Regional transit partnership paving way for better mobility in greater Charlottesville
As the population of greater Charlottesville area continues to increase, so too will the need for alternatives to driving alone in single-occupancy vehicles. Doing so will reduce traffic congestion, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and create better communities.
Both Albemarle and the city of Charlottesville have Comprehensive Plans which call for dense, urban communities where people can choose not to drive because there are alternatives such as transit and greenways. But how do we make sure those plans get implemented and options increase?
I will continue to advocate for improvements to make it easier for people to make a change. We will also educate people about how policies work and how they can be improved. That is the purpose of this article, which is based on the June 27, 2019 meeting of the Regional Transit Partnership (RTP).
There are currently three major transit agencies that operate in the area. They are the Charlottesville Area Transit (CAT), which is solely owned by the city and operates under their public works department. There’s JAUNT, a public service corporation owned by local governments that provides paratransit and commuter routes throughout the greater region. JAUNT also provides door-to-door service for people in rural communities. Finally, there is the University Transit Service (UTS), which focuses solely on moving people around the University of Virginia.
In the late 2000s, there was a push to create a Regional Transit Authority that would become the sole provider of bus service in the city and county. The Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission (TJPDC) coordinated the effort, which included a committee tasked with thinking through the details of how the three agencies might come together as one.
Among other reasons, the idea fizzled after the General Assembly failed to pass legislation allowing a sales tax referendum to pay for the authority’s operations. The regional transit committee eventually disbanded. Discussions on the future of transit revered back to the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO).
Several years later, the Albemarle Board of Supervisors began pressing city officials for more details about how their annual bill for the service was calculated. That resulted in the City of Charlottesville, Albemarle County, JAUNT and the TJPDC forming in 2017 a Regional Transit Partnership to address that and other issues.
The group currently meets monthly to discuss ways that CAT, JAUNT and UTS can cooperate in the name of increased community mobility. Each serves a slightly different constituency, but when they work together, the goals of less traffic congestion and greater community mobility are more likely to be met.
The RTP is valuable to our region’s future and fits within the community’s goals for urban areas that function well. This article is intended to serve as a primer for a public body that needs a higher public profile.
The current numbers
One of the most commonly used metrics for how people get around is the American Community Survey, a service of the U.S. Census Bureau. The 2017 survey found that 76 percent of Albemarle commuters drove to work in a single-occupancy vehicle and another 11 percent carpooled. Only two percent took public transit, one percent rode a bike and another two percent walked.
The numbers get a bit better when you look at the 2017 numbers for the urbanized population of 103,716 people that includes the city of Charlottesville. Sixty-eight percent drove alone and 11 percent carpooled. The public transit figures rose to six percent and eight percent walked to work. Cycling remained the same at two percent.
One of the catalysts for the RTP’s creation was a desire by Albemarle to have up-to-date information about ridership. That data was being provided regularly but the most recent data available on the RTP website is unfortunately from December.
Ridership on CAT was down 5.35 percent from December 2017 to December 2018. In real terms, the drop was from 144,811 passengers to 137,065.
Ridership on all routes declined except the trolley-style bus and Route 2, which serves the Fifth Street Station shopping center. JAUNT also experienced a ridership decrease over that period, with a 12.9 percent decline. (March 2019 ridership report)
Ridership declined nine percent from 2013 to 2017, according to reports filed with the Federal Transit Administration.
The declines could eventually lead to a loss in funding. The Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation (DRPT) continues to implement transit reform that passed the General Assembly in 2018. For those interested in improving community mobility in the region, it is crucial to keep an eye on how policies are made. (bill)
States changes in transit planning
For many years, transit agencies in the state that receive public funding had to create a transit development plan (TDP) every six years. According to the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation, such plans “help transit operators improve their efficiency and effectiveness by identifying the need and required resources for modifying and enhancing services provided to the general public.”
While CAT submitted an updated plan to DRPT last October, the plan has not been adopted by the City Council. Its most recent director, John Jones, left the position in February.
The draft plan recommended many route changes but acting director Juwhan Lee told the RTP at the June 27 meeting that the agency decided to hold off until a new director settles in. A month later, City Manager Tarron Richardson selected Garland Williams for the post. Williams has been the director of planning and scheduling for the Greater Richmond Transit System.
Williams takes the reins at a time when the DRPT is switching away from requiring a TDP in favor of a new “transit strategic plan.” CAT will be among the first localities to create such a plan when that work begins in the summer of 2020.
JAUNT also created a new TDP but their Board of Directors had not adopted it as of June 2019.
“The recommendations that came out of the TDP were not fully-formed enough for us to carry forward,” said JAUNT CEO Brad Sheffield. As a result, his team of planners has been working to collect more data to provide more information.
JAUNT is implementing some of the recommendations from its TDP, such as the August 5 launch of commuter service between Crozet and the University of Virginia.
