Charlottesville Community Engagement
Charlottesville Community Engagement
November 30, 2023: A snapshot of planning for more transit in Albemarle and Charlottesville
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November 30, 2023: A snapshot of planning for more transit in Albemarle and Charlottesville

Plus: A very brief snippet of the end of Council's four-hour work session on the Development Code
Transcript

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The main goal of the Cville Plans Together initiative is to increase the number of people who can live in the area, and Albemarle’s Comprehensive Plan also calls for more homes within the county’s urban ring. How will people get around? One solution often offered up is transit, and there’s a lot riding on the ability of various agencies to be a reliable alternative to driving.

In this edition of Charlottesville Community Engagement, a focus on transit. I’m Sean Tubbs, pleasantly breaking the format once again. If you get this via e-mail, you will have to click through to the end to read the whole thing. Or view this installment on app!

If you’ve never listened to one of the podcasts, this is is a good one to start with.

Get more from Sean Tubbs in the Substack app
Available for iOS and Android

In this overly long edition:

  • A very brief update on the Cville Plans Together initiative 

  • Albemarle Supervisors learn more about the Regional Transit Governance study that’s paving the way for a potential transit authority 

  • A representative from the Texas A&M Transportation Institute briefs Albemarle Supervisors on a study of the county’s existing investment in transit 

  • Charlottesville Area Transit director Garland Williams briefs City Council on his agency’s current budget and upcoming requests 

First shout-out: Magic on the Mall 

In today’s first Patreon-fueled shout-out: The holidays are here and the Friends of Charlottesville Downtown and the Charlottesville Albemarle Convention and Visitors Bureau are ready for another season of Magic on the Mall

Festivities began this Saturday, November 25 and coming up later this weekend there will once again be something for every member of the family! 

  • The Jolly Holly Trolley will be running up and down the Mall from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through December 23

  • You can take free Selfies with Santa from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday, December 16th

  • Go on a magical scavenger hunt to find the Elves in Cville by starting at Charlottesville Insider or downloading it online

  • Follow the Peppermint Trail where you can find all sorts of treats! Locate the map here!

  • Downtown businesses will have a festive face off in the Best in Snow window competition, and you can vote for the jolliest! 

  • Celebrate with the Chabad House of UVA the fourth night of Hanukkah on December 10 with a menorah lighting and traditional foods

Visit friendsofcville.org to learn more!

A brief note before we get on board this edition

Today’s edition is a little different in that I want to deliberately catch up with stories about transit. Both Albemarle and Charlottesville anticipate a lot more density in the future, and alternative forms of transportation are often cited as a way that residents of new homes will get around. But does that happen? Who’s checking up to see if these systems are effective? Will plans for more transit get rolling? 

The role of this newsletter and the Information Charlottesville archive is to help people understand what’s going on. After all, each of us are asked to consider our own behavior when it comes to topics like traffic congestion and the like. Transit is definitely one of the top ten topics, and so why not devote a full edition to catching us all up with what’s happening?

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Council concludes Development Code review with four-hour work session

The Charlottesville City Council held the final and longest in a series of work sessions on the new Development Code. The four elected officials and one appointed official spent four hours going through remaining topics before the public hearing is held on December 5 at 4 p.m. 

I pledge to go through all four hours of the discussion as soon as possible, but also need to make it through the November 13 work session at which they discussed housing affordability with Sunshine Mathon, a member of the Housing Advisory Committee who also happens to be the executive director of the Piedmont Housing Alliance. 

There have been many changes to the draft zoning code since the Planning Commission held their public hearing on September 14. Many of these changes have been made at the behest of the HAC, which primarily consists of the directors of nonprofit housing groups each of whom has a stake in the outcome of the code. 

To get some information out on this today, here’s a few articles from the recent past:

I still need to get through the details from November 13 as well as the November 29 work session and that’s next after today’s newsletter. But here’s a piece of the tail end of the four-hour work session to give you a sense of how even some members of Council may not be sure about exactly what’s in the code that is the subject of the public hearing.

