Charlottesville City Council learns more about transit governance study

A Route 7 bus at the Downtown Transit Center in Charlottesville.

Charlottesville’s future zoning code anticipates a lot more residents living within city limits with little to no requirements from the city government about providing places to park. Albemarle County and other surrounding localities are also planning on more people. 

If everyone tries to get around via car, there could be congestion. To plan for alternatives to increase non-driving mobility options throughout the region, the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission is currently overseeing the second of two studies. 

TJPDC Planning and Transportation Director Sandy Shackelford briefed the Charlottesville City Council on the completed Regional Transit Vision as well as the ongoing Governance Study at their meeting on August 7.

“The transit vision plan established a unified long-term vision of transit service throughout the region,” Shackelford said. “This governance study was initiated to support the achievement of the regional transit priorities identified in the vision plan by identifying governance options for regional transit and increasing transportation investments.”

The firm AECOM is one of the subcontractors working on both studies. The governance study is now in its third phase which is intended to find additional sources of revenue. 

Here’s a link to a six-page overview that was in City Council’s packet.  

Some articles to catch-up as much of what Council heard has already been said before at previous meetings I’ve covered. 

But let’s also hear from Stephanie Amoaning-Yankson with AECOM.

“Really when we talk about a transit authority, what we are looking for is, one, to be able to find some options for dedicated transit revenue and two, get options on creating an entity,” Amoaning-Yankson said. “This could be an authority that can govern and manage that funding source.” 

Amoaning-Yankson said the end of the third phase will come up with a list of revenue sources, but this was not yet available at the time of Council’s briefing. A fourth phase will look at governance structures and a final report is due by December. 

Currently Charlottesville City Council governs Charlottesville Area Transit as the final decision maker on what the agency does. There is a defunct advisory body that has been removed from the list of city boards and commissions.

There’s also Jaunt which is overseen by a board of directors appointed by the localities that fund the transit agency.  The University of Virginia runs the University Transit Service, which covers a very small geographic scope around Grounds.

One half of a previous to establish a Regional Transit Authority passed the General Assembly when the basic permission to create one was granted in 2008/2009. However, legislation to hold a referendum on a one-percent sales tax increase failed to get out of committee. 

“With the lack of funding, there’s really little that can be done in terms of pushing forward the transit objectives that we have for the region,” Amoaning-Yankson said.  

Other structures include a unified system where one major funder covers much of the costs. That’s the case with Blacksburg Transit which is paid for Virginia Tech. Bloomington, Indiana has a public service corporation set up like Jaunt to provide service. 

“However, in Bloomington, it’s funded by property and income tax,” Amoaning-Yankson said. “That’s how they fund their services.” 

An overview of how three transit agencies in Virginia are funded 

Amoaning-Yankson said she and the other consultants understand that the Charlottesville region is diverse with different constituencies. Future service could depend on who wants to pay.

“We know that Charlottesville’s priorities might be slightly different from say Albemarle’s priorities or from Louisa County’s priorities,” Amoaning-Yankson said. “So through this discussion, this is where we can define who wants to participate, who is interested, and what would that look like in having that sort of entity.” 

One caveat is that many of the potential revenue sources may need legislative changes in Richmond to be able to devote them to transit. Legislatures under Republican or split-control tend to not allow new taxation for new programs. A recent example is the attempts to allow localities to raise their sales tax for school construction costs. (House Subcommittee kills school sales-tax bills, February 25, 2023)

Another source of funding could be dedicating lodging or meals taxes, but Amoaning-Yankson said these revenue streams may be already being used to fund other government services. 

The governance study is not complete and one purpose of the briefing was to get information from Councilors. An initial reaction was that legislative approval from Richmond for any funding would be difficult if not impossible.

“If we have to get authority from the General Assembly, we’ve found that that has been an obstacle,” said Vice Mayor Juandiego Wade. “I think that anything we have to go outside to get authority for, we can put that in a category of…”

“Not now, certainly,” responded Mayor Lloyd Snook.

“Highly unlikely at this point in time,” responded Councilor Leah Puryear. 

Shackelford said the planning team is aware of the political dynamics not only in Richmond but among the six member localities of the TJPDC. 

“And we want to make sure that we are being thoughtful of how and when to proceed with any of these next steps so this is not necessarily something that we anticipate is going to move forward quickly but we want to make sure we are moving it forward,” Shackelford said. 

Councilor Lloyd Snook said he would not support increasing the real property tax rate and dedicating a portion to increased transit.  

City Councilor Michael Payne said he would support any funding increase from city sources to increase transit. He also said he wants the TJPDC and elected officials to be ready to move forward with expanded bus service.

“I’m a hundred percent on board and I think the city needs to be going all in to figure out how we get to a regional transit authority and work with Albemarle and whatever partners are willing to join us and think what we can do now because I think in a few years we probably can win some sort of funding mechanism,” Payne said. 

City Councilor Brian Pinkston noted that there was one potential revenue source missing from the presentation.

“One thing that was not included that I could see was any kind of contribution from the University,” Pinkston said. “The University would need to be one funding stream that would need to be layered into this.” 

Amoaning-Yankson said additional direct funding from the University of Virginia has not been part of the conversation. For many years, UVA has provided funding into the system for the free trolley-style bus as well as as to allow faculty, staff, and students to use their ID to catch a ride. 

“We’ve talked about Charlottesville potentially doing more on the University property and the University Grounds and we looked at contributions from the University,” Amoaning-Yankson said. “Right now it’s at about we believe is $350,000 per year and about $250,000 for Jaunt.” 

Snook said other urbanizing areas of the community could be considered at the table. 

“Let’s say Louisa County and Fluvanna County for whom the Zion Crossroads area is the easiest link to Charlottesville but take Louisa an example, I expect people who live in the eastern part of the county, say in Mineral, may be more interested in getting to Richmond than to Charlottesville.”

Puryear said she felt it was important for CAT and Jaunt to work together to move people around the whole region. Or at least, to not break what is already working or by relying too heavily on new taxes. 

“One of the things that I’m hearing that you’re going back and talk to tall of the other regional municipalities because there are a lot of people that rely on Jaunt in Charlottesville and Albemarle, but in outlying counties,” Puryear said. “Whatever we do, we don’t want to make it cost-prohibitive for people who rely on that service.”

Puryear said she had heard about the Afton Express and wanted to learn more about how that service worked. The University of Virginia has also contributed financially to that commuter service which travels between Staunton and Charlottesville.

City Manager Sam Sanders wrapped up the discussion by stating that CAT is learning more about what Albemarle’s needs are by working with them directly on the microtransit pilot. He said he appreciated Council’s willingness to be ready to proceed with something that may be short of the full Regional Transit Vision that came about during the first study. 

“There will be trade-offs,” Sanders said. “It will require regionalism at its best I would imagine to pull this off.” 

For those very interested in this topic, the Jefferson Area Regional Transit Partnership meets next Thursday at 4 p.m. 

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 August 17, 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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