Jul 19, 2021 • 17M

July 19, 2021: Virginia invests in passenger rail; Charlottesville Area Transit holds first input session

Today is the 200th day of 2021. Does this resonate with you, or is it another data point in a world increasingly inundated with information?

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Regular updates of what's happening in local and regional government in and around Charlottesville, Virginia from an award-winning journalist with nearly thirty years of experience.
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In today’s Substack-fueled shout-out, Code for Charlottesville is seeking volunteers with tech, data, design, and research skills to work on community service projects. Founded in September 2019, Code for Charlottesville has worked on projects with the Legal Aid Justice Center, the Charlottesville Fire Department, and the Charlottesville Office of Human Rights. Visit the Code for Charlottesville website to learn more, including details on projects that are underway.

In today’s show: 

  • Virginians for High Speed Rail hold a “town hall” on the future of passenger service in  the Commonwealth

  • Charlottesville Area Transit holds the first of two input sessions on upcoming route changes

  • Students at Jack Jouett Middle School may soon take a Journey

A committee reviewing the name of Jack Jouett Middle School has recommended that the facility be renamed Journey Middle School. The group was chaired by teacher Hannah Peters. 

“Inclusiveness was the value repeated most often by our students, community members, and staff,” Peters said in a news release on the school site. “Journey is a concept that applies to all. Middle school is a place that prepares students for the academic rigors of high school and beyond.”

Other choices included “Hope, Peace, and Justice,” “Monacan”, and keeping the existing name. The latter was the preference of a community survey. 

Superintendent Matt Haas will make his recommendation to the School Board at their meeting on August 12. The Board would take a vote as soon as August 26, but the name change would not take effect until July 1, 2022. 

According to the release, Jouett is reported to have held over two dozen people in enslaved servitude. Prior to this effort, the county has renamed three other schools and retained the name of Virginia Murray Elementary School. Cale Elementary has been Mountain View since July 1, 2020 and Sutherland Middle School is now Lakeside as of the most recent July 1. The Murray High School is now the Community Lab School. 

Virginia’s Planning District Commissions will be granted $40 million to use to create new housing across the Commonwealth. Funding will pass through the regional organization, such as the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission. Opportunities include renovating blighted properties, creation of regional housing trust funds, and building housing in business districts. The funding comes through the Virginia Housing Development Authority, which is now known as simply Virginia Housing. Specifically, the funding is part of their REACH program. We can expect more details perhaps at the August 5 meeting of the TJPDC. 

Virginia will be able to participate in a regional program designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions after a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit from a business group last week. The Circuit Court of Richmond ruled that Virginia Department of Environmental Quality did not violate state rules when it revised regulations to enter a cap and trade system known as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI). The Virginia Manufacturers Association had argued the move created an “illegal carbon tax on ratepayers”

“The Court recognized that DEQ scrupulously followed the General Assembly’s directives and did not violate Virginia’s Clean Energy and Community Flood Preparedness Act when it amended its carbon trading program regulations to allow for the direct auction of carbon dioxide allowances,” said DEQ Air and Renewable Energy Director Mike Dowd in a release today. 

For more on the ruling and the RGGI system, read this article in the Virginia Mercury

A project to relocate a gas line from one side of Emmet Street to the other met with damage this weekend, resulting in a detour of southbound traffic heading toward the University of Virginia. Rain damaged a utility trench and in order to make repairs, all southbound traffic on Emmet Street will be detoured through Massie Road and Copeley Road. The gas line is being relocated as part of UVA’s Emmet / Ivy Corridor project. UVA Architect Alice Raucher will discuss that larger project at the Albemarle County Planning Commission on July 20 beginning at 6 p.m. (learn more about the detour ) (Albemarle PC meeting info)

In the past year and a half, the state of Virginia has invested heavily in the future of rail, spending billions to buy hundreds of miles of right of way for that purpose from CSX. The investment has been made as a way of relieving congestion on Interstate 95 and other roads without widening. Shannon Valentine is the Virginia Secretary of Transportation and she created an Office of Innovation at the Virginia Department of Transportation to study major corridors. 

“The congestion along I-95 particularly from Fredericksburg to D.C. is some of the worst in the country,” Valentine said. “We were going through a number of options and the natural solution was let’s look at building more roads and we learned through the study that just building one lane, 52 miles from Fredericksburg to 495 in each direction would cost $12.5 billion.”

Details on what the Virginia Passenger Rail Authority has been up to from their June 28, 2021 meeting (Executive Director’s report)

Valentine said the study also forecast the expansion would be obsolete within ten years of completion. She said the investment in rail will be a third of the cost and focus on moving freight and passengers through the corridor. Part of the improvements will be to build a new bridge across the Potomac dedicated to passenger and commuter service. 

Valentine made her comments at a July 15 “Town Hall” held by the group Virginians for High Speed Rail.  The other speaker was Stephen Gardner, the president of Amtrak. That federal agency is investing in new trains for additional service in the northeast corridor. 

“First and foremost, we view our mandate as trying to create as many alternative trips to driving and as we can across America to create that alternative to connect communities with reliable, efficient, and time-competitive service,” Gardner said. 

Amtrak was created as a federal agency in 1971 to consolidate 20 passenger rail services across the United States into one. In Virginia, the seventies coincided with a period of disinvestment in passenger rail. Today’s efforts didn’t come out of nowhere. 

