible funding sources for redevelopment if historic tax credits are eliminated in federal budgeting and proposed tax reforms. Mike Pulice from the Department of Historic Resources indicated in a past preliminary study of the mill that the original section of the structure might be eligible for the National Registry of Historic Places.
Council was briefed by Vinton Police Chief Tom Foster on a grant for $119,340 from the DMV, $79,560 in federal funds, and a $39,780 match from the police department Fuel and Maintenance and Repair account for participation in the DUI Task Force. These funds will be used to fund one officer in the DUI Task Force to cover salary and benefits, all uniform equipment, and a vehicle and equipment for up to five years. Since the inception of this program in March, over 200 impaired motorists have been arrested.
Foster also briefed council on a grant from the DMV for $24,750, federal funds of $24,750, and a town match of $8,250 from the police department Fuel and Maintenance and Repair account, for Overtime Selective Enforcement, training, and equipment. This funding will be used to pay officers the overtime rate to work Selective Enforcement in the town, to fund $900 in DMV-approved training, and $3,200 to replace defective Lidar (laser) units. This funding is also meant to remove impaired drivers from the roadways.
Council adopted a resolution appropriating funds in the amount of $50,000 received from the Virginia Brownfields Restoration and Economic Redevelopment Assistance Fund for a Site Assessment and Planning Grant at the Holdren’s Country Store/Gish Mill site.
Human Resources Director Donna Collins reported that 100 percent of town employees have now completed CPR and First Aid training.
Town Manager Barry Thompson read a letter from Jim Patton at First Christian Church in the Midway community thanking Walton Nash and his Public Works crew for sidewalk improvements made in their neighborhood.
Those attending the council meeting were reminded of the State of the Town Address scheduled for November 16 at the Vinton War Memorial, hosted by the Vinton Area Chamber of Commerce.