Charlottesville Community Engagement
Charlottesville Community Engagement
March 14, 2024: Staff developing by-laws for future regional transit authority; Council agrees to staff recommendations on alternative fuels pilot

March 14, 2024: Staff developing by-laws for future regional transit authority; Council agrees to staff recommendations on alternative fuels pilot

Plus: Jaunt's interim CEO responds to comments from the city's new transit union

For many years, the Comprehensive Plans of both Albemarle and Charlottesville have called for additional density to be located in walkable communities where public transit is a viable option for getting around without a car. But how well are the various systems working to meet that goal? A direct answer may not be available In today’s edition of Charlottesville Community Engagement, but this one does catch up on a variety of meetings held at a time when there’s a lot of talk about creating a Regional Transit Authority. I’m Sean Tubbs, still watching the wheels go round and round.  

On today’s show:

  • The Regional Transit Partnership directs staff to prepare the by-laws for a potential transit authority 

  • Charlottesville City Council agrees to a pilot project where Charlottesville Area Transit buys two battery-electric vehicles now and agrees to have staff research the potential purchase of two hydrogen fuel cell vehicles in 2027

  • The interim CEO of Jaunt responds to comments made by a representative of the transit union 

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First shout-out: WTJU staging the Cville Puzzle Hunt on March 16

In today’s first Patreon-fueled shout-out: Cville Puzzle Hunt is back! Organized by WTJU 91.1 FM and Puzzled Bee, the event is a citywide cerebral puzzle for teens and adults of all ages. The Cville Puzzle Hunt It works like an escape room, but all of downtown Charlottesville is the "room."

This year’s event takes place Saturday, March 16, 2:30 - 6 p.m. The Puzzle Hunt starts and ends at IX Art Park, with puzzles to solve at various downtown locations. Those participating will have a wild afternoon running around trying to untangle five diabolical, large-scale puzzles inserted into the urban landscape. 

Advance registration is requested at The event is free and a $5 a person donation is suggested.

Regional Transit Partnership directs staff to write by-laws for new transit authority 

Since 1980, Albemarle County’s growth management strategy has been to locate residential and commercial density around the city of Charlottesville to avoid development of the rural area. 

Albemarle’s last Comprehensive Plan was adopted in June 2015 and Strategy 8E of the transportation chapter calls for the county to “participate in the formation of a Regional Transit Authority (RTA) that is sufficiently funded to significantly expand transit service in the region with fast, frequent transit service along priority transit corridors.”

Strategy 8E of the 2015 Comprehensive Plan’s transportation chapter. View the whole plan here. (Credit: Albemarle County)

Nearly nine years later, a lot of planning work has gone into the idea with one deliverable being the formation of a Regional Transit Partnership consisting of Albemarle, Charlottesville, the University of Virginia. The city and UVA each own separate bus systems with very little overlap. Albemarle contracts with Charlottesville to fund the Charlottesville Area Transit service. 

The idea of an authority was floated once before in the late 2000’s and legislation to create one passed the General Assembly. However, legislation to authorize a sales tax increase failed to get out of committee and the idea was shelved.  

In the mid 2020’s, the situation in Charlottesville looks much the same as it did in the late 2000’s with three different transit systems with three different fleets. Ridership on CAT during that time has plummeted from 2.4 million in “unlinked trips” in 2013 to 1.15 million in 2022

With some funding from the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation, the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission has led two studies. A $350,000 Regional Transit Vision Plan offered two frameworks for more frequent running transit with the annual cost estimate of $35.5 million for service that would extend across all six localities. (view the final report dated November 30, 2022)

Then the Regional Transit Governance Study reviewed potential ways of how a new regional transit authority might bring in additional funding to help cover the cost of service. The firm AECOM worked on both studies. (view the draft final governance report dated February 2024)

“How could we find additional funds for the increased service that we want to be provided by this authority?” said Stephanie Amoaning-Yankson with AECOM. 

The Regional Transit Partnership got a look at the final recommendations at their meeting on February 22. After over a year of work, the number one finding of the governance study is to pick right up from March 2010 when Albemarle and Charlottesville opted to shelve the authority.  