“Have we exhausted the topics as well as ourselves?” asked Charlottesville Mayor Lloyd Snook.

“One last thing, did folks get this email from Dan Rosensweig, HAC Final Recommendations for the Zoning Code Update dated November 13, 2023?” asked City Councilor Brian Pinkston. 

HAC member Dan Rosensweig is also the president and CEO of Habitat for Humanity of Greater Charlottesville.

“We did discuss those at a previous work session and I believe our consensus was to incorporate pretty much all of them,” said Councilor Michael Payne. “There was one thing we didn’t discuss which was the height bonus but obviously we’re not going to get into detail on that tonight.” 

“So you’re saying this letter, we’ve essentially already discussed it?” Pinkston asked.

“It was incorporated into the discussion on November 13,” said James Freas, the city’s director of Neighborhood Development Services. 

Sharon Pandak, the city’s outside legal counsel on the Development Code and land use reform, also had a comment.

“We’re going to be providing you some further advice regarding those options that were set forth in that letter on Monday,” Pandak said. 

That discussion will be in closed session. 

The public hearing is on Tuesday. 

I plan on working long hours to get myself and you up to date. 

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Albemarle Supervisors support move toward Regional Transit Authority

If demographers at the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University are to be believed, Albemarle is on track to have 155,102 people by 2050. For decades, the county has had a growth management strategy that has limited development to areas close to the City of Charlottesville in order to provide enough density to eventually support transit. 

In late October, Charlottesville Area Transit launched a one-year pilot to provide microtransit service to areas in Albemarle not served by buses running up and down on a fixed route. This is one of many fruits that have come out of the Regional Transit Partnership formed in 2017. 

Another could be a Regional Transit Authority that works to find ways to help provide alternate ways for people to get around. Both Albemarle and Charlottesville have funded a portion of two studies intended to usher in a new era of more options for people to be able to move around the community. Both studies are under the auspices of the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission. 

The first study is the Regional Transit Vision, an aspirational document completed last year that details two possible scenarios for more transit throughout the entire area, including Buckingham, Fluvanna, Greene, Louisa, and Nelson counties. (download the plan)

 The second study is to recommend ways and mechanisms to put the vision into action. 

“The Regional Transit Vision plan established a unified vision for transit service throughout our region and the intention of the governance study is to identify opportunities to more formally coordinate regional transit services and dedicate funding to support the realization of transit operations identified in the vision plan,” said Sandy Shackleford, Director of Planning and Transportation.

The Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation also funded the two studies, both of which involved the hiring of the firm AECOM. Dr. Stephanie Amoaning-Yankson is the project manager and she said the plan had many visions. 

“One was to create a region that could work in a collaborative manner, an inclusive manner, and using an equitable process to provide a transit system that represents both rural and urban needs,” Amoaning-Yankson said.

The governance study kicked off last year with a primer of the existing system. Rather than recap that all here, here’s a series of stories I’ve previously written. 

That regional vision came in both constrained and unconstrained flavors, with the details of the constrained network structured by an eye toward how much funding could reasonably be generated to pay for all of the buses, drivers, fuel, and operational staff needed to expand the number and frequency of routes. 

The unconstrained network imagined a world where funding didn’t matter, so we’ll focus on the constrained vision which would be fueled by increases in taxes that would go to a new regional transportation authority. 

“What this network would go to support is an increase in the amount of service both within the urban core and the rural areas,” Amoaning-Yankson said. 

The constrained network is detailed beginning on page 12 of the .PDF of the Regional Transit Vision (view the vision)

The constrained vision would vastly increase what Charlottesville Area Transit does now. 

Since the spring of 2020, the city-owned and operated Charlottesville Area Transit has been on reduced service with no buses running at all on Sunday.  There were plans in the summer of 2021 to realign CAT’s routes and to restore Sunday service to limited lines, but they have so far not been implemented.

The constrained plan would restore seven day service and would reduce headways to at least 30 minutes per route.