“There is a recommendation in there about on-demand transit and we are in the process of analyzing that concept and the platform that would be needed,” Sheffield said.
The strategic plans will require agencies to demonstrate what they will do to increase ridership and enhance service. This is part of legislation that passed the General Assembly in 2018 that reforms how transit is funded in Virginia. (bill)
“The General Assembly has said ‘we want you to really tell us what you’re trying to get out of this idea you want funded,’” Sheffield said. Annual reports from the plan will also have to document whether progress is being made.
The most significant achievement of the RTP has been to forge an agreement between the City of Charlottesville and Albemarle over how CAT calculates the county’s contributions for fixed-route transit services. That agreement was adopted by elected officials in both communities this summer after months of negotiations.
“That’s a big win because it’s the first time that’s ever been done,” said Chip Boyles, the executive director of the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission.
The partnership has also resulted in agencies coming closer to sharing data with each other, including from e-scooter services. Better understanding of that data might help explain ridership declines as well as paint a more accurate picture of how people who don’t drive get around the community.
More funding through can come through discussion
The meetings also provide an opportunity for the agencies to talk about new sources of revenue. In May, there had been a robust discussion about whether Charlottesville Area Transit should report more data to the federal government in order to qualify for more funding.
In June, the acting transit director told the RTP that it would be a matter of hiring more staff or getting a consultant to report the additional data. This would allow it to qualify for the Federal Transit Administration’s Small Transit Intensive Cities program. (flowchart)
“The project is an additional $500,000 and so that’s our end goal and we’re trying to figure out how we get there,” Lee said. “We’re also waiting for a new transit director to be part of the discussion.”
We wait to see what Mr. Williams will bring to the table.
Whither the RTP?
Near the end of the meeting, one member of City Council asked an existential question.
“Is this RTP just going to go on indefinitely?” asked City Councilor Kathy Galvin. “Is this a task force? What is the end game?”
Boyles said the goal is to either create a regional transit authority or create a regional system that works together despite being multiple agencies. He said his hope is that the regional vision will continue to evolve as CAT and other transit agencies work on their planning documents.
“That will hopefully push us in a direction of asking whether the authority is the end game,” Boyles said.
Boyles said another benefit of the continued existence of the partnership is better alignment between the University Transit Service and the rest of the community. UTS is entirely paid for through enrollment fees and does not have to report any data to the state or federal government. That could change.
“Currently UVA is a non-voting member of this board and they are now interested in becoming a member,” Boyles said.
Boyles said he does not see the RTP ending in the near future because of the work that needs to be done.
“It’s more important than ever that we are accurately reflecting ridership because of the new funding requirements,” Boyles said. “That’s new since this partnership began. The other thing that we will have to adjust for is the likelihood after the 2020 Census that the MPO boundaries will change which will change transit service as well.”
Talk about the regional transit partnership could come up again in September when the Board of Supervisors and City Council meet for a third time this calendar year.
The Regional Transit Partnership is scheduled to meet again on August 22. One potential topic is the role that transit can play in encouraging and supporting economic development throughout the region.
Another hope I have for the partnership is that it can be a forum where people can bring forward ideas. For instance, how can we transition the public transit fleet to electric vehicles?
The Regional Transit Partnership is more than just fixed transit.
The Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission offers a program called Rideshare to help connect people who don’t want to drive alone to work. About eleven percent of people in the Charlottesville metropolitan area carpool together, according to the latest data from the U.S. Census.
“Our main goal is to help reduce traffic congestion by reducing the number of single-occupancy vehicles,” said Sarah Pennington, the Rideshare coordinator.
Rideshare is now launching a new app to try to increase that number.
Pennington said she and her colleagues at the Central Shenandoah Planning District Commission to offer alternatives.
“Many commuters are crossing those boundaries and we see many people come in from across the mountain over into Charlottesville for work,” Pennington said.
Rideshare also operates a “guaranteed ride home” program where committed carpoolers can cover the cost of immediate transport if there is an emergency back home.
“It’s kind of like an insurance policy,” Pennington said. “It’s one of the tools that we use to get people to change their behavior. Asking people to step out of their car is a really hard thing to do and people are a little hesitant at first. Knowing they will not be stuck is the first question.”
Rideshare also coordinates information about park and ride lots in the area, which is where many carpools start from. Pennington also coordinates the van pools, which are more formalized than carpools. A private contractor is hired to run the vans.
“Usually you’re looking at a minimum of seven to 12 people to put into a vanpool,” Pennington said. “There is a formal agreement they enter into in and then they pay a monthly fee for that seat in the van.”
The TJPDC has hired a new person to assist Pennington in administering the program with an eye toward getting more out of their cars. Boyles said this part of an overall shift to market community mobility under one unified brand that spans the individual agencies.
“This will start that process,” Boyles said.