Charlottesville’s new transportation planner briefs Council on future process

Charlottesville is a community in transition with growth on many people’s minds as a new zoning code is written to allow a lot more places to live. The city government has also struggled in recent years to deliver transportation projects on time. At their work session on March 6, City Council met the new transportation planning manager hired last year. 

“So I’m giving an update on transportation planning and I don’t think you’ve had one of these for a very long time,” said Ben Chambers.

Chambers previously worked for the city in pupil transportation and is now charged with restoring the city’s ability to actually build infrastructure after spending many years on various plans and securing funding. Last year, Council terminated the West Main Streetscape and intersection improvements at Preston Avenue and Grady Avenue. Both had been fully funded but the city lacked capacity to manage the projects. 

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One of Chambers’ first steps was to look back and see how well the city has planned in recent years.  He said there was an incomplete picture.

“A lot of the planning activities are happening in different silos in different departments throughout the city,” Chambers said. “So you have public works and engineer doing some of the work, you have [the Department of Neighborhood Development Services] doing some of the work, you have [Charlottesville Area Transit] doing some work. They are all broken out into their own little silos and not necessarily communicating together and putting together a comprehensive planning strategy.” 

Chambers said there are several conflicting transportation plans as opposed to one overarching master plan. He said such a plan needs to be updated on a continuous basis. In contrast, the Bike and Pedestrian Master Plan was adopted in 2015 but has not had a significant update. 

The presentation gave an opportunity for Chambers to provide an update on many ongoing studies. 

  • Charlottesville Area Transit Alternative Fuels Study: “Is it feasible for CAT to switch from diesel to another fuel of some sort, preferably one with zero emissions?” Chambers asked. There will be stakeholder outreach in April and the study should be ready in May for Council review and a potential decision in the summer. 
  • Dockless Mobility Program: Chambers said VEO is the sole holder of a permit to provide scooters and e-bikes. This program had been overseen by the Bike Pedestrian Coordinator, a position that has been vacant for over two years. Chambers has taken on the role of negotiation with VEO on a new contract. The city may begin charging a fee for misplaced vehicles as well as a pilot project for parking hubs beginning with West Main Street. Negotiations over fee changes and other contract changes are on-going.
  • Safe Streets and Roads 4 All program: The Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission recently secured around $867,000 to coordinate a study that is a precursor to receiving federal funding through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act.  That includes Charlottesville. Chambers said the city’s section will include more information on community engagement, bike & pedestrian infrastructure, and transit. 

Chambers also discussed how infrastructure for bicycles and pedestrians is planned and prioritized. Right now, there are multiple documents including small area plans. 

“The priorities in these plans don’t account for staffing challenges,” Chambers said. “They are very optimistic about what they think the city can accomplish. I think if you look back at the 2015 bike-ped master plan or the 2016 Streets That Work plan, they said that we were going to do a lot of stuff that we didn’t get done.” 

Chambers said the city is working with the Virginia Secretary of Transportation on a plan to reassess various transportation projects. One thing the city wants to do going forward is continue painting of “sharrows” on roadways, but to no longer think of these as infrastructure projects.

“It’s not a protected bike lane, it’s not even a bike lane, it’s a ‘bike is going to in the middle of the road with you, pay attention,’” Chamber said. “We’re splitting those out separately as not projects in our prioritized list because we kind of just want those to be automatic.”

The idea is to develop a list of priorities that can be developed internally while funding sources are identified. Chambers didn’t say so, but this is similar to an approach that Albemarle County uses. (Albemarle transportation quarterly report, October 2022)

City Councilor Brian Pinkston said he appreciates that development.

“I think many people feel like it’s just a mystery and so having a list and having priorities, even if a person may not like precisely the way the priority is laid out, knowing it’s there and being thought about will make a huge difference,” Pinkston said. 

Chambers said stakeholder engagement on the draft priority list will begin this spring and Council will get to have their review in the summer. 

Watch the entire presentation for all of the details

The diagram by which city planners are looking at all of the various projects that could be built in Charlottesville. BPMP stands for Bike-Pedestrian Master Plan and STW is Streets That Work (Credit: City of Charlottesville)

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