“This increase in service would represent increasing CAT’s current service by about 113 percent,” Amoaning-Yankson said. “For the rural network, what we are looking at is more hours of service in the day meaning you have to wait around less for a bus to come, having more service throughout the week, as well as having additional routes to increase the accessibility to the jurisdictions.”

This would also involve extending transit to the North Fork Discovery Park operated by the University of Virginia Foundation. 

Amoaning-Yankson said the governance study would work toward coordinating and implementing the service. There is currently a “regional transit partnership” that has no authority. 

Albemarle County currently has no means of governance over Charlottesville Area Transit, but the Board of Supervisors does appoint four members of the Jaunt Board of Directors. The next segment in this newsletter will take a look at the status quo, but Amoaning-Yankson asked this broad question of Supervisors: 

“What are your thoughts on adopting a regional approach to governing transit?” Amoaning-Yankson asked. 

“One is to have decision making and funding all linked together so everybody is involved in the decision-making and planning, all of the various stakeholders,” said Supervisor Ann Mallek. 

Supervisor Mallek was on the Board of Supervisors in 2008 when the TJPDC was coordinating efforts toward a Regional Transit Authority. In 2009, the General Assembly granted permission for such a body to be formed (HB2158), but a bill to allow voters to decide on a one-percent sales tax increase failed in committee. 

The idea was shelved for several years but continued to be a matter of study including the formation of the Regional Transit Partnership in 2017. 

Over those same years, Albemarle County has been asked to pay more of their share of CAT’s funding without any ownership. 

HB2161 failed in committee back in 2009, putting the Regional Transit Authority on hold for many years

But back to the question. Supervisor Donna Price thought a regional approach to transit governance would work. She said she lived in the Hampton Roads area for 18 years and the many cities there did not collaborate very often.

“They really did not talk with each other from the regional approach,” Price said. “They were more focused on their own individual locale which meant you did not have the interconnection between the different areas,” Price said. 

Supervisor Bea LaPisto Kirtley said a regional approach would help attract more funding.

“We don’t have the population in Albemarle County or in Charlottesville but together and with some of these other areas, we do have the population to be able to make this work,” LaPisto Kirtley said. 

Time for the next question.

“My next question that I’d want feedback on are if you have any initial concerns you may have with establishing a regional entity?” Amoaning-Yankson asked.

Supervisor Jim Andrews said service needs to be reliable and that one concern is that each locality has different population densities and different needs. 

“But also recognizing that we share a problem in that the number of people who have to commute long distances in order to work in the city and the county, and all of that is going to make this difficult but important,” Andrews said. 

Price agreed and said Albemarle contains both urban and rural communities.  That could provide a sense of common ground.

“Just within our county we face many of the issues that in combination the TJPDC local governments face,” Price said. 

LaPisto Kirtley said one idea might be to expand microtransit in the rural areas and to combine those with additional fixed routes. 

Supervisor Diantha McKeel is a member of the Regional Transit Partnership and a supporter of the regional transit vision and potential expansion of microtransit.

“We need to serve the urban and the rural and the rural communities certainly need it whether it's Greene or Nelson or just rural Albemarle County,” McKeel said. “But just to put in fixed routes in those areas is probably not going to be the solution.” 

McKeel also added that the University of Virginia is part of the conversation through their membership on the Regional Transit Partnership. They had been a non-voting member but joined more formally after President Jim Ryan took office.  Here are some information about how the vision plan discusses UVA.

  • The phrase “University of Virginia” appears once in the Regional Transit Vision

  • The word “University” appears eight times with one of them in the plan’s Objective 2.4: “Improve coordination between regional transit services and major institutions, such as UVA, to maximize transit usage for trips to and from the University and other major trip generators, and to encourage greater investment in transit by the University and other major regional institutions.”

  • The letters “UVA” appear 38 times in the plan, but several of these refer to Fluvanna County 

Amoaning-Yankson’s next question was whether the region should pursue new legislation or revisit the previous bill. Supervisors didn’t get into those details, but there was also a question of who would be on the new transportation planning body. 