“At the end of the study, what we recommended was activating… an existing legislation for the region that allows for setting up a transit authority,” Amoaning-Yankson said. “It’s available by legislation but it does not have any funding associated with it.” 

Amoaning-Yankson said this would be an interim step to allow further discussion and that Albemarle and Charlottesville should join immediately. The other TJPDC localities are named in the 2009 legislation so their participation would not be a legislative obstacle. (take a look at HB2158)

Another next step would be to create a working group to draft by-laws and to shore up the organization before seeking legislation to bring in more revenue. The study recommends further conversations with UVA about their eventual participation.

“In other regions in the country that have major universities, we notice that the university systems were often crucial partners to the region and many times provided financial resources for transit in the region,” Amoaning-Yankson said. 

Another recommendation is further study of what transit services are really needed in the rural areas. 

“At several of our stakeholder meetings with the rural localities, we realized that the localities wanted to better understand what kind of transit they needed at a detailed level,” Amoaning-Yankson said. “They wanted to understand the proportions of their population that need transit service so they can make better decisions on how much they want to invest into transit as well.” 

The Regional Transit Vision Plan did not go into that level of detail. Jaunt has contracted with North Dakota State University on a survey that is currently underway. (view the survey)

The study looked at potential revenue sources, but many of the TJPDC localities have already raised meals and lodging taxes to pay for existing government services (Credit: AECOM)

If the different localities decide to proceed with the formation of the authority, the Regional Transit Partnership would disband. Details would depend on what the working group comes up with. Albemarle Supervisor Diantha McKeel is the chair of the partnership and she said the whole idea is to fix a broken system.

“We all recognize that transit in this community is not working for everybody and we certainly have had struggles,” McKeel said. “We also recognize that in order to build a robust transit system, we have to have money.”

McKeel requested that staff begin the discussions of a work group to come back with recommendations within 90 days of February 22. That would be after both Albemarle and Charlottesville adopt budgets. Staff suggested it may take 120 days to draw up that work. 

Christine Jacobs, the executive director of the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission, confirmed that one meeting of TJPDC, Charlottesville and Albemarle staff has occurred to develop those by-laws and next steps for moving forward. 

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Second shout out: Friends of Charlottesville Downtown 

In today’s second Patreon-fueled sponsorship, we’re about to pass into spring and that means a new season of events on the Downtown Mall in Charlottesville. The Friends of Charlottesville Downtown have a whole lot in store. 

  • First there’s a whole new website with an interactive Downtown map with details on over 1,000 downtown businesses! 

  • Then there’s St. Patrick's Day Weekend - Cville Puzzle Hunt with WTJU on Saturday, Downtown Express and the Cville Band on Sunday. 

  • At Easter, there’s the Downtown Express and Easter Bunny Photos on March 30th from 10 - 2 PM 

  • As spring proceeds, there will be Downtown in Bloom - Flower Market on April 25th, Elf & Fairy Festival on May 18th and Flower Box Competition/Student Art from May 1st - 30th. 

And don’t forget to check out that interactive map to learn something new to do on the Downtown Mall today. 

Council agreed to proceed with purchase of holds work session on alternative fuels

The conversation about public transit that has generated the most oxygen has not been about whether its running effectively. Instead, at least one advocacy group has been very vocal in their demands that the City Council immediately phase out the purchase of diesel buses in favor of battery-electric vehicles. 

Previous coverage: 

On February 27, 2024, City Council had another work session on a recommendation from the firm Kimley Horn on how to proceed with transitioning Charlottesville Area Transit to fossil-free fuels. (view the presentation)

After a year of work, the consultant is recommending the purchase of two battery-electric vehicles this year as a pilot and to buy two hydrogen-fueled vehicles in 2027. 

“That would give us two different pilots,” said CAT Director Garland Williams. “During the pilot we’re also looking at expansions of our fleet. Part of what we are trying to make sure that we do is provide adequate service for the community members who need our service, not just want our service.”

To assist with that expansion, diesel replacement vehicles would also be purchased with a goal of 2040 to be carbon free, ten years before the city’s deadline of 2050. 

