Upcoming changes to Charlottesville Area Transit routes are discussed
Before we get to a quick review of the Regional Transit Authority, two small pieces of Charlottesville Area Transit news. First, the free trolley-style bus that runs between downtown and the University of Virginia will return to traveling down McCormick Road through the heart of UVA Grounds. Second, additional service will be added to Route 9 during peak hours. That route currently travels between the University of Virginia Hospital, the Piedmont Family YMCA, Charlottesville High School, and downtown Charlottesville. CAT Director Garland Williams said the move is being made in the short-term to help with the start of the school year.
“Because we know there was going to be potentially some high schoolers that were going to use our service, we added additional service during the peak periods of time on Route 9,” Williams told the Regional Transit Partnership on Thursday.
According to the last seven years of ridership data, Route 9 is one of the least traveled of all of the current CAT routes whereas the trolley-style bus route has consistently had the highest ridership. The current Route 9 will change its configuration if Council agrees to the route alterations that have been under public review this year.
Under its new alignment, Route 9 will travel between downtown and Fashion Square Mall via the Piedmont Family YMCA in McIntire Park. Other routes will serve the UVA Hospital. Review all of the changes here.
One of the people who will take a final vote on the proposed transit changes is City Councilor Lloyd Snook. He became vice chair of the Jefferson Area Regional Transit Partnership on Thursday and explained why he was interested in serving on that advisory body.
“My main interest in transit has been that I am convinced that Charlottesville is needing a transition from being a suburban-thinking town to being a city-thinking city and transit is an important part of that,” Snook said. “It’s also an important part of an affordable housing strategy and a city planning strategy.”
Another member of the Regional Transit Authority is the interim executive director of Jaunt, Karen Davis.
“I’m pleased to let you know that ridership is coming right back and this is trending up and our services are back to full service in all areas,” Davis said. “Despite the driver shortage that we’re seeing.”
Davis said that includes the Crozet Connect service, which had been running on a limited schedule due to the pandemic.
Another of the partners is the University of Virginia Transit Service, who joined as a voting member of the advisory body. Davis said the two transit providers recently got together for discussions.
“They got picked up in a Jaunt bus, brought to our home base, and we had three hours of meeting where we were brainstorming, where we made connections, and from here we have committed to meeting regularly and setting some priorities,” Davis said.
One example of a current conflict that might be resolved is that Jaunt vehicles cannot directly pick up or drop off passengers who are headed to the Emily Couric Cancer Center.
One place Jaunt buses can go is the Center at Belvedere, where Davis recently met with Director Peter Thompson. The Center is a non-voting member of the Regional Transit Partnership will also be served by Charlottesville Area Transit’s Route 11 when the service changes are made.
Now back to that driver shortage. There are several area transit agencies and each of them need more people to work behind the wheel.
“I was just taking steps to put a recruitment bonus in place only to realize that both CAT and UTS have totally offered much bigger bonuses so I have to address that program line,” Davis said.
Davis said she is retaining her existing drivers, and only one that she knows of has gone to work for CAT. CAT is paying a $2,400 bonus for new drivers who work for at least nine months as well as existing drivers. New and existing UTS drivers will get a $2,500 bonus.
“It’s going to be a $1,000 payout right away for our standing staff and $1,000 for new staff, and then after two full semesters of driving, the rest of the bonus,” said Becca White is the director of UVA’s Parking and Transportation.
White said she has been tracking closely the number of faculty and staff who have opted to pay for spaces as the pandemic continues.
“As we know, transit and parking are tied together very closely so we’ve been watching that uptake of parking permits because that’s oftentimes an indication of how many people are back in the office and what potential riders we have for CAT or Jaunt or Afton Express,” White said. “On August 1, about 55 percent to 60 percent of the academic employees had purchased their permits as compared to pre-COVID. Just in the last three weeks that number has now increased to 85 percent.”
White said ridership on health employee shuttle routes have increased as the semester approaches. The academic routes that serve Central Grounds have increased to 10,000 passengers a day. Before COVID, that number was around 15,000.
“And all of that service is in the last mile,” White said. “Every bit of it.”
U-Heights is an apartment complex on Ivy Road in Albemarle County that is no longer served by University Transit Service. However, there is a large immigrant and refugee population. White has worked with management at U-Heights to provide mobility for residents who are no longer served by fixed-route transit.
The theme of collaboration continued. The Regional Transit Partnership is staffed by the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission. Garland Williams is the director of CAT.
“On the third of September, TDJPC staff will be over for a visit,” Williams said. “I want to kind of introduce them to my team and get them the lay of the land.”
That will include a look at capital projects that CAT will pursue.
A major purchase in recent years has been automatic passenger counters that will help provide more accurate ridership counts. Williams said these have been installed on all buses and the data is being validated.
But what about those route changes?
“We are in the final processes of getting the approvals,” Williams said. “The last piece that we have to do which we will hopefully be able to kick off next Friday is to get a consultant on board to finish up the required Title VI review from the changes based on the feedback we got from the community. Once that is done it has to go to Council and we’ll also share that information with Albemarle County Board of Supervisors.”
Title VI refers to the Civil Rights Act, which requires a public process before making changes on routes paid for with federal funds.
That means there is no set date for when the forthcoming changes will be made. That will require installation of new bus stops at places that currently do not have them, as well as removal of the stops that will be discontinued. A reason for the delay has been to address the driver shortage. CAT is down 22 drivers and pupil transportation for city school is down 20.