Study Links Transportation, Broadband Access to Economic Development

About a year ago, regional stakeholders in the areas of transportation and economic development commissioned a study to look at the role connectivity in transportation and broadband development plays in the regional economy.

The study also identified how improving connectivity could positively impact economic development.

The Lynchburg Regional Connectivity Study was initiated by Shannon Valentine, Lynchburg-district representative for the Commonwealth Transportation Board.

Valentine saw research and forecasting being done on the state level, regarding trends in transportation, demographics, economics, technology and other areas, and she wondered if something similar could be done in the Lynchburg region.

“They look at all of this data and business activity and research to try to help the Commonwealth of Virginia make good investments today that prepare us for the economy of tomorrow,” she said. “It’s fascinating to me.”

“So I was looking at this and learning about these economic and transportation trends, and I was wondering, ‘Could we take that approach and make it come alive at the regional level?’ And that’s what we did.”

The study, involving the City of Lynchburg, Town of Bedford and the counties of Amherst, Appomattox, Bedford and Campbell, is the first of its kind in Virginia. Valentine said the goal was to answer this question:

“How can we tie transportation systems to economic development, to make that correlation clear and measurable, and to be very deliberate in trying to make the best decisions possible that really would support and strengthen the regional economy of Lynchburg?”

The study identified three themes—Broadband Connectivity, Inter-regional Connectivity and Labor Market and Intra-regional Connectivity—and eight strategy areas: Placemaking, Local Bottlenecks, Transit and Transportation Demand Management, Intercity Passenger Rail, Air Service Development, Access on Key Highway Corridors, Cargo-Oriented Development and Broadband Development.

Potential leaders also were identified, including the Lynchburg Office of Economic Development and Tourism, Lynchburg Regional Business Alliance, Greater Lynchburg Transit Company and other organizations.

“We have a 125-page document that includes a lot of data and statistical study,” Valentine said, adding that the document’s executive summary is a “true, dynamic, working document that makes it very easy to identify and track decisions that are being made, progress that’s being made or changes that are being made.”

Here’s an overview of the strategy areas along with comments from potential leaders:

Placemaking, as defined by the study, “is about enhancing our urban centers so that they become the focus of new life and economic activity.”

Placemaking involves what Anna Bentson, assistant director of Lynchburg’s Office of Economic Development and Tourism, describes as “asset-based development,” building on an area’s strengths, rather than using a “build-it-and-they-will-come thought process.”

Wayfinding, something the Downtown Lynchburg Association is working on this year, is one part of this. “We’re working on a new wayfinding system to help people more easily navigate the downtown district,” Ashley Kershner, the DLA’s executive director, said.

“This new system also will include improved parking signage and corresponding informational maps and materials to ensure visitors from Lynchburg and elsewhere feel welcome.”

The Local Bottlenecks strategy area is about alleviating traffic tie-ups and improving commuter traffic flow and safety. Recommended actions include improvements on Route 622/Lynbrook Road, Candlers Mountain Road, South Amherst Highway and Lakeside Drive.

According to the study’s executive summary, the “cumulative, long-term impacts” of relieving bottlenecks, forecasted to the year 2050, “could reach approximately $140 million in additional business sales and $77 million in value added to businesses.”

Rick Youngblood, the Virginia Department of Transportation’s Lynchburg District transportation planning manager, said the “ultimate goal is to support economic development” and the City of Lynchburg’s “long-range planning initiatives—how they want to see Lynchburg grow.”

Access on Key Highway Corridors focuses on “maintaining and improving good access to the interstate system and on key corridors that connect the Lynchburg region to national and international markets.”

Recommended actions involve some of the same areas addressed in the section on bottlenecks— Candlers Mountain Road, in particular—along with working with the surrounding regions to improve travel to areas beyond Lynchburg.

Of particular interest to Youngblood is the section of Wards Road located south of Liberty University in Campbell County. He describes this as an “economic corridor” with its recent boom in hotels and restaurants. It’s also a popular route for truckers, commuters and travelers.

“If you can provide a safer corridor there, you might see more economic development,” he said.

Transit and Transportation Demand Management deals with the Greater Lynchburg Transit Company and alternative modes of getting around, such as cycling, walking and ridesharing.

Actions currently underway include, among other things, the Lynchburg Central Business District Circulator, which will start carrying riders around the historic downtown area in late summer.

GLTC also is working with the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation on its 2017 Transit Development Plan. One goal of this plan is to boost bus ridership. “We’ve seen a decline in ridership over the last couple of years,” GLTC general manager Brian Booth said.

“Through this planning process for the Transit Development Plan, I want to look at what might be causing that and how to adjust or alter services to […] increase the ridership that we’re seeing.”

Intercity Passenger Rail aims to “enhance Lynchburg’s role as a passenger rail hub for the region” by building on the success of its Amtrak services. Amtrak’s Crescent and Northeast Regional trains, which offer daily, round-trip service from Lynchburg to Washington, D.C. and beyond, have been extremely popular.

Service will be extended to Roanoke this year.

Valentine said the DRPT is working with Amtrak to better market their services to local college students and their families, local businesses, and companies who do business in the area or might want to relocate or expand.

“That’s why the study is not called a ‘transportation study,’” Valentine said. “It’s called a ‘connectivity study.’ That’s just one example of how we can use the document and are using the document currently.”

According to Mark Courtney, director of the Lynchburg Regional Airport, much of what he’s been pursuing in Air Service Development is in line with the study’s recommendations.

“I worked with them through this entire process,” he said of the three consulting firms: Economic Development Research Group, Michael Baker International and Renaissance Planning, who conducted the study.

“I tried to emphasize our current strategic air service plan for this airport and quality of service relative to the entire region. Essentially, I wanted to see … if that would dovetail with what their recommendations are.”

Recommended actions include developing a “regional narrative” about the airport’s value; increasing ridership; tightening the bond between the airport and regional economic development groups; and seeking a connection with Washington Dulles International Airport.

Cargo-Oriented Development focuses on freight rail service. More specifically, it looks to enhance what the study describes as “local readiness to respond to freight rail-oriented development opportunities.”

As Valentine says, it involves “being aware of what opportunities actually exist for ground service in Virginia and beyond” and “watching that and identifying what resources are available for our community.”

The study also recommends increasing awareness of the Virginia Rail Industrial Access program, working with local economic development groups on industrial site development, and maintaining “open lines of communication” with the railroads.

The Broadband Coverage strategy area recognizes the importance of access to good, affordable broadband coverage. The study states that, “Good broadband attracts a global workforce,” “integrates under-served and rural communities into wider social and economic networks” and “helps unite the region through more equal access to business opportunity in rural areas.”

Recommended actions, some of which are underway, include improving broadband access in rural areas and marketing the “existing fiber optic network” to companies and entrepreneurs who might start businesses in or relocate to the region.

“Our goal is to meet the needs of a growing, thriving, innovative community which includes industry as well as our workforce,” Megan Lucas, CEO and chief economic development officer with the Lynchburg Regional Business Alliance, said.

Lucas added that “companies evaluate broadband access in their site-selection process. If that’s a box we can’t check, we miss business expansion and relocation opportunities.”

The full study can be found at vtrans.org under the “Current Research” tab.

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