Regional Transit Partnership talks park and ride, future bus types, and CAT changes

(This article originally appeared in the July 4, 2021 edition of Charlottesville Community Engagement)

If you’re interested in driving less, and you want to know what’s happening to improve transit, a good place to start is the Jefferson Area Regional Transit Partnership. The group consists of representatives from Charlottesville Area TransitJaunt, and the University of Virginia Transit Service, as well as elected and appointed officials. It’s also a place where people can comment on transit issues.

Whither the Transit Advisory Board?

One speaker at the June 24 meeting was Ethan Heil, who decided last year to get more involved.

“Last September I was excited to hear my appointment to the CAT Advisory Board,” Heil said. “Unfortunately since then I haven’t received any follow-up communication.” 

Heil said he understood the body might not have been a priority during the pandemic, but that the advisory board should play a role going forward. 

“I’m hopeful and respectfully request that we could find an opportunity to reengage the CAT advisory board,” Heil said. 

Council discussed whether to keep the CAT Advisory Board as an entity last October when they reviewed the status of various appointed bodies. The Board has not met since the pandemic began. 

At the end of the meeting, City Councilor Lloyd Snook said Council considered the fate of the CAT Advisory Board last October.

“We basically decided at that point that there really wasn’t a lot of reason why the CAT Advisory Board should be sort of a Council-level appointment,” Snook said. “It ought to be something that worked directly with Garland [Williams] and the transportation piece more directly rather than have us involved.” 

Garland is Garland Williams, the manager of CAT. He said the advisory board is important, its its function needs to be studied. 

“I think it needed to be looked at and I asked for your authorization to hire a consultant to look at what the CAT advisory board does and then bring back a recommendation to Council sometime this year or early next and you authorized me to do so,” Williams said. 

VDOT assistance with transit infrastructure planning?

One item on the partnership’s agenda was new guidance on getting assistance from VDOT staff for Smart Scale projects that seek to move more people onto to transit and other multimodal solutions. Chuck Proctor is an engineer in the Culpeper District.

“We can help you develop sketches for infrastructure improvements, if you wanted to put out a bus pull out or if you’re going to be doing bus stops,” Proctor said. “Even bike-pedestrian facilities to and from a transit stop.”

This year, the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission succeeded in securing $3.38 million in Smart Scale funding for a park and ride lot in Exit 107. 

That would be on the route of the Afton Express service between Staunton and Charlottesville that is slated to start in September.  The next deadline for the next Smart Scale cycle is not until the summer of 2022. Transit agencies can make their own applications. 

Proctor said there are efforts to find a location for a park and ride lot on Pantops. There had been one at the Pantops Shopping Center. 

Supervisor Diantha McKeel said she wanted to know more information about how people use park and ride lots, given the rising cost of land in the community. 

“We don’t want to go out and take good valuable land or space and end up with, I mean we just need to know what we’re doing before we go ahead,” McKeel said.

Becca White, the director of parking and transportation at the University of Virginia, said park-and-ride has to be part of a coordinate strategy in order for it to work. 

“It’s not park and ride for park and ride’s sake,” White said. “It has to be the right amenities. It has to be lighted properly. It has to have waiting areas. It has to be linked to either transit or car pool trips. It can be very successful but it’s not a park and ride for park and ride’s sake.”

CAT is studying possible locations for a park and ride lot on U.S. 29 in Albemarle County’s northern growth area. CAT Director Garland Williams said such a facility would be ideal for people driving to the University of Virginia. 

“It would also add a hub for transit where you would have dedicated restrooms for our facilities moving forward,” Williams said. 

The TJPDC is also studying expanded service in Albemarle’s northern growth area. The first round of public engagement efforts should begin in July. 

Scorecard for the Exit 107 Park and Ride lot (read the full list)

No buses at Rio Hill Shopping Center?

One change that will happen in the short-term is that CAT buses will no longer travel through the Rio Hill Shopping Center. Williams told the partnership that the property owners asked for the stop to be removed. 

