Albemarle and Charlottesville officials weigh in on Regional Transit Vision 

Consultants hired by the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission are moving into the second phase of a community engagement effort for a $350,000 plan to create a regional transit vision to make public transportation a more attractive option.

They have developed both a constrained plan that would anticipate around $26 million funds that might be generated through becoming a regional transportation authority with taxation power, as well as one that assumed funding would be found to increase the frequency of service. That has an estimated annual price tag of $70 million.

The Albemarle County Board of Supervisors had their review on June 1. 

“These concepts are here to help you imagine and understand what kind of outcomes are available at two different levels of investment,” said Scudder Wagg of Jarret Walker + Associates.

This work will be completed before a second study will begin on how transit operations should be governed in the future.

“So this transit vision study really is identifying the potential improvements to the regional transit system and establishing that long term goal and plan vision and the governance study is really what are the steps to get to that vision that we’ve defined,” said Tim Brulle of AECOM. He’s the project manager for the vision plan. 

The idea in both visions is to increase how often buses move through the community. 

“Frequency means freedom effectively,” Wagg said. “The more frequent service is, the much shorter the wait is, the much likelier you are to get somewhere soon.”

Wagg said at the moment, around 60 percent of residents of urban Albemarle and Charlottesville are close to some transit service, but only about 15 percent are close to frequent service. 

This image comes from a StoryMap developed to describe the Regional Transit Vision. People are asked to fill out a survey after doing the research. (take the survey)

Both visions expand the number of areas covered by on-demand service where people can call for service on the same day. Currently, a ride on Jaunt has to be booked a day in advance. But in general, the plan without identified funding would increase service. 

The unconstrained vision would seek to increase fixed-route service to seven days a week from morning into the evening. 

“One of the key things that is likely to significantly improve access to opportunity, particularly for people who work in retail, service, and hospital jobs where many people have to work evenings and many people have to work Sundays,” Wagg said. “Those types of jobs where if you aren’t there for them on Sunday, they have to have a car and therefore have to incur the high costs of owning a car.” 

Supervisor Ann Mallek is the sole elected official left from an effort in the late 2000’s to create a regional transit authority. She wanted to make clear the community tried once before for a sales tax to fund increased transit, but a referendum did not make it out of the General Assembly. 

“Money doesn’t just appear when we don’t have the authority to raise it,” Mallek said. 

Supervisor Ned Gallaway said service along urban corridors in his district needs to be frequent to accommodate the new units that have been approved during his tenure, such as the Rio Point project that got the okay last December. He pointed out proponents argued transit could help mitigate traffic congestion.

“Over a thousand units, 1,300, 1,400 units that are going to build out there, and if they’re sitting on a sixty-minute transit line, that’s not going to work,” Gallaway said. 

Gallaway said the on-demand transit pilot that Albemarle will begin next year will go a long way to helping determine what the county needs.

Supervisors Bea LaPisto-Kirtley and Diantha McKeel had already seen the presentation because the Jefferson Area Regional Transit Partnership got a briefing in late May. McKeel wanted clarification on the role the University of Virginia Transit System would play in the vision. 

“We tend to think about UVA as doing their own thing,” McKeel said. “That’s what they’ve done for years with their students and faculty and staff. Having said that, I know they are working really hard with us at the regional transit partnership about coming together on transit in this community.” 

Wagg said that the unconstrained vision anticipates more involvement by UVA. 

“There is an obvious and enormous transit demand within and around a university and the Grounds at UVA needs really a high frequency service within a pretty limited space so it is understandable they run their own service,” Wagg said. 

Wagg said an idea in the unconstrained vision is to trade resources with UVA. For instance, a  Bus Rapid Transit system similar to the Pulse in Richmond could travel down U.S. 29 and terminate somewhere on Emmet Street. 

“And then the University could run a more community service that serves the Grounds as a primary focus but also serves the community at large,” Wagg said. 

Charlottesville City Council had their review on June 6. The presentation was much the same as what Albemarle and the Regional Transit Partnership saw, but Wagg repeated why having to wait on a bus that comes once an hour is an obstacle.

“Relying on service every 60 minutes is extremely hard,” Wagg said. “You can think about relying on a 60 minute route is a little bit like if there was a gate at the end of your driveway that only opened once an hour. You had best be in your car with your coffee ready to go at 7 a.m. if you need to get out at 7 a.m. to get to work. And if you miss it, then you are not leaving until 8 a.m.” 

Wagg reminded Council that many of the current CAT routes do not operate on Sunday. 

City Councilor Brian Pinkston said the unconstrained vision is compelling and certainly appeared to be more attractive. But he expressed some skepticism. 

“This would be a great system to enact but how do we change behavior such that people would use it?” PInkston said. 

Wagg said if people have choices about how to get around, they’ll take transit. 

“A major reason people don’t take transit today is because it’s very unlikely to be useful to the trip they want to make,” Wagg said. 

For instance, Wagg said a trip from Pantops to the Piedmont Virginia Community College would take a very long time with multiple transfers. 

“Changing that dynamic of ‘will someone choose to ride’ is making it far more likely that the trip that they look up will be reasonably competitive to take transit,” Wagg said. 

Vice Mayor Juandiego Wade said he was concerned that outreach efforts have not been robust.

“I’m just afraid that you may get input from the same people and we kind of know what it is,” Wade said. “We’ve got to do a better job of getting input. I can tell you if this is all you’re going to do, I can assure you of what we’re going to get.” 

Extra service will mean extra drivers, and Councilor Michael Payne said their needs must be taken into consideration up front. 

“We can drop any plans or changes we want but if we don’t have sufficient drivers to run those routes, it won’t work,” Payne said. “I know we’re already seeing significant problems in being able to maintain frequency of our current routes because of a shortage of bus drivers.” 

Payne is another member of the Regional Transit Partnership. He said the unconstrained vision should be a goal, but a realistic approach needs to be taken. 

“How do we, once this is finalized, bring it back down to earth and figure out what are the level of investments we need to specifically plan for here in the city and what are the specific steps needed to start to get Jaunt, [Charlottesville Area Transit], and the University Transit Service working together to move to that Regional Transit Authority?” Payne said. 

And that’s where the governance study would come in. 

If there was to be a regional authority, that could also include surrounding counties. The Greene County Board of Supervisors gets their review of the plan tonight, and its the Fluvanna Board’s turn on Wednesday. 

The next step is a virtual meeting on June 23 in which the consultants will present both the constrained and unconstrained visions. There’s also a community survey that seeks to gather input on the unconstrained and constrained visions. 

What do you think? No use telling me. Fill out that survey!

Before you go: The time to write and research of this article is covered by paid subscribers to Charlottesville Community Engagement. In fact, this particular installment comes from the June 14, 2022 edition of the program. To ensure this research can be sustained, please consider becoming a paid subscriber or contributing monthly through Patreon.

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