“In terms of membership, we are looking at the City of Charlottesville and Albemarle County being the initial members but also having the rural localities join as an option,” Amoaning-Yankson said. “We also want to give an opportunity like we mentioned of having UVA as a partner, and so having the opportunity for the University or other entities to also be part of this.” 

The Authority would take on the responsibility of planning and implementing services. McKeel said getting to this point has been the point of the Regional Transit Partnership. 

“And when we began the partnership as an advisory partnership, that was always the goal,” McKeel said. “We were clear about the fact we were going to come together and talk about the challenges of transit in our region, and looking toward the future of the possibility of an Authority.” 

How to pay for more service?

At a high-level, the constrained network in the vision plan finalized in late 2022 has a $35.1 million cost estimate. After relaying the current levels of state and federal funding, Amoaning-Yankson explained there would be about a $18.9 million deficit that would need to be filled to cover the full cost.  

“What we did then was review different types of funding from the different authorities in the Commonwealth,” Amoaning-Yankson said. 

Some examples of revenue sources include a dedicated portion of the sales tax, receipts from the grantor's tax, a portion of a fuel tax, the recordation tax, truck registration fees, and a portion of the transient occupancy and lodging tax. 

Through further review and conversations, Amoaning-Yankson said the study will further explore ways to get a portion of the sales tax, the lodging tax, personal property tax, and the real estate tax. 

“We have three different technical memos on each of the stages and we have a fourth and a final report that will provide more details,” Amoaning-Yankson said. 

Here they are for your review: 

But what would Supervisors support? That’s going to be the real question asked across six localities. 

Supervisor Ned Gallaway is a member of the Metropolitan Planning Organization’s Policy Board as well as member of the TJPDC’s Board of Directors. That group had a briefing on October 5. 

“When you start saying specific amounts to a sales tax or transit occupancy tax, they feel like they’re being locked in and [say] ‘Oh, we have to do that one thing’ and when we do that it freaks them out,” Gallaway said. “Especially some of the surrounding localities that are more adverse to the word tax and taxes and taxing than other places.” 

That TJPDC meeting is here if you want to take a look. 

Gallaway said he is a supporter of forming an authority in order to begin bringing money in, no matter what revenue mechanism is eventually used. He asked staff to state how much money the county is currently spending. There was a quick response. 

“It’s approximately $4.8 million in the fiscal year,” said Andy Bowman, interim assistant chief financial officer for policy and partnerships. 

Gallaway said that getting other counties on board might get UVA to be more interested in participating. 

“We don’t get there without a regional transit authority and it can’t just be Albemarle, Charlottesville, and UVA,” Gallaway said. “It has to be broader and bigger than that.” 

The final report will be available in the near future. 

A rough five-year projection of how much additional revenue could be brought in for transit based on what the localities agree upon (Credit: AECOM / TJPDC)

Second shout out: Rivanna Conservation Alliance has successful round-up

In today’s second Patreon-fueled shout-out: The Rivanna Conservation Alliance is about to mark its eighth birthday! One of the many activities they program each year is the Rivanna River Round-Up where community volunteers help clean up sections of the river and its tributaries. 

On September 16, 270 people joined in to help clean up over 28 miles of river and trail. They collected over 202 bags of trash.  Take a look at the photo gallery on their website and while you’re there:

All of that is accessible at https://www.rivannariver.org/

Albemarle briefed on first of at least two third-party reports on existing transit service 

In the last segment, we heard a briefing the Albemarle Supervisors held on the possibility of creating a Regional Transit Authority. If that happened, part of the reason would be for Albemarle to have more control over the increasing amount the county spends each year on transit. 

Albemarle has budgeted about $4.8 million for transit in the current fiscal year. Before the budget was adopted in May, Supervisors had a work session on the topic and one of the next steps was for a consultant to be hired to review of what the county is getting for its investment. (Albemarle Supervisors hear from transit providers at budget work session, April 10, 2023)

“Our transit is continuing to increase in complexity for the array of service we’re providing,” said Andy Bowman, Albemarle’s interim assistant chief financial officer for policy and partnerships. “The multiple providers, the change in the state and federal landscape for funding, the complexity of [American Rescue Plan Act] funding that has come into the system, and also the impact of transit coming through the pandemic and what does that look like.” 

