Charlottesville Planning Commissioners seek Council action on safer streets on school routes

As of today, there are 39 days left until the first day of school in the City of Charlottesville. Yesterday, the school system held a Transportation Talk and Walk Session to discuss a recent alert from Superintendent Royal Gurley that the bus driver shortage has worsened and walk zones will be expanded. 

This past Tuesday, the city Planning Commission was briefed on a request from one of its members that city government take steps to make routes to school. They got an update from Missy Creasy, Charlottesville’s assistant director of the Neighborhood Development Services office (NDS).

“The city has a pretty robust program that they’re putting together to address how they are addressing the shortage at this point in time and some pretty innovative things on there,” Creasy said.

These include encouraging older students to take Charlottesville Area Transit routes, hiring more crossing guards or finding more volunteers, and buying smaller buses that don’t require drivers to have commercial licenses. 

NDS director James Freas said the shortage provides an opportunity to apply goals of the recently adopted Comprehensive Plan to a real life problem. 

“Wrapped up in this challenge is an opportunity to explore those options,” Freas said. “The flip side of that is that it’s a little early for us right now in that we are in the process of building out a transportation planning program.” 

In May, Council was briefed by Deputy City Manager Sam Sanders on a series of problems with how the city has run its transportation planning program. For instance, transportation planners have had too high of a workload, and the city has been unable to move some projects forward. There’s also a vacancy in the position of bike pedestrian coordinator after the last person left the job at the end of 2021 to work for a consultant. 

“We expect that position to post very soon and see that position as really being able to take a lead role in doing exactly this type of work and that is coming up with innovative, innovative, and low-cost ways of improving pedestrians, particularly children’s safety, in the neighborhoods around our schools,” Freas said. 

Creasy said that the traffic engineer and the Safe Routes to School coordinator no longer work in NDS. Instead they work for the Public Works department, a decision made by former City Manager Tarron Richardson. Creasy said NDS does coordinate with public works, but more people are needed to implement what’s in the Comprehensive Plan. 

“We do have really good support for continuing to move forward in this direction,” Creasy said. “We have tools in place but we just need to fill them with humans so that we can keep the work going.” 

Some of the strategies in the Comprehensive Plan that address making streets more accessible. (View the entire Comprehensive Plan)

Creasy said she is aware of grassroots efforts to make things better, but coordination with the city is needed. 

Freas said that one remedy would be to paint bump-outs at curbs to provide more space for people. 

“It’s a significant safety improvement and you can do that with paint and potentially flex-posts, but even to do just that, you do have to do some engineering design, you do need to coordinate with public works street folks,” Freas said. 

Freas said that there’s a possibility of maybe having something done within six weeks, but he cautioned that it will be hard to do in that time frame. 

“I think, A, the school department’s plans are really good, I think they have some good solutions in place, and B, I think we can build towards that and start contributing the safety improvements we need to make as we go forward,” Freas said. 

Commissioner Rory Stolzenberg said he supported the idea of an official letter to City Council, but also said funding needed to be in place to implement the solutions.  

“Is it safe to assume there is not within the currently allocated budget enough money to really address the things that staff would potentially want to address?” Stolzenberg asked. “Or potentially to hire outside traffic engineers to take some of the load of our in-house resources?” 

Freas said he would need to have a scope of work before answering that question. 

“We don’t have an identified line item for that right now so we would be cobbling together money from other sources,” Freas said. 

Stolzenberg said he would like the Planning Commission to recommend identifying money in the current fiscal year so incremental improvements can be made throughout the school year. He pointed out that Council voted in late June to purchase property for parking.

“Council just spent $1.65 million on a parking lot with 40 spaces,” Stolzenberg said. “It seems to me that we can find money within the currently allocated [Capital Improvement Program] that could be reallocated to make sure that kids don’t get run over by cars on their way to school.” 

Stolzenberg also asked if the city has explored the ability to install cameras in school zones to capture people who speed. Freas and Creasy said they did not know if the city has done that research. 

The Commission agreed to send a letter to Council seeking support for the work. Stolzenberg said he would draft that document. 

The discussion took place just before the Commission’s joint public hearing with City Council. Vice Mayor Juandiego Wade said he heard the message.

“It doesn’t have to be a war and peace type of document,” Wade said. “We understand the issues and we’re hearing a lot of from the citizens now.” 

Two more Talk and Walk sessions are scheduled this month. 

Do you have a specific concern? Drop me a line and I’d like to hear about it. 

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 July 16, 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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