April 1, 2021: Confederate statues can be removed from Charlottesville parks; Virginia invests in public transportation; how healthy are we?
One quarter down, three to go!
Today’s show is brought to you by the quarter of the audience who has stepped up to make a financial contribution to the show in the form of a Substack subscription, a monthly Patreon amount to help support general research, Venmo, PayPal, or simply by sending in a check to Town Crier Productions. In the past eight months, we’ve begun to build together something intended to engage the community with information about local decision-points about the future. I’m grateful to each of you, and I will soon have an announcement about another way this project will be made sustainable. Until then let’s get on with the information.
On today’s show:
Governor Northam finalizes a $3.7 billion investment in rail in Virginia
An update on the Regional Transit Partnership including news that fare-free will continue for area systems
Charlottesville City Council agrees to wait a year to make a final decision on West Main Streetscape
How do our localities fare in a new rankings for health metrics?
The Virginia Supreme Court rules that the Confederate statues can come down
Some breaking news came in just as I was finalizing the script. The Virginia Supreme Court has ruled that Charlottesville can remove two Confederate statues in city parks that were erected in the early 1920’s. In February 2017, Council voted to remove statues of two Confederate generals and were soon sued by a group who argued the statues were protected war memorials under a law that passed the General Assembly in 1997. A Charlottesville Circuit Court judge backed them up the plaintiffs in an October 2019 ruling.
However, the opinion written by Justice Bernard Goodwyn found that the Circuit Court Judge
“It has long been the law of the Commonwealth that retroactive application of statutes disfavored,” reads the opinion.
We’ll have more on this in tomorrow’s program.
On Tuesday, a ceremony was held at the Alexandria train station that is the culmination of an announcement in December 2019 from Governor Ralph Northam about a $3.7 billion investment in Virginia rail.
A $1.9 billion bridge over the Potomac River dedicated to passenger rail
Public purchase of 223 miles of track and 386 miles of right of way from CSX
$1 billion in related infrastructure improvements in Virginia
Shannon Valentine is Virginia’s Secretary of Transportation.
“From the moment that this agreement in principle, the concept, was negotiated with CSX and announced in December 2019, with our partners Amtrak and [Virginia Railway Express], we have been working deliberately and sequentially over these past 15 months,” Valentine said.
The expansion of Long Bridge has cleared at many environmental hurdles. An authority to expand passenger rail has been created. Congress has given approval to transfer some parkland to the project. (read press release)
The ceremony was held at the Alexandria train station to sign the agreements governing how CSX, Amtrak and VRE will work together.
“Through an extraordinary year, often with great uncertainty, there has been steadfast commitment to reaching this destination,” Valentine said.
The initiative includes purchase of a freight corridor between Charlottesville and Doswell north of Richmond for eventual passenger rail service. Also included is funding to extend rail service to Christiansburg and planning to hear further west to Bristol.
“This transformative plan will make travel faster and safer,” Northam said. “It will make it easier to move up and down our east coast and it will connect urban and rural Virginia.”
Also in attendance was U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg who said the recently signed American Rescue Plan will help ensure public transit makes it through the pandemic.
“The rescue plan has more than $30 billion in funding for public transit agencies helping them to avoid layoffs and service cuts,” Buttigieg said. “We know that the cuts these agencies were facing disproportionately harm workers who depend on public transportation including so many of the workers we have belatedly come to call essential workers.”
The statewide rail network will make it more possible for people to choose not to own an automobile. But how will the regional public transportation be improved to provide alternatives to driving?
Since October 2017, the Regional Transit Partnership has met as a program of the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission (TJPDC). The group consists of Charlottesville and Albemarle officials, and the University of Virginia joined the partnership by the end of 2019. The idea is to share information with an eye to having the city-owned Charlottesville Area Transit, the public service corporation Jaunt, and the University Transit System work better together.
Last week, regional leaders got an update on the creation of a regional transit vision that the TJPDC is working on that will serve as a blueprint for a more efficient system. The next milestone is for a committee to select a firm to work on the project. Jessica Hersh-Ballering is a transportation planner with the TJPDC who spoke at March 25 RTP meeting.
