Planning continues for CAT to run microtransit in Albemarle County

Charlottesville Area Transit has a contract to work with Albemarle County to provide microtransit service in the area along U.S. 29 in the urban ring as well as in the Pantops area. 

“Microtransit is an on-demand transportation solution really being implemented across the nation and here in Virginia,” said Jessica Choi, a transit planner with the firm Kimley Horn. “Folks can make real time trip requests and those trips are dynamically routed and programmed through the application and the vehicle is dynamically routed to serve those trips.” 

Microtransit is seen as a way of providing an alternative to driving for people who live in Albemarle’s growth areas. 

In January, the Board of Supervisors got an update on how preparations are going for service to begin later this year. 

Last year, the Board of Supervisors agreed to apply for a grant from the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation to find a one-year pilot of the service.. That’s similar to the pilot for the Afton Express. The idea was to provide service in Pantops and U.S. 29. 

“We funded our portion of the grant and Charlottesville Area Transit made application for this pilot program and it was awarded last summer,” said Deputy County Executive Trevor Henry at the January 18, 2023 meeting of the Albemarle Board of Supervisors.

The total amount of the grant to Charlottesville Area Transit is for $1.94 million, including a match from Albemarle of $388,000. The service is owned solely entirely by the city of Charlottesville. 

CAT hired the firm Kimley Horn to provide logistical support to get the project up and running. 

“Kimley Horn was brought in to augment CAT staff, to evaluate the program, best practices, options as far terms of implementation with a focus on execution and customer experience  in these two areas,” Henry said. 

This service would operate as a CAT-branded service according to Choi.

“One of the things that we did want to make clear to you all and about this service is that this microtransit service and the operator will be operating under the CAT umbrella of services and not be its own standalone entity,” Choi said. 

The service on U.S. 29 would operate from 6:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday and would feature three vehicles which are much smaller than the large buses used on fixed-route services. 

“The projected riders per weekday is 75 with the potential to grow to 360 daily riders and an average wait time for riders of less than 15 minutes,” Choi said. 

There would be only one bus for Pantops which would operate on the same schedule. The projected number of riders is 25 a day with a growth potential to 240. 

Charlottesville Area Transit will issue a request for proposals for a third-party to provide the microtransit service. 

“And then the [request for proposals] will come back as part of our finals and hopefully come back to the Board hopefully in April or May timeframe to kind of give you a detailed analysis of where we are,” said Garland Williams, the manager of Charlottesville Area Transit. 

Williams said a date for when the service will launch depends upon the results of the RFP. There are many different components. 

“So the software implementation, that could take anywhere from four to six months for implementation so whoever we procure as an operational partner, the implementation from installation to testing and training could take four to six months to make sure we work out all of the bugs,” Williams said. 

Then there’s an open question of what the fare would be if one is charged. CAT is currently operating fare-free through a grant from the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation.  He said because CAT doesn’t charge now, adding a fare for microtransit could trigger a need for federal review of compliance with the Civil Rights Act in a process known at Title VI. 

The budget for the grant also includes $135,000 for marketing and advertising to make sure people know about the service. 

A slide from the presentation given to Albemarle Supervisors on January 18, 2023

Supervisor comments

Supervisor Diantha McKeel has been a member of the Regional Transit Partnership since it was formed in 2017. She said it is critical that CAT and Albemarle pull this off. 

“Whether or not our community chooses to use this pilot will determine the interest in transit ridership in our community, so it’s critical,” McKeel said.

McKeel added that she felt the hours were too limited and might not work for people who work at Sentara Martha Jefferson Hospital. Henry responded that the hours were those that were specified in the grant application. 

“As we experience the project, we certainly could look to expand it if it is successful,” Henry said. 

Williams said the RFP could be set up with a foundation of the stated hours but an add-on could be listed for additional housing. 

McKeel said she was concerned about having the service branded as Charlottesville Area Transit. 

“Based on what has happened with the pandemic and the decrease in ridership and the struggle around bus drivers in our community, many folks have an impression that CAT… they struggle with CAT,” McKeel said. “Let’s talk about it. Let’s face it. And I have a lot of folks who say CAT is not reliable in my urban ring. How are you going to address that if the microtransit service is labeled CAT?” 

Williams said that marketing will help with that service, and that the third-party service would be responsible for staffing and providing the vehicles. 

“From the community standpoint, when they call that number, that will be a dedicated group of drivers that are dedicated strictly to microtransit and it won’t be pulling from the existing numbers of drivers,” Williams said. 

Williams added that microtransit drivers do not need a commercial driver’s license, so that will open up the potential pool of applicants. 

Supervisor Jim Andrews said he was concerned that if the ridership doesn’t materialize, the cost could be expensive. 

“A quick calculation based on the 75 plus 25 is 100 riders per day, and if that’s six days over 50 or 52 weeks, that’s about 30,000 trips a year,” Andrews said. “When you consider the amount of money being put into it at about $75 per trip if it is not scalable.” 

Williams said that is a valid concern but he believes there is pent-up demand on the U.S. 29 and Pantops corridors that will lead to higher ridership than the conservative estimates included in the original study that led to the DRPT project. 

“I think those numbers are kind of the floor but I don’t think those are the ceiling,” Williams said. 

Supervisor Ann Mallek said she wanted whatever firm is hired to have a track record for delivering this service already and not learning how to do it at Albemarle’s expense. She said she’s also concerned about lack of service on Sunday service. 

“It is a real burden for people who get off shift and its dark and it is raining and they’re walking down U.S. 250 to get home, and that’s really hard on a Sunday,” Mallek said. “And we’ve certainly heard about that circumstance both to the hotels and hospitality locations as well.” 

Currently CAT is not offering any Sunday service and has not done so since the pandemic due to driver shortages. 

Supervisor Ned Gallaway said he’s supportive of the pilot because he doesn’t think fixed-route transit will work on U.S. 29. For instance, how would that ever help someone get from Woodbrook to the Rio Hill Shopping Center without a car? 

“When [Fashion Square Mall] was a vibrant location and you could get people from downtown to the Mall and vice versa, that was an effective fixed-route,” Gallaway said. 

Gallaway was fine with going fare-free but riders should be asked what they would be willing to pay. He said he just wants it up and running.

“This speaks to our climate action policy, this speaks to helping eliminate traffic congestion,” Gallaway said. “This helps with economic development because more people could be out and moving around in the local economy spending their dollars where they are going.” 

How will it all turn out? How will you know? Charlottesville Community Engagement will strive to tell you the story.

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 February 14, 2023 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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