Studying the expansion of transit in Albemarle County

Charlottesville Area Transit is in the midst of studying how it might increase its service into northern Albemarle County. The northernmost stop for CAT has for many years been at the Wal-Mart on U.S. 29.

(This article was originally part of the August 11, 2021 edition of Charlottesville Community Engagement. Sign up today!)

At the same time, Albemarle County and the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission are doing the exact same work as part of a study partially funded by the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation. 

Boris Palchik is a transit planning project manager with Foursquare Integrated Transportation Planning, a firm hired to help conduct the work. The other consultant is Michael Baker International. Palchik ran a meeting on July 26 that sought to get initial feedback for the study.

“It’s really a feasibility study and implementation plan for expanding transit service in both population and employment centers in Albemarle County,” Palchik said. 

The July 26 meeting was for northern Albemarle County along U.S. 29, and one on July 28 was held for Pantops. We’ll focus on July 26 first. (watch the video)

Palchik said the study may not result in several new fixed routes, but may include a combination of on-demand routes and other new transit options. The work consists of a market analysis, a service analysis, and stakeholder outreach. 

“The market analysis is looking at the underlying environment in which transit operates or needs to operate in the study area,” Palchik said. “The service analysis is looking at what’s happening today on the ground in terms of ridership and productivity.”

Stakeholder outreach includes the July meetings and other ways to get a sense of what people might want and need in expanded transit. In addition, to Charlottesville Area Transit, Jaunt provides service in the area through on-demand, one fixed-route service, and through its partnership with Greene County Transit. 

“There’s really many different ways to provide transit service and each of those ways has its own ideal operating environment,” Palchick said. “When we’re looking at the market analysis, we’re trying to understand the environment that exists so we can make recommendations that are appropriate.”

That means taking a look at population density, the built environment, employment opportunities, and other factors to measure the potential for public transit to work. 

“Transit service is most effective and most efficient in areas that have higher density,” Palchick said. “The kind of tipping point for where fixed route transit service really begins to make sense is once you have more than five people or jobs per acre.”

Research conducted so far indicates moderate-to-high transit potential south of the South Fork of the Rivanna River. The highest population density in the area is along Commonwealth Drive, which is currently served by CAT’s Route 5. Service gaps are north of Rio Road and in the Hollymead / Forest Lakes area. 

A slide from the July 26 presentation (download)

This work also comes at a time when Albemarle continues to become more dense, with more properties coming online such as North Pointe, Brookhill, and numerous other developments that will be more dense than single family homes. 

Palchick said the stakeholder analysis specifically sought out information that may not have come through their initial review. 

During the service analysis, stakeholders were shown older information on CAT routes, several of which are changing in the coming months. There will be alterations to Route 5, Route 7, Route 8, and Route 11, all of which serve Albemarle’s northern urban area.  Learn more about the CAT changes here.

Scott Elliff is a member of the Forest Lakes Community Association’s Board of Directors. The FLCA has used a portion of its homeowner association fees to fight development of a mixed-use development on Ashwood Boulevard known as RST Residences. Elliff took the opportunity to speak at a discussion on expanding transit to point out that the existing character of his neighborhood is suburban. 

“The challenge that’s happening up here is that we’re starting to get developments that are going to be by necessity pretty dense,” Elliff said. “There’s one that’s being planned which we’re opposing and hasn’t come before the Supervisors yet. It would be a huge high story development on the corner of Ashwood and 29.”

Currently there is fixed-route transit service in the Forest Lakes area provide by Jaunt through their Route 29 Express.

According to Valerie Long of the law firm Williams Mullen, 75 percent of the apartments in the RST development will be rented to people who can demonstrate household incomes between 30 percent and 80 percent of the Area Median Income. Elliff is concerned that if all of those people drive, it will exacerbate traffic congestion out of a neighborhood that only has two direct connections onto U.S. 29. 

“The only solution from a transportation standpoint that I can think of is to have a dedicated service that picks people up at those affordable housing apartment buildings and takes them non-stop down to Barracks Road, downtown mall, and UVA where the jobs are,” Elliff said. 

Elliff claimed there were no jobs in his area. In fact, let’s hear more of what he had to say. 

“We’re up here in a beautiful area,” Elliff said. “There are no jobs. There are retail jobs… in the shopping centers north and south. If it’s going to be heavily affordable housing, these are people who are going to be working retail and they’re going to be working as administrative assistants or something in small companies but not around here. This is completely residential.”