Albemarle hired the Texas A&M Transportation Institute to provide a third-party look at the existing set-up where Albemarle pays Charlottesville Area Transit for fixed-route service and pays Jaunt for paratransit and some fixed route service. 

Bowman said the report is a starting point. 

“One of the things I appreciate in the report is that there’s not very prescriptive recommendations that say ‘the county must do this,’” Bowman said. “It’s really highlighting that these are the questions and conversations should look to have in the future as we consider what our transit network looks like.” 

A map of current Charlottesville Area Transit routes in the study (review the study)

Michael Walk is the program lead at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute. 

“We were tasked to determine [if] the levels of service being offered in the county are reasonable given the county’s population, given the county’s make-up, et cetera,” Walk said. 

In all, the study has 22 findings and recommendations and they’re all in section six of the report. (view the report)

Many of the recommendations were highly technical, particularly related to services to satisfy Americans with Disabilities Act transit requirements. There was also an observation about fixed route services offered by Jaunt.

“The commuter bus routes, the CONNECT routes, there’s the 29 North and the Crozet CONNECT routes,” Walk said. “Both of those routes, albeit they do have ridership at this point, they have a relatively low productivity compared to industry standards. What we mean by that is how many passengers are on the bus per hour that the bus is in operation. Right now the 29 North bus is at about 4.3 passengers per hour and Crozet is at 1.94 according to the data that we saw.”

The industry standard is at least 5 passengers per hour and Walk suggested work be done to increase productivity which could include more marketing or changing the service to attract more riders. 

Walk said the study also reviewed the fleet size of both CAT and Jaunt. 

“Overall the size of the fleet of CAT, how many vehicles they have, is a reasonable one given what an industry target is of a 20 percent spare ratio, particularly if CAT is returning to its pre COVID service levels sometime in the future which I believe the plans are heading in that direction,” Walk said. 

Jaunt has a 56 percent spare ratio which is quite large, but Walk said that could be a benefit for Jaunt in the near-term with lower capital costs for replacement vehicles.

Supervisor Ned Gallaway wanted to know if the Texas A&M Transportation Institute had any advice about how to proceed in a situation where one public organization is contracting services from another, such as is the case where Albemarle pays Charlottesville for fixed route service.

“We are a government entity contracting with a department of another government entity whereas when I contract with vendors, I can pretty much say ‘I’m paying you for this, you give me that’ and if I want to question you about it, then I can do so” Gallaway said. 

Gallaway said at times, Charlottesville has been less forthcoming about providing information to Albemarle because of the politics between the two communities. He did not put that blame on CAT Director Garland Williams. 

“So that’s a tricky situation to navigate both for them, the City Council, us, the county Board of Supervisors, and a department head who is doing his best to run his transit service,” Gallaway said. 

Walk said the situation is not unique but he did not have a response from the podium. Supervisor Diantha McKeel asked Walk if a formal transportation authority would resolve some of the intergovernmental tension.

“Creating a single government entity that then oversees all of the operation certainly takes out some of the inherent conflict,” Walk said.

“That’s what I was thinking but you just said it better than I did,” McKeel said. 

McKeel said it has been easier to get data from CAT since Garland Williams took over as director, but she’d like to see fresh data to see how ridership has changed post pandemic. 

Supervisor Ann Mallek said she was struck by how much ridership has dropped on the Crozet CONNECT. 

“Because I was flabbergasted considering when the Crozet CONNECT opened they were doing 20 people a bus and had to get a bigger bus,” Mallek said.

Mallek said the installation of a planned and funded  Park and Ride at exit 107 may help. That project’s advertisement for construction bids is anticipated for October 2024 according to the Virginia Department of Transportation’s website. She also said people will return when the cost of gasoline exceeds $4 a gallon. 

There will be an additional report from the Texas A&M Transportation Institute in the near future.

