At a work session on May 25, 2021, Charlottesville City Council was briefed on upcoming changes to the city-run bus system. Charlottesville is the sole owner and operator of Charlottesville Area Transit, and Albemarle County pays the city for service each year. Ridership on CAT has declined significantly in recent years. In 2013, ridership was at 2.4 million. By 2018, that dropped to 2.05 million. (view presentation)
Garland Williams has been director since August 2019 and previously served as director of Planning and Scheduling for the Greater Richmond Transit Company.
Near the beginning of the pandemic, the city hired Kimley Horn to review the system to recommend changes to make it more efficient on the other side.
“This is not designed to be a total revamp of our system,” Williams said. “This was kind of stop-gap measure because as you know, over the last six year CAT’s ridership has been declining precipitously so what we’re trying to do right now is stop that, build a nice foundation, and then build from there.”
At some point this year, we’ll know exactly how many people are believed to live in our communities when the U.S. Census is released. But, projections from the Weldon Cooper Center at the University of Virginia as well as their yearly estimates depict a growing region. As the cost of housing in Charlottesville and Albemarle’s urban ring continues to increase, many will choose or have already chosen to live in communities half an hour away or more. Data from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey shows the vast majority of people commute to work in a single occupant vehicle? But does that have to be the case?
In May, the Central Virginia Regional Housing Partnership held a panel discussion on the topic. For background, housing is to be considered affordable if rent or a mortgage payment makes up thirty percent or less of household expenditures. Households that pay more than that are considered stressed.
“It works out that a cheap house is not truly affordable if it has particularly high transportation costs [and] if it’s located in an area where people have to spend a lot of time and money traveling,” Litman said. “A lot of experts now recommend that instead of defining affordability as 30 percent of household budgets to housing, it’s defined as 45 percent of household budgets dedicated to housing and transportation combined.”
Litman said transportation costs are more volatile for low-income households because of the unpredictability of fuel prices and maintenance costs.
Stephen Johnson, a planning manager with Jaunt, said the cost of time must also be factored in.
“If I can only afford to take public transit, but that means my commute to work is going to take five to ten times longer, then that’s time that I’m losing to spend on other things,” Johnson said.
Johnson said people also can lose jobs if a transit connection doesn’t work out. He said this community has public transit options, but they are not compelling for many.
“When we put ourselves in the shoes of somebody’s who is deciding to take transit or drive, there are four factors that one would consider,” Johnson said. “The first would be the financial cost. The second would be the time cost. The third would be reliability. Can I rely on getting there on time? The fourth I think would be flexibility. Will my transportation allow me to make a last-minute change to my schedule? To travel with a friend, or to bring home a bunch of shopping.”
Johnson said public transit is cheaper to use than driving, but the other three factors are more difficult. He said transit in the area could be reformed by greater investments and better planning.
“An Albemarle planner might come to me and say ‘we’ve got this community, it’s got a lot of cul-de-sacs, a lot of houses, and we’re really struggling with congestion. Can you put a public transit band-aid on this and fix it?’” Johnson said. “In that case, the game board is already set and there’s only so much we can do as a player but I think if we can expand our idea of what transit planning is, when we think about things like density, how can we take those A’s and B’s and cluster them together so that when we put a bus out there we can cover a lot of trips?”
Litman said a goal is to not necessarily encourage people to go car-free, but to work to create areas where more trips can be taken in a walk, a bike-ride, or by getting on the bus. This was more common before the middle of the 20th century.
“So if you go back to the older neighborhoods, they’re all very walkable,” Litman said. “They have sidewalks on all the streets. You have local schools, and park, and stores that were designed. The neighborhood was organized around the idea that at least some people will rely on walking. We lost that for a while and now there’s a number of planning movements and approaches that are trying to establish that.”
Litman said developers and local governments should be working together to encourage more than just single-family housing.
“If you’re building new neighborhoods, those that allow what we call ‘the missing middle’, compact housing types like townhouses and low-rise apartments are going to be far more affordable and therefore far more inclusive,” Litman said.
But back to transit. Jaunt mostly provides on-demand service, but does have some fixed-route service. Johnson explained what works best in what situation.
“Fixed route options are much more appropriate public transit option for dense urban cores and we see that in downtown Charlottesville and urban Albemarle County,” Johnson said. “Demand response is a much more appropriate technology for more rural areas and that’s the majority of Jaunt’s service area are the counties around Charlottesville and Albemarle.”
However, Johnson said transit in urban areas could be transformed if systems adopt on-demand tech. Jaunt has been working on a pilot project to provide service to Loaves and Fishes on Lambs Road, a site not accessible via Charlottesville Area Transit.