An advocacy group called C-Ville 100 has been demanding that the city purchase no more diesel vehicles and to buy battery-electric vehicles. Another group known as the Community Climate Collaborative has been advocating for that as well but has since come around to the phased approach. 

A slide from the presentation summarizes the concerns of Cville 100

As the director of the city’s Office of Sustainability, Kristel Riddervold is responsible for guiding Charlottesville to meet its greenhouse gas emission goals. She explained the purpose of the Kimley Horn study. 

“What we’re talking about is a feasibility study of shifting a fossil fuel fleet,” Riddervold said. “It’s not an implementation plan and it is not a design plan. Those are critical, subsequent steps.”

Riddervold said the city’s climate action plan calls for more people to ride public transit rather than use their own vehicle.  That’s been more difficult since the spring of 2020 when CAT began operating on reduced “Lifeline” service with reduced hours and no routes traveling on Sunday. Council was briefed on a realignment of bus routes in the spring of 2021, but that work has not yet been implemented pending additional drivers. 

CAT is now seeking to move forward with those route changes, and it needs more vehicles to make it happen. The transition to a fully-functioning system would be more difficult if new buses are not reliable. 

“There will be issues to work through before we have alternatively fueled buses on the road, but this is how we get started,” Riddervold said. (review Riddervold’s presentation)

Riddervold said her recommendation to Council is to proceed with the study because the sooner CAT is more reliable, the sooner ridership will begin to rebound. According to a report to the Federal Transit Administration, there were 2.4 million in “unlinked trips” in 2013, a ridership figure that dropped to 1.15 million in 2022

“The proposed fleet expansion will allow CAT to provide improved transit frequency and reliability, addressing an important issue of transit equity,” Riddervold said. “The pilot approach will allow CAT maintenance staff to gain familiarity with two technologies prior to widespread adoption. The recommendation is leadership by example. We are encouraging our community to pursue fleet transition to cleaner fuel sources and need to do this ourselves.” 

Council also heard from Ben Chambers, the city’s transportation planner. Chambers reminded Council about the plan developed in 2021 to get CAT out of the “lifeline” service. Chambers did not yet work for the city at that time, and Councilors Juandiego Wade, Natalie Oschrin, and Brian Pinkston were not yet in office. 

“This fixed some of our routes, made them more direct, but it also added up some new service areas in the city and the county,” Chambers said. “It would have expanded Saturday service, returned some Sunday service, would have changed some transfer points in a few key areas around the system to make transfers less frequent and added a little bit of recovery time on the end of each route so our on-time performance for our routes would have improved.” 

To read an account of that time, I have this article from May 2021 that went over the details. Chambers said the changes were not implemented due to a shortage of drivers, vehicles, and parts. 

A “system optimization plan” was created in 2021 but has not yet been implemented for a variety of factors

Around the same time, the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission began work on its study of regional transit that culminated in the Regional Transit Vision Plan and the Regional Transit Governance Study. Chambers said these plans were more aspirational.

“Some of the recommendations from this study sort of live in a reality that it outside of what CAT currently exists with and we would have to restructure some routes very significantly with some of the recommendations that they came forward with,” Chambers said. “Things like making the trolley extend to Pantops would require further discussions between us and the county to make sure they actually want that service and would have the capability of funding that service.”

Meanwhile CAT is working on a transit strategic plan required by the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation. More details will be revealed at another work session on April 16. In general, CAT wants to double the amount of service it offers in order to increase ridership. To do that, Chambers said there needs to be a reliable bus fleet and the DRPT needs to know how they’ll ensure one is in place. 

City Councilor Natalie Oschrin said another tool at the city’s disposal is to make driving a less viable option.

“Like if we have dedicated bus lanes, then timing can be more accurate, and it’s also less handy to drive so people will choose buses,” Oschrin said. “There’s other external factors we can apply to make it less attractive to be in a car and more attractive to be in a bus.”

Council also heard from staff with Kimley Horn on specifications for the vehicles themselves. 

“The average battery electric that was available in 2022 when we looked at this was about 150 to 350 mile range,” said Sam Sink. “Of course, this is significantly affected by external factors. Weather, ambient temperature, how the driver drives, bus occupancy, topography. All of these things can affect range.” 