“Their reasoning was the shopping center will be undergoing a renovation of the storefronts and  the current bus route will not work with the vision of the shopping center,” Williams said.

The shopping center would still be served, but the buses will not travel on the Rio Hill Shopping Center property. (learn more about the renovation in the February 6 CCE)

Should bus stops be named?

Toward the end of the meeting, Jaunt’s planning manager Stephen Johnson posed an interesting question. Could bus stops used by multiple transit agencies be given names that could be shared?

“So that in our literature everybody is referring to the same stop by the same name,” Johnson said. “I think that would be a good thing for users of our systems.” 

What kinds of buses should be bought now?

In June, City Council approved an appropriation of federal funding for Charlottesville Area Transit to purchase eleven buses, all of which will be powered by fossil fuels. CAT is conducting a study on how to proceed. (read more in June 24 CCE)

But some area transit fleets have bought a few electric vehicles. Jim Foley, the director of pupil transportation for Albemarle County Public Schools, said his system applied to Dominion’s electric school bus program. 

“I’m not sure we’ll get them, but we gave it a try,” Foley said. “We did go visit Louisa County who did get two of the electric buses and they love them, plus Dominion came out with a program to reimburse schools for fast-chargers which would save hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

Foley said he drove one of the vehicles and found it to be smooth and powerful. 

Christine Jacobs, the interim director of the TJPDC, said she would convene a workshop of various stakeholders outside of a partnership meeting in order to discuss the issue.

“Just sit everybody at the table so we can all share all of the information that we have,” Jacobs said. “Results from studies that are being done, data on the different types of buses. I think it’s something that there’s a real momentum and a craving for us all to share information and make sure that we’re all on the same page. 

Williams expressed caution about having community members decide what kind of buses to purchase.

“The community doesn’t get involved when you’re talking about the selection of fire trucks, or police vehicles, or any of the other vehicles associated so it’s a little interesting there’s a lot of concern about selection with individuals who have not run a transit system and do not have any information about running it and what it takes to make sure that I am going to be reliable.” 

Williams said a study will soon get underway to determine the best pathway forward and to develop a plan to transition the fleet. In the meantime, he does not want his hands tied. 

“I’m not going to be subject to a command telling me to buy an electric bus when I have no confidence that it’s going to work,” Williams said. 

A changing CAT?

Route changes are pending for Charlottesville Area Transit. The information has been presented to the Regional Transit Partnership and the City Council, but this summer the public will get the chance to ask questions in two virtual meetings. (Council Briefed on Proposed Transit Changes, June 2, 2021)

Both the Connetics Transportation Group and the firm Kimley-Horn have as been working with Williams on the changes. Here’s Williams at a June 29 press briefing.

“When we went into the pandemic, there was concern like most transit agencies about how when we get out of the pandemic, what do we do the make the system better for all who use it?” Williams asked. 

Williams said the route changes are intended to reverse a period of ridership declines that was happening before the pandemic. In 2013, CAT carried over 2.4 million riders a year, but that dropped to just over $2 million in 2018. Williams also acknowledged there are a lot of moving parts in transit at the moment. 

“This is not the end-all to-be-all,” Williams said. “The region is doing a visioning study so this was designed as a temporary measure over the next couple of years while that study is done to prevent us from having continued rapid decline in ridership.”

In the current system, all but one of the CAT’s 13 routes goes to the Downtown Transit Station. In the changes, at least one route will be oriented north-south to travel between Stonefield and the Willoughby Shopping Center. Jim Baker is with the Connectics Transportation Group.

“We’ve proposed introducing some new crosstown service from south Charlottesville to U.S. 29 so no longer will you need to travel to downtown, transfer to a bus to continue up to U.S 29,” Baker said. “You can do all of that on the same bus.”

Another change is that CAT service would be extended to Mill Creek in Albemarle County. Service would also go through the South First Street public housing complex. Other routes would have Sunday service for the first time. 

The two public meetings will be on Friday, July 16 at noon and Wednesday, July 21 at 6 p.m.

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