“The regional transit vision plan requires technical assistance from a consulting team and the role of the selection committee is to review proposals from those firms to the vision plan [request for proposals] and then to recommend to the Regional Transit Partnership a preferred firm to complete the vision plan,” said Hersh-Ballering.
The committee will review the proposals in May.
Charlottesville Area Transit Director Garland Williams gave an update on the forthcoming revision to bus routes after presenting an overview at the February RTP meeting. There will be a change to the route that travels between downtown and U.S. 29 in Albemarle County’s designated growth area. (FY22 CAT service proposals)
“We’re doing some extensions, we’re trading some of the components of the 7 and extending it out to Wal-Mart so it will be seven days a week,” Williams said. “It looks like we’ll be able to have final iterations that we will be able to share with the public probably in a couple of weeks.”
Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act requires two rounds of public input before the routes can be approved.
One effect of the pandemic has been a reduction in demand for parking at the UVA Health System. UVA parking and transportation director Becca White said that’s coming to an end.
“We’re back up to about 90 percent of the pre-COVID demand at the hospital,” White said. “Of course, as you know we transport all those people that last mile. We intercept them in a big parking area and shuttle them to their final destination.”
White said parking demand in the academic campus is at about 55 percent of pre-COVID levels.
“So many of the classes are still not in person or are hybrid such that that whole class change thing isn’t really, still isn’t happening,” White said.
The last day of classes is May 6 and the last day of exams is on May 15. Graduation is on May 20, and UVA is expected to make an announcement this Friday about how what they call Final Exercises will proceed.
Jaunt is also seeing a small return to pre-COVID traffic. Karen Davis is the interim director.
“Our ridership is starting to tick up and we’re putting more drivers out on the road,” Davis said. “More of them are able to have a full schedule although we are at reduced capacity and we’re actively keeping an eye on how COVID rules will change transit, and also reopening our main office.”
Davis said Jaunt will soon survey riders of the Crozet Connect route which began in the summer of 2019. The service has changed due to the pandemic.
“Up until this point, we have pretty much changed our service structure to demand and so we’ll do the same in Crozet,” Davis said. “It’s such a shame because it was flourishing and growing so strong and then COVID hit and it’s just like, oh gosh!”
After Davis’s update, Williams dropped this information.
“Karen and I, I believe, are still contemplating in our FY22 budgets operating fare-free,” Williams said. He added the idea is to use a portion of COVID relief funds to cover the cost of fares, which makes up about ten percent of the CAT budget.
“We have it in our numbers for three years,” Williams said.
Williams added study will soon get under way to see if CAT can permanently remove the farebox. The system will also soon add automated passenger counters to buses to track ridership.
Jaunt can’t quite make that commitment, but will be fare-free in fiscal year 2022, which begins on July 1.
“Especially going fare-free in this next year will really enable us to get out ridership back, up and running,” Davis said. “When you take that barrier away for passengers, the risk of trying to use transit is so low and people, why not get on the bus and see where it goes? I think it’s really exciting if we can make this work.”
One item called for in the Regional Transit Partnership’s strategic plan is a visit to a community similar to Charlottesville to see how transit works. A possible trip to Blacksburg was put on hold a year ago when the pandemic began. Here’s Albemarle County Supervisor Diantha McKeel.
“I just think it’s always good if we can take a look at what other communities are doing,” McKeel said.
However, Williams said CAT is planning to work with the firm Kimley Horn on a peer review of its own.
“That’s a necessary component for us as we start to build out and ask for more for our alternative fuel vehicles and facilities,” Williams said. “We need to see how we match up as we are starting to ask for more capital projects.”
Williams said as part of that work, they are looking for a location for a park and ride lot on U.S. 29. Supervisor Bea LaPisto-Kirtley asked for more information.
“Garland, are you looking for your park and ride up in the area around… North Pointe?” LaPisto-Kirtley asked. “They’re really building out up there.”
“I will just say that what we don’t want to do is give the developers a chance to grab the pieces of property from us that we are looking at,” Williams said.