Sink said they also tend to be more expensive than diesel buses and they take time to recharge. That could mean a need to purchase more vehicles to ensure there are enough to deliver expanded service. 

Hydrogen fuel cell buses would have a range closer to diesel fuels of between 260 and 350 miles. 

“They’re less susceptible to range decreases in [battery electric vehicles],” Sink said. “Some models may experience weather-related degradation but certainly not to the extent of [battery-electric vehicles.]” 

Sink said refueling would also be about the same as refueling for a diesel or compressed natural gas vehicle. However, these are more expensive than battery electric vehicles with a 2021 cost of $1.15 million. 

Williams said the city would likely stop buying diesel buses after 2027 to meet the timeline to be fossil fuel by 2040. Proceeding with the recommendations would provide more information to guide future decision-making, beginning with the two battery-electric vehicles. 

“We would purchase our first this year, battery-electric, the two,” Williams said. “As soon as we get those, assuming 18 to 24 months, we’d be able to have them in operation about two years, really get a test and feel for where we can use them.” 

At the end of the presentation, Councilors had their thoughts. Councilor Brian Pinkston said he could understand staff’s concerns about the uncertainties of battery-electric vehicles at this point in the technology. But he reserved his concern for hydrogen fuel cells.

“I’m not a transit expert and can’t claim to be but as an engineer and as a project manager when I think about all these things, I just don’t think I trust hydrogen enough to go there,” Pinkston said. 

Pinkston said there’s enough creativity in the community to pursue battery-electric vehicles and to deploy them on routes where they will be most effective, especially if fast-charging technology is pursued. 

Williams said some of the advocates seeking to persuade Council have claimed that he is against any transition. He said he wants the system to work reliably.

“I have talked to my colleagues from California, to New York, to Illinois and they are all saying there are concerns about the range on battery-electric,” Williams said. “I am not saying not to do it. I believe that we should do a portion of our fleet with battery-electric.”

Williams said CAT has to perform better before an aggressive approach is taken to change the entire fleet type. 

“Remember, we’re not buying hydrogen until 2027 so that gives us a couple of years to figure out some of the infrastructure components,” Williams said. 

And if the city can’t find a source of hydrogen that doesn’t take a lot of emissions to produce, the city could decide not to proceed. Williams said giving him authorization to put this fuel source in the transit strategic plan would allow pursuit of funding for that option. 

At the end of the presentation, City Manager Sam Sanders pressed Council for their direction despite a torrent of advocacy from people who have not been elected to make one. 

“And you have a very big political decision to make and I think that’s why it has felt awkward and uncomfortable and it’s gotten a little more uncomfortable for me recently as folks have made comments that I’m even not supportive of battery electric buses or climate innovation as it relates to transportation and that’s not true,” Sanders said. 

Sanders reminded Council that Williams had related the story of a transit system that is not working and more service is needed. He said sixty minute headways are not acceptable.

“It is hard to innovate when you are falling apart,” Sanders said. 

To get to that decision, Sanders asked a direct question.

“Are you interested in hydrogen being a part of this scenario or not? Are you interested in leaving it in the mix for consideration or not?” Sanders asked. 

Sanders said if Council opted to go solely with battery-electric buses, CAT would need to try out multiple types. If hydrogen were to be selected as an option, staff would need to do more research between now and 2027. 

  • City Councilor Lloyd Snook said he would be interested in furthering research into hydrogen but had concerns about whether there will be market for the fuel in 2027.

  • Council Brian Pinkston said he would be willing to pursue hydrogen as a pilot but only if the fuel is generated with low emissions.

  • City Councilor Michael Payne had a similar position, but said he would prefer to experiment with different types of battery-electric vehicles. 

Oscrhin said she was generally in support of more investment in transit. 

“There’s too many single-occupancy vehicles on the road and we need to do what we can to provide people with the opportunity to make the choice to get somewhere faster and reliably in a communal way, so that’s a bus, that’s bike lanes, that’s sidewalks,” Oschrin said. 