Elliff’s claim made me look up the latest information from the Virginia Employment Commission on the top employers in Albemarle County.  Several of them are within close proximity to the Forest Lakes neighborhood and all rough measurements below are taken from the pool at Forest Lakes South using main roads and Google Earth. (VEC profile)

  • #4 is the Department of Defense and the various military installations at Rivanna Station (4.77 miles away) 
  • #6 is the Crutchfield Corporation which operates by the Charlottesville Regional Airport (3.5 miles away)
  • #7 is the Northrup Grumman Corporation located in between both sides of Stonefield on U.S. 29 (4.4 miles away)
  • #9 is Wal-Mart located just south of the South Fork of the Rivanna River on US. 29 (2.2 miles away)
  • #18 is Emerson (listed as G.E. Fanuc) on U.S. 29 north of North Pointe (5.2 miles) 
  • #29 is Costco in Stonefield on U.S. 29 (4.5 miles away)
  • #32 is Target in Hollymead Town Center (2 miles away)
  • #36 is MicroAire Surgical Instruments in the former U.S. Postal Service building off of Airport Road (2.75 miles away)
  • #38 is Rosewood Village Associates with facilities in Hollymead Town Center (2.4 miles away) 

The RST rezoning goes to the Board of Supervisors on September 15. 

From the Albemarle County profile from the Virginia Employment Commission (download)

Now, on to the July 28 meeting, which covered the Pantops area. Fewer people attended that virtual call. Pantops is currently served by Charlottesville Area Transit Route 10, which will also be changing as a result of the upcoming route changes. 

Here’s Boris Palchik with Foursquare once again reviewing a market analysis. 

“In the Pantops area north of U.S. 250, there are a number of key kind of activity generators like multifamily housing, the Social Security administration building, but it’s still showing fairly low density,” Palchik said. 

Dick Hiss, the chair of the Pantops Community Advisory Committee, asked if the various analyses conducted take a look at future land use changes. 

“Have you considered the changes that we see coming in the Pantops area such as the motor vehicle department going somewhere?” Hiss said. “That building has had a sign on it for years saying it is moving.”

Hiss said he is also wondering if State Farm employees will return to that building. State Farm is the fifth largest employer in Albemarle according to the VEC. Sentara Martha Jefferson is the third. 

Gina Morss-Fischer, a public affairs specialist with State Farm, confirmed in an email to me today that employees assigned to the Charlottesville-Albemarle office will continue to work from home.

Palchick said the stakeholder meetings are intended to take note of comments such as this. 

For a time, Albemarle County had been updating development dashboards which depicted what projects were coming up in the near future. These have not been updated since February 2020 in part because of the pandemic and in part because a staff member moved on. Charles Rapp is the planning director in Albemarle County. 

“The staff member that was previously managing the dashboards is no longer with the county so we have used this as an opportunity to collaborate with our GDS department and create an updated version of the development dashboard,” Rapp said in an email to me this morning. “This new approach will have automated updates regularly and should provide a more streamlined approach toward conveying information.  We are working through the final details now and hope to have it ready for the public soon.”

(review the current Development Dashboards on the Albemarle website)

But back to transit. Palchick said on-demand microtransit could be an option for parts of Albemarle in the future.

“The main difference between microtransit and Uber and Lyft is that Uber and Lyft operate with a fleet of vehicles that are not infinite, but you never quite know what kind of vehicle you are going to get when you request a service,” Palchick said. “Whereas with microtransit you have a set fleet of vehicles and a set group of drivers that are operating the service so it is more predictable and can be more closely branded with the local public transportation service and be more closely affiliated with it.”

Currently, Pantops is also served by Jaunt’s Buckingham Connect East service

“So this service operates between Buckingham County and destinations in Charlottesville and Albemarle County,” Palchick said. “Those destinations include downtown Charlottesville, the University hospital, Martha Jefferson Hospital and the Westminster Canterbury retirement community.” 

Westminster Canterbury is the 14th largest employer in Albemarle County. 

A slide from the July 28 presentation on Pantops (download)

In addition to the meetings on July 26 and July 28, the consultants are holding individual meetings. The goal is to complete the study by next January in order to apply for funding from the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation to pay for a pilot project.

Will any of this result in a better transit system? That means to be seen.

Another thing I encourage people to see is the staff report of a February 11, 2008 joint meeting of the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors and Charlottesville City Council to discuss a study for a Regional Transit Authority that would be one unified system. That never happened, but eight years later, a Regional Transit Partnership was formed to encourage collaboration between area systems. That body next meets on August 26. (RTA staff report)

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