Williams said he has had conversations with Albemarle officials about the idea. And that’s where the Regional Transit Vision plan and a separate Albemarle transit plan are intended to come in. The TJPDC is also studying the North 29 Corridor in both Albemarle and Greene counties.
In today’s subscriber-supported public service announcement:
There are many fewer monarch butterflies than there were in the past and efforts are underway to study and implement solutions. On April 19, Wild Virginia welcomes Virginia Master Naturalist Michelle Prysby for a virtual talk where she will describe several programs underway, ranging from the Monarch Larva Monitoring Project to Project Monarch Heath. Sign up now at Wild Virginia for this talk on the Biology, Ecology, and Conservation of Monarch Butterflies.
Charlottesville City Council will have a public hearing on the proposed fiscal year on Monday, April 5. On March 25 they held a work session on the proposed capital improvement program as well as what to do with some additional revenue that budget staff now anticipates receiving during the year that begins on July 1.
“With the proposed CIP we are projecting a five year debt financing of roughly $121 million,” said senior budget management analyst Krissy Hammill. “WIth the bonds that we’ve previously committed but not issued, and the CIP before you, we are committing to a debt capacity of about $195 million.”
To cover that amount, budget staff are anticipating increasing the property tax rate for a total of ten cents over five years to cover the additional debt service. The actual vote to do so will be made by Council next year, including any new Councilors that are elected this November.
That $195 million Hammill mentioned includes about $18 million in bonds that have not yet been sold for the West Main Streetscape, which was split into four phases in order to obtain funding from the Virginia Department of Transportation. David Brown is the city’s public works director.
“The funding that’s being proposed right now covers Phase 1 but there is $6.5 million that is needed to complete Phase 2,” Brown said.
A third phase is recommended to be fully funded by VDOT with no match of local tax dollars, unlike in phase 1 and 2. Phase 4 is currently unfunded. City Manager Chip Boyles said VDOT is willing to delay the projects another year in order for them to be done at the same time, if the city comes up with the $6.5 million or scales back the project.
One of the biggest costs of the program is to place utility lines underground. This has a $4.3 million cost in Phase 1 and a $5 million cost in Phase 2 according to a budget presented to Council last September.
Another decision point was how to use some additional revenues freed up by other budget reductions and higher estimates for business licenses. About $1.3 million was found. A million is proposed for a two percent cost of living increase for city employees and another $60,000 would go to fully fund a deputy city manager position. Staff had recommended using the rest for personnel to support a climate action plan when one is drafted. Kristel Riddervold is the city’s environmental administrator.
“The anticipation is that when we have a climate action plan adopted, there will be a range of initiatives be it on the municipal side or the community support side that actually exceed the capacity staff has to deliver.
A majority of Council supported the climate position, but Charlottesville Mayor Nikuyah Walker favored a “measurement and solutions” position intended to track how the city is achieving its goals. A committee had been expected to produce a report last summer but the work was delayed by the pandemic.
City Manager Boyles said he would try to find a way to fund the measurement position as well.
The public hearing for the budget will be held at Council’s meeting on Monday night. A wrap-up work session is scheduled for April 8 and the budget is expected to be adopted at a special meeting on April 13.
A community health research firm at the University of Wisconsin has recently updated its rankings for how Virginia counties measure up in health. The Population Health Institute has ranked Albemarle as the 7th healthiest locality in the Commonwealth, based on several metrics including life expectancy. Life expectancy in 82.7 years according to the data.
Charlottesville is ranked 23rd (79.8 years), Fluvanna County is ranked 26th (80.1 years), Greene County is ranked 33rd (79.5 years), Louisa is ranked 60th (78 years) and Nelson is ranked 58th (78.3 years). Arlington is ranked first (85.9 years) and the city of Petersburg is ranked last at 133 (67.4 years).
The data is worth exploring and in this year where community health has become so important, this is an invaluable resource that I’ve only just begun to explore. This link will take you to a comparison among all of the localities in the TJPDC. Included on that list is a metric that relates to the segment earlier on transit.
Seventy-seven percent of working Virginians drive alone to work. In Charlottesville, the figure is 59 percent according to the database. That number is higher in the other communities.
Take a look and let me know what you see in the data.