In this community, there are three transit systems. They are the Charlottesville Area Transit (CAT), the University of Virginia Transit Service (UTS) and Jaunt. In September, BRITE will begin the Afton Express service between Staunton and Charlottesville. How do all of these many pieces come together? Here’s Stephen Johnson again.
“Charlottesville and Albemarle are working together through the Regional Transit Partnership to try to help build a cohesive vision there of how Jaunt and Charlottesville Area Transit and UTS can all work together to provide a cohesive transit system for the residents of Charlottesville and Albemarle,” Johnson said.
(This segment originally was part of the June 2, 2021 installment of Charlottesville Community Engagement)
The latest campaign finance reports have been filed with the Virginia Department of Elections, as reported by the Virginia Public Access Project. Let’s start with Albemarle County.
Incumbent Jack Jouett District Supervisor Diantha McKeel raised an additional $6,522 during the period and spent $9, leaving her campaign with a balance of $32,056 as of May 27. McKeel is a Democrat who currently faces no opposition on the November 2 ballot for a third term.
Incumbent Rio District Supervisor Ned Gallaway raised $10,150 in the period, with $10,000 of that coming from a single corporate donor known as Seminole Trail Management LLC. Gallaway spent $5 in the period and has a cash balance of $15,809. Gallaway is a Democrat who currently has no opposition on the November 2 ballot for a second term.
Newcomer Jim Andrews raised $10,139 during the period, including a $5,000 contribution from John Grisham. He spent $4,180 during the period with the majority of that going to pay for his campaign manager, Patty Haling. Andrews has a balance of $30,507 as of May 27. Andrews is running as a Democrat and currently faces no opposition on the November 2 ballot. The winner of the race will succeed two-term incumbent Liz Palmer.
In Charlottesville, Brian Pinkston reported $29,098 in contributions, including $7,325 in in-kind contributions. That means someone or some business offered services or a product for campaign purposes. In-kind donations include $3,500 from Lifeview Marketing LLC and $2,750 from Local Jurisdiction Consulting LLC. Pinkston also loaned himself $8,348 and raised $13,425 in cash. The candidate spent $29,763 during the period and had an ending balance of $24,074.
Juandiego Wade raised $13,126 during the period, all in cash. The top donor is the Realtors Political Action Committee of Virginia. He spent $22,151 and had an ending balance of $32,626.
Carl Brown raised significantly less money with $1,675. He spent $979 and had a balance of $720 as of May 27, 2021.
Independent Yas Washington reported no money raised or spent with no cash balance. VPAP did not have any report for Charlottesville Mayor Nikuyah Walker, an independent who announced in late May that she would seek an additional term.
In 2019, the Albemarle County Economic Development Department began a planning study of the roadway that leads to the Woolen Mills factory, a historic property that has renovated in recent years by developer Brian Roy. The main entrance is along Broadway Avenue, which extends from Carlton Avenue at the border between the city of Charlottesville and Albemarle County. In all, there are about 45 acres of land that were the subject of an interim study presented to the Board of Supervisors in November of 2019.
“The goal at that time was to leverage the public and private investment that had taken place and projected to take place at the Woolen Mills redevelopment and the Willow Tree relocation at that site,” said J.T. Newberry in the economic development department.
Much of the land is zoned for light industrial use, and several businesses are operating in the area. Construction of the new Woolen Mills Industrial Park is underway. The Board of Supervisors was to have seen the results of an implementation study in April 2020, but the pandemic put a pause on the work.
“Nevertheless we have tried to stay engaged with stakeholders on the corridor,” Newberry said. “There have been a number of projects that have continued on the private side.”
After the interim study, Albemarle staff met with city staff at least twice, and the blueprint has been run by the Planning Commission, the Economic Development Authority, and the Office of Equity and Inclusion. The latter suggested a new approach to the project following the signing of a memorandum of understanding on the topic by Charlottesville, Albemarle County and the University of Virginia. Roger Johnson is the director of economic development for Albemarle.
“We are going to pause our project and go back and review the Broadway corridor through an equity lens,” Johnson said. “We don’t know if that will change anything substantively or not but we expect that it will.”
That will include a meeting with the city’s new Deputy City Manager of Racial Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, Ashley Marshall.
Next steps could include creation of a business association for the area, similar to the Downtown Crozet Association. Another would be to create an arts and cultural district for the location.
“Some other types of activities we are contemplating are to complete pedestrian and bike connectivity, multimodal streetscape, enhanced public transportation,” Johnson said.
Those activities are now considered to be long-term goals.