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Transportation in Rockbridge County, VA

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Inadequate Public Transportation in Rockbridge County, VA


Scope of the Problem

            A lack of transportation options can be extremely problematic in rural areas where public transportation is limited, and often nonexistent.  In big U.S. cities with buses and cities, it is not necessary for much of the population to have access to a personal car to get to work, run errands, pick up children, and get to appointments.  However, in rural communities where people have these same daily needs, an inability to drive oneself can be very restraining.  In Rockbridge County, Virginia, where 96% of the population is rural, social service agencies named inadequate public transportation the most pressing and severe issue in the county, citing several economic and noneconomic costs. 

Economic costs:

·     A barrier to employment: Without a car, many of the county’s poor cannot secure and maintain stable employment; without a car, they cannot get a job and without a job, they cannot get a car.  Furthermore, some employment agencies—both private and government based—will not help individuals unless they have access to transportation.

·     A barrier to affordable housing: Many people are seeking more affordable housing, but this is only available away from population centers in the county where most of the jobs are located.

·     Service duplication: Individuals do not know which services are best for them, and this confusion wastes significant resources that could be used to assist the poor in other areas.  Many agencies that provide services to the disabled say they find themselves spending an increasing percentage of their agency’s budget on ancillary needs like transportation when the money is intended for services directly related to an individual’s disabilities.

·     Increased health care burden: A lack of transportation deters preventative doctor visits.

Noneconomic costs:

·     Social disconnection and isolation: This disproportionately impacts the elderly, disabled, and youth, who are unable to participate in sports, after-school programs, social and  recreational activities, etc.  


Rockbridge County reports that 14.2% of individuals in its two “cities”, Buena Vista and Lexington, do not own a vehicle (nearly double the state average), with even higher levels for the elderly (around 24%).   Although both cities register well on walkability indices (measurements of how walkable a town or city is) many essential services fall outside of walking range and can only be accessed by vehicle, for example, the Free Clinic and child support services.  This problem must be alleviated before other issues can be truly solved.


Past Policy

 There are several examples of improved public transportation systems benefitting rural communities throughout the United States:

·     A 1998 study by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) reports that rural counties with public transit systems, on average, generate 11 percent higher net earnings growth than their counterparts without a public transit system, with a $1.1 million economic impact annually[i].

·     Improved systems can reinvigorate tourist-driven communities (like Lexington), as shown with the Eureka Springs Transit System in Arkansas.

·     In the study “Access to transportation and health care utilization in a rural area,” those who utilized public transportation had, on average, four more chronic care visits per year than the control group[ii]. 

·     Pocatello Regional Transit provides transportation to a local disabled work center, and finds that participation in summer activities by children and even church attendance by the elderly is heavily dependent on the availability of reliable transportation.

·     A DOT-funded project in New Mexico implemented smart card technology that allowed individuals to transfer from rural network to broader regional and state networks.

·     The Northeastern Colorado Transportation Authority’s County Express takes riders across county boundaries into regional economic centers for medical, shopping, and connections to longer haul trips.  Not only does its own staffing needs provide employment, but it supports local business by using these local vendors for vehicle maintenance and work.  (Similar results were found in Connecticut).


Current Policy


     Currently, the only public transportation service available for use by the general population in Rockbridge County is the Rockbridge Area Transportation System (RATS), which provides demand-responsive transit to those who meet strict income eligibility requirements or receive benefits from federal and state governments.  RATS helps clients make medical appointments and take emergency/quasi-emergency trips to the grocery store, but there is no stable public or private transit system for individuals seeking daily, non-emergency rides to work, day care, or to conduct daily business, especially outside of the average 9-5 time frame, when many low-income workers hold jobs.

     A local transportation task force has been formed with representatives from local agencies, universities, governments, and organizations with transportation programs to assess transportation needs and decide on changes that need to be made.  Currently, the task force is awaiting probable confirmation of three grants from the Virginia Commonwealth Transportation Board: $50,000 for a Body-on-Chassis van/bus, $27,000 for a Mobility Manager, and some Senior Transportation.  Also, the county will likely receive $4,000 for Public Transportation.  


Policy Recommendations

Short Term:

·     Commission needs, service capacity, and efficiency studies. 

·     Consult with the regional planning and development agencies (for Rockbridge County, Central Shenandoah Planning District Commission) on funding, technical, and implementation issues 

·     Focus on demand-responsive, point-to-point, and circuit-routed services. 

Long Term:

·     Launch a partnership with institutions of higher education and other agencies that already provide transportation to their clients 

·     Construct a unified, streamlined transit network that reduces inefficiencies, eliminates duplicative services, and simplifies the area’s transportation strategy 

·     Commit to initial capital outlay and operating subsidies for several years.  Some form of subsidization—be it from the government, grants, or agencies— will be required initially to offset costs until operations are at an adequate level to sustain operations.  However, the cost savings achieved in other key areas will offset (if not surpass) any additional costs that might be incurred 

·     Promote the use of environmentally-friendly technologies and fuels as part of a green transportation network and a starting point for economic growth. 


These changes must be anchored by reforms that expand the channels of communication between various agencies, create institutions that coordinate the delivery of services, and educate the populace about issues like inadequate transportation that exacerbate poverty. 




[i] Federal Transit Administration, “Alternative Fuels Study: A Report to Congress on Policy Options for Increasing

the Use of Alternative Fuels in Transit Vehicles, December 2006,



[ii] Thomas Arcury, et al., “Access to transportation and health care utilization in a rural area, The Journal of Rural Health,

Vol. 21, Iss. 1, pp.31-38


Data and analysis pertaining to Rockbridge County specifically:


Melissa Caron and Chris Martin, “Rockbridge Poverty Assessment 2008: A Community-Based Research Project

supported by the Shepherd Program at Washington and Lee University,” Delivered January 2009.


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