CAT Director Williams briefs City Council on transit budget 

This particular newsletter is already overly long, but I want to include this next segment as its germane. As mentioned above, Charlottesville Area Transit’s governing body is the Charlottesville City Council. To end this edition, let’s check in with a November 20 budget briefing on transit. 

“I tell everyone we are a planning organization that happens to run transportation,” said Garland Williams, director of Charlottesville Area Transit. 

Williams appeared before City Council and gave an update on where things stand and where they may go in the future. 

The FY24 budget for CAT is $11,995,775 with a transit revenue budget of nearly $12.2 million. That does not include about $2.3 million in pass-through funding for Jaunt. The total budget also does not include $1.9 million in total funds for the Microcat project that CAT is supervising for Albemarle. 

(image) An overview of the CAT budget for FY24

In FY24, the University of Virginia contributes $84,900 to support the trolley-style bus, a figure that has decreased over time. 

Of the nearly $12.2 million in revenue, Williams said 38.8 percent comes from the federal government, 25.9 percent comes from the state, 23.6 percent comes from Charlottesville, and 10.8 percent comes from Albemarle County.  That share is determined through the service levels in each jurisdiction. 

“We have automatic passenger counters so we can tell you specifically how many people got on at every stop in our system,” Williams said. “We have a cost system agreement with the county that we will split the cost by hours.”

Ridership in FY2023 consisted of 1,147,016 “unlinked passenger trips” down from just over a reported 2.4 million in FY2013. The decline comes despite pandemic-related federal and state funding to make riding the bus free through June 30, 2026. 

CAT has begun the process of updating its strategic plan, as I reported back in July. 

“This strategic plan basically sets how we’re going to operate for the next eight to ten years,” Williams said. 

A community survey garnered 523 entries and Williams said desires that rose to the top included more frequent service, expanded coverage areas, expanded weekend service, and better bus shelters.

“All things that we’re already working on and you’ll see that as part of our FY25 budget,” Williams said. 

Williams said there were five challenges facing CAT including returning to previous service levels, increasing reliability and frequency, and transitioning to a unionized workforce. 

Another is the transition to a new fuel source with the firm Kimley Horn hired to complete what William said is a mandated study. He had news about a successful grant application from the federal and the state government. (read recent story about the fuel study)

“We took an opportunity to put in a grant application and we won two battery-electric buses which is outside of the norm because they normally don’t do that until you’ve completed your study,” Williams said. 

Williams also said CAT recently got $324,000 to upgrade bus stops across its service area and will work with Albemarle County, the Virginia Department of Transportation, and the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation to implement the upgrades.

But back to those plans Williams mentioned. He said an optimization plan was conducted during the pandemic to study existing routes. 

“We were looking to phase that in before we go to the larger model which is the plan developed by the TJPDC in conjunction with the transit organizations about an unconstrained or constrained model which puts everybody in the same boat in terms of trying to make the best system we possibly can,” Williams said. 

Williams said that will take more resources. 

Charlottesville Mayor Lloyd Snook had the last word.

“I hope you are planning and that we’re all planning for CAT’s role in the city’s growth because the way forward for a lot of reasons for Charlottesville is through transit and I would love for the director of CAT to be seen as a climate action hero,” Snook said.

So. What do you think?

Reading material:

The ending of #608

I doubt that this part of the newsletter is even in most people’s inboxes. I had it in my head it was necessary to put all three of the transit segments in one place, because public transportation doesn’t get talked about very often. 

This kind of attention to one topic that’s related to so many other topics is exactly what paid subscribers are paying for, and if you’ve not had a chance to do so today, perhaps today’s the day! If not, that’s okay, too. I’m spending my evening tonight thanking the dozens of new subscribers who have paid up since mid October.

If you want to join them, Internet provider Ting will match your initial subscription. Maybe transit is part of the solution to this community’s future, or maybe not. I just want to see where the story goes and Ting’s unique sponsorship helps me plan to do so. 

If you sign up for Ting at this link and enter the promo code COMMUNITY, you’ll get:

  • Free installation

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  • A $75 gift card to the Downtown Mall

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