“This program, this effort to expand has been a many, many decades long effort,” Gardner said. “It’s just been a long and continuous effort to try to develop an expanded service that could really support the tremendous growth and opportunity in the Commonwealth and it’s taken a while to turn vision into fruition.” 

Gardner credited Virginia for having a plan when the time came for expansion. There has been daily service from Lynchburg to D.C. since October 2009 and a second daily train will be along in the near future. 

“We are adding a second train in the FY22 from Roanoke and Lynchburg north, and we’ll be expanding and extending that train, both trains actually, over to the New River Valley into Christianburg, Blacksburg, Virginia Tech,” Gardner said. 

Watch the entire Town Hall on the Virginians for High Speed Rail’s YouTube channel. The group was formed in the 1990’s to build support for restored and renewed passenger service in Virginia. 

If you're curious and want to dig deeper, there's another podcast you might want to try. Especially you ask why, and not just what. And if you belive that politics should be about making communities better.

If so, check out Bold Dominion, a biweekly podcast from WTJU 91.1 FM. Bold Dominion is a state politics explainer for a changing Virginia. Their latest episode asks: Where does Virginia’s trash come from and who does it get dumped on? Check it out at BoldDominion.org.

Charlottesville Area Transit has held the first of two public input sessions about changes to bus routes intended to boost ridership. The agency has experienced a sharp ridership decline over the past several years, and relatively new director Garland Williams has overseen some potential changes. 

“It is our intention to make sure that we get feedback and make adjustments to the CAT system that [are] fruitful to everyone and make sure the system is as productive as it possibly can be,” Williams said. 

During the pandemic, CAT hired Kimley-Horn and the Connetics Transportation Group to study the system to recommend changes. 

“We’ve had declining ridership for the last seven years,” Williams said. “We needed to figure out how to mitigate that, turn it around, put a stop on it, and put our best foot forward to make sure that the adjustments that we’re going to put in place will allow us to be productive.”

The adjustments are the first in a series of proposed changes, as Albemarle County and the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission are working on a study to expand transit regionally. The first opportunities for public input in that study are next week. 

A slide from the public presentation. Download the whole thing here.

It is a fact that ridership is declining. Jim Baker of the Connetics Transportation Group knows another fact.

“Generally about 62,500 people in the Charlottesville area are within a quarter mile of a stop, a transit service,” Baker said.

Specific directives were to add service to South First Street in Charlottesville and the Center at Belvedere in Albemarle County. Capital funding from the city of Charlottesville for the Center was contingent on the new site being accessible to transit. 

“But also just to get 30 minute or better service to more people in the Charlottesville area and also to make sure that no route operating worse than a 60 minute service frequency,” Baker said.  

Service will be extended to Mill Creek. Route 7 will travel all the way to Wal-Mart. And there will be more options for people to move around without having to go to the Downtown Transit Station. 

“We’re proposing a new crosstown service from the south Charlottesville up to the U.S. 29 corridor, so from Willoughby going through the UVA hospital complex and then up to the shops at Stonefield,” Baker said.  

Five people made a public comment at the first session, which was held at noon on Friday. You can watch the whole thing on the city’s streaming meeting website.

One person said he was glad service will be extended to the Center, but also had a concern that the bus only stops there once on the route. 

“Apparently there’s no return so if I get the 11 bus and ride to the Center and get off and spend my afternoon there, how do I get home?” asked Todd Cone.

Williams said the intersection of Rio Road and Belvedere Boulevard is currently unsignalized, which means making a left-hand turn very difficult. 

“You do get home,” Williams said. “It’s just that there’s no, you have to ride around unfortunately because it is unsafe for us to go across an unsignalized intersection. A CAT vehicle is not a car so it’s a 35 foot bus trying to make it across six lanes of traffic. It’s not a safe way for us to go southbound towards downtown. You are able. You just have to get on the Center and ride around.”

Carmelita Wood, president of the Fifeville Neighborhood Association, said many of the bus stops in the area offer no protection from the elements. 

“Some of the Routes, 4 and 6 on Cherry, and I think it’s Bailey Road and Fifth Street, there’s no coverage from the weather and the heat,” Wood said. “They recently put in seating in some areas, but in most of the areas there’s no coverage from the rain and the snow and the heat.”

Juwhan Lee, assistant director at CAT, said a full review of city bus stops is underway. 

“What we’re trying to do is go out there and see where are stops are and what conditions they are in and what amenities they have,” Lee said. “We want to look at everything, look at the condition of the infrastructure of the location, and see what we can do improve it. Does the stop need to be here? If so, how can we make it better?” 

Lee said such a study has not been conducted for over ten years. 

Anthony Woodard is the manager of the McIntire Plaza off of McIntire Road just south of the interchange of the John Warner Parkway and the U.S. 250 Bypass. He noted no bus service serves the area, which will soon house more people. 

“There’s a lot of employment opportunities there,” Woodard said. “A lot of nonprofits in the area. Habitat Store, Blue Ridge Area Food Bank. And soon to be over 200 residents living back there as well as other neighborhoods nearby. The closest next stop is over half a mile away.”

Williams said the area is on his radar for future coverage as those housing units come online, and as CAT looks ahead to the next set of upgrades. 

“It’s not off of the table but in the existing model, if we have additional funding it would be looked at it and when the additional residents get there, then we probably would look at as a recommendation to add additional service there,” Williams said. 

For details of the specific changes, visit the Charlottesville Area Transit website to review the presentation. And participate at the next event at 6 p.m. (meeting info)