The Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission put the brakes on one of Halifax County’s funding requests when members met in Richmond earlier this week, but gave the go ahead for funding a regional transportation project on Tuesday morning.

The county’s request for $206,202 in research and development funds for the county’s broadband initiative was put on hold until more thorough vetting of the project can be done, staff members said, but a joint effort between Halifax and Pittsylvania counties was awarded $317,490 to fund the Southern Virginia Regional Transportation Project.

Regional transportation

Despite the fact tobacco commission staff had recommended no award for the Southern Virginia Higher Education’s grant request to help fund the Southern Virginia Regional Transportation Project, the Southside Economic Development arm of the tobacco commission on Monday approved $317,490 in transportation project funding, and on Tuesday the full tobacco commission followed suit.

The Southern Virginia Higher Education Center had requested $317,490 from Halifax and Pittsylvania counties’ available in the Southside Economic Development fund balances. That money will be used to provide Halifax and Pittsylvania’s share during the project period, allowing time to build the expense into their budgets, according to the grant application.

Southern Virginia Higher Education Center Executive Director Dr. Betty Adams has been working on this project for three years now, and she said more work lies ahead as applications must be made for additional state and federal transportation funds.  

Understanding that lack of transportation is a critical barrier to employment and education, the Southern Virginia Higher Education Center is seeking to engage Danville Transit Authority to serve two new bus routes, Danville-South Boston and Danville-Gretna, which are among those identified in a study as having greatest demand with projections of 14,500 passenger trips annually between them.

The intended benefit of the project would be to transport students to educational training centers such as SVHEC and DCC, provide transportation to incumbent workers commuting between the localities to their workplaces, as well as accommodate the needs of the general public.

However, a study indicated that of the 14,500 riders annually, the routes would generate just $24,000 in farebox revenues annually, so the prospects for long-term funding commitments by the localities are of significant concern, staff members said in their original recommendation for not funding the project.

Since 2004, transportation has been a stated low funding priority for the commission, and the precedent of funding local transit systems would potentially open floodgates of requests that can not be satisfied with a declining tobacco commission endowment, and with ongoing, pressing needs for additional industrial sites, training programs, technology infrastructure and other project types that are clearly prioritized with the commission’s strategic plan, staff members said.

Staff noted that if an award of funding was made, it would provide for numerous other local transit systems within the tobacco region that have similar needs the precedent needed for similar arguments for expansion of service.

A further challenge for the project, staff said will be to integrate “feeder service” for riders to get from their homes and workplaces scattered across these two large counties to the pickup points in the three communities.

However, after receiving approval of funding on Tuesday, Adams and the Southern Virginia Higher Education Center has seemed to have overcome this first hurdle and say they are gearing up for more hard work to bring this transportation project to fruition in Halifax and Pittsylvania counties.

Broadband initiative

The county’s request for $206,202 in tobacco commission research and development funds for its broadband initiative was not as successful Tuesday as tobacco commission committee members could not agree on funding any broadband proposals and sent the list back to be vetted more thoroughly with the assistance of independent experts prior to tobacco commission staff making any recommendations for funding. 

The research and development committee met Jan. 3 and again Tuesday morning in Richmond prior to the meeting of the full commission, but due to the fact that all proposals for Last Mile Broadband projects requested far exceeded the $10 million set aside, the staff made no recommendations at this time and suggested applicants undergo a more thorough vetting process.

The Halifax County Broadband Initiative is a multi-jurisdictional effort with Pittsylvania County and the town of Brookneal, with private partner SCS Broadband, providing adequate and affordable internet to rural residents of the region.

In general, service will be provided to unserved or underserved residents in rural areas of Halifax, southern Campbell and eastern Pittsylvania counties.

According to the grant application, in the course of just over a year, rural residents of Halifax County will be able to move fully into the cyber economy of the 21st century.

Through the installation of wireless internet, areas that previously could not be served cost effectively will have affordable service.

Unlike high-cost fiber or corporate IT companies focused on short-term profit only, regional wireless internet run by a Virginia company will bridge the digital divide.

Halifax County’s co-applicant on this project is SCS Broadband, a Nelson County-based company that currently offers wireless LTE and WIFI broadband service from vertical assets such as towers in Central Virginia counties including Pittsylvania and the Montvale area of Bedford.

Halifax County selected SCS during an RFP process conducted in early 2017.

This grant request would provide service in the first two phases of a four-phase plan to serve northern and Central Halifax County residents and businesses.

The total cost of phases 1 and 2 is $663,000, with the county providing $50,000 and SCS providing $407,000 for costs to purchase, lease or build towers and community data poles, as well as all costs for customer premise equipment and installation.

The application estimates that in the first two phases 2,805 residents and 172 businesses will have access to wireless broadband, with estimated take rates of 25 percent that will result in an anticipated 744 subscribers.

Tobacco commission funds have been requested for 50 percent of the costs of towers and poles, resulting in a cost per subscriber to the commission of $277.

Monthly residential subscriber fees begin at $35-$40 for 10-15 Mbps download and range up to $115-$120 per month for 50 Mbps.

Business subscribers will pay $150 per month for 10-15 Mbps service, ranging up to $300 per month for 20-25 Mbps.