Oschrin said she was not that interested in hydrogen but could see leaving the option open for research.

Mayor Juandiego Wade said he supported the pilot, but still had questions.

“I’m still not 100 percent clear on how this new technology will improve reliability, “ Wade said. “It reminds me of when I was on the School Board and there was a big movement to improve the lunches and to make it more healthy and we did that and we implemented it in the schools. But all the schools threw most of the lunch away so we had the healthiest trash cans in the state of Virginia. I don’t want to have the cleanest buses but no one is on it because we don’t have the resources.”

With direction in hand to proceed with the pilot, Sanders thanked the staff at Kimley-Horn for taking what he described as a “light beating” simply for doing their jobs. 

Interim Jaunt CEO acknowledges unionization efforts, plans salary increase this year

While staff at various local governments continue to put together potential by-laws for a regional transit authority, labor relations is another moving part in the complicated negotiations. 

At least 39 Charlottesville Area Transit employees are now members of the Amalgamated Transit Union, a move allowed by legislation in 2020 that allowed public employees in Virginia to engage in collective bargaining. 

On February 20, 2024, one of their representatives asked Council to consider ending a contract with Jaunt to provide services required by the Americans with Disabilities Act.  (read the story)

Mike Murphy is the interim CEO of the public service organization following the resignation last year of Ted Rieck. In an executive committee meeting held on March 5, Murphy told some of the Board of Directors that the ATU contacted some Jaunt employees, and in response, Jaunt management set up an employee relations committee.

“A lot of that discussion focuses on pay as a result of what operators’ impressions are of the signed union agreement in the city,” Murphy said. 

Murphy said he did not want to make any comment until the agreement is public. He did say Charlottesville Area Transit’s base pay is already about eleven percent higher than Jaunt’s base pay. He said he would be recommending a salary adjustment for operators before the end of the fiscal year above and beyond the increase he’s recommending for FY2025. 

Murphy had more details in a February 28, 2024 letter sent to Council in which he explained that Jaunt’s status as a public service organization means that enabling authority for collective bargaining doesn’t apply. He added that he contacted Delegate Katrina Callsen about carrying a bill to change that, but HB780 ended up being incorporated into other legislation that did not make it out of the House Appropriations Committee this year (HB1001).

At the executive committee meeting, Murphy played the audio of the comments made by John Ertl of the Amalgamated Transit Union. He said Ertl misrepresented Jaunt’s position on collective bargaining. 

“We have had legal consult on that from our in-house attorney, a third-party attorney, and believe that the state code does not enable us to have that discussion,” Murphy said. 

Murphy said Jaunt would follow the collective bargaining process if it were authorized, but said the complicated nature of Jaunt’s organizational structure raises many questions. 

The full Jaunt Board of Directors met yesterday and one of the items on the agenda was an update on the Regional Transit Authority. There are a lot of moving pieces when we talk about how to move people around the community and part of my work is to capture as much as I can. Sometimes it takes a while. (Jaunt Board agenda for March 13, 2024)

Reading material:

This is the end of #647

A confessional. When my parents moved to Pennsylvania last year, disruptions to the operations of this newsletter ensued. Now I frequently travel there and I’m still learning how to do both. I wanted to get the three segments in this newsletter out more quickly but that did not occur.

A reason I don’t call what I’m doing “news” is because I have to build in the time it takes to get through the hours and hours of meeting. I do not and will not use artificial intelligence to do my job. That means delays in getting information out, as I balance all of what I’m trying to do.

Tomorrow marks the four-year anniversary of the Charlottesville Quarantine Report, a podcast I devoted almost all of energy toward in the first several months of the pandemic. I had reluctantly left journalism and when many but not all of us were stuck at home, I began the pathway to where we are at this point with you reading or heating this. 

You know by now that you can help ensure there are future editions with a paid subscription through Substack. Ting will match that! 

This is an incredibly generous sponsorship, and you if you sign up for service and enter the promo code COMMUNITY you’re going to get:

  • Free installation

  • A second month for free

  • A $75 gift card to the Downtown Mall

Charlottesville Community Engagement
Charlottesville Community Engagement
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.