The current administration of the City of Charlottesville has inherited a city government that has struggled to turn ideas for road and multimodal improvement into completed projects. For instance, the Commonwealth Transportation Board awarded three Smart Scale grants to the city in 2016, but none of them has yet gone to construction. The city saved up millions for a West Main Streetscape project that was canceled last year with the money reprioritized for the renovation of Buford Middle School.
The task of reforming the city’s transportation process has fallen to Deputy City Manager Sam Sanders. Last year, he worked with the Virginia Department of Transportation on a plan to fix the city’s broken process, including the cancellation of a couple other projects. Last year, the city did not submit any applications through the Smart Scale process. That was one concession to VDOT officials who have become impatient with the city’s inability to deliver.
Some in the community continue to press the city to do more and remind the city to live up to the lofty goals of a Comprehensive Plan that calls for a walkable community . On Monday, Council got a briefing on the results of the 2021 survey from a coalition called Move2Health Equity.
“We started as a community action on obesity well over 20 years ago before people were really talking about obesity as a chronic disease,” said Jackie Martin, the coalition’s co-chair and an employee at Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, & Community Engagement at UVA Health. “We’ve transformed over the years to not just look at obesity or any chronic disease in general, but to go more upstream to look and focus on some of the root causes of some of the inequities in our communities.”
The group has four action teams and one of them is on Active Communities. Peter Krebs of the Piedmont Environmental Council is a member. In addition to presenting the survey results, he discussed his vision for how transportation planning should be implemented.
“Charlottesville’s Comprehensive Plan talks a lot about walking and biking and transit and getting around but it doesn’t provide precise answers about how to do that,” Krebs said. “So the purpose of this survey is to provide some answers and some ideas about what a better connected community might look like.”
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This work isn’t new for PEC. The Charlottesville Area Community Foundation awarded PEC and the Thomas Jefferson Planning District $180,000 for a “Strengthening Systems” grant.
“The partners complete plans and execute a community engagement campaign that leverages financial support to build a regional bike and pedestrian trail network in Charlottesville and Albemarle,” reads the CACF’s website which still lists the project as still being underway.
The work culminated in the 2019 Jefferson Area Bike and Pedestrian Plan. Take a look!
The Move2Health survey was conducted in the spring and summer of 2021. Krebs said there were under 430 respondents but acknowledged there were not enough University of Virginia students participating and that the responses did not reflect the demographics of Charlottesville.
“And I’m sorry if it seems like I’m being highly critical or whatever throughout this process but I think that folks that are familiar with my work and with the Move2Health Equity, we’re very about accountability and about keeping things very real with our work,” Krebs said.
Krebs said that many of the comments from the survey are worth reading through, such as nearly a quarter of people writing out that they would like to be able to get to a grocery store on foot or transit without using a car. There were other anecdotes as well.
“People talked about lack of sidewalks, lack of bike lanes, buses not running not frequently enough, and concerns about people getting injured by cars or crosswalks not feeling safe,” Krebs said.
Advocacy campaigns never come without an ask and Krebs said the coalition wants Council to come up with a mobility plan to implement the Comprehensive Plan. The city last adopted its Bike and Pedestrian Plan in 2015, which was followed by the Streets that Work Plan. Krebs said more work needs to be done.
“We need to get the basics right, correct sidewalks, correct curb ramps, removing obstructions, and continuous safe routes, and then make a more practical transit system,” Krebs said.
Other recommendations called for items that are already in the works, such as adding more service on key Charlottesville Area Transit routes.
City Council recently opted to spend an additional $1 million on an effort to get more buses on Route 6, which travels to the Willoughby Shopping Center via Prospect Avenue and the Ridge Street neighborhood. When there are enough drivers in place, the plan is for two additional buses to travel along that route, increasing frequency to twice an hour.
City Councilor Brian Pinkston wanted Sanders to weigh in on the practical realities of a mobility plan at this time.
“I know that you and staff have reams and reams of lists and lists of sidewalks that need to be fixed and are in a process of doing prioritization and assigning the correct funds to meet those needs, how does that interact with a mobility plan per se?” Pinkston asked.
Sanders said the new transportation staff that have been hired are trying to understand the work the city has previously conducted.
“They are very disparate set of plans because we have done them at different times with different motivations and they are not connected,” Sanders said. “Part of the work that then we’ll undertake is actually to digest and organize some of that material, putting it together in what we hope will then become a set of strategies for going forward.”
Sanders said that work may not be called a mobility plan, but it would be similar to what Krebs recommended. He noted that the transportation planner has only been on the job for two months.
“We do have a lot of federal funds that are driving a lot of interest and actions so some of that is important to settle on rather quickly so that we’ll know how to pursue some of these opportunities,” Sanders said.
When asked what could be done quickly, Krebs responded that the hiring of additional crossing guards at the beginning of the school year was a big help. He also said the city should do what it can to address West Main Street. Sanders has previously told Council that West Main is not a priority for staff time given Council’s cancellation of a project that had three phases fully funded.
Sanders said the city has limited resources but finally has one element that has been missing recently.
“We have done a great job as a city determining things that we need to study,” Sanders said. “We have done a good job of finding the funds to pay for plans, and we’ve done a great job of being able to figure out what all of the various issues are. So that’s a good thing. The bad thing is that in some instances, we’ve taken a plan and basically replaced or diminished the prior plan that was never fully implemented just because we have more current information. And a lot of places to do that. That’s not a criticism of Charlottesville, it’s just the state of being. But what we have not done previously is that we’ve not actually had anyone to own this effort, this work, and we now have that with Ben stepping in as our new transportation planner.”
How will this process move forward? For me, one story at a time.
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