Category Archives: Transit

Council briefed on proposed transit changes

(This installment was originally posted in the June 2, 2021 edition of Charlottesville Community Engagement)

At a work session on May 25, 2021, Charlottesville City Council was briefed on upcoming changes to the city-run bus system. Charlottesville is the sole owner and operator of Charlottesville Area Transit, and Albemarle County pays the city for service each year. Ridership on CAT has declined significantly in recent years. In 2013, ridership was at 2.4 million. By 2018, that dropped to 2.05 million. (view presentation)

Garland Williams has been director since August 2019 and previously served as director of Planning and Scheduling for the Greater Richmond Transit Company. 

Near the beginning of the pandemic, the city hired Kimley Horn to review the system to recommend changes to make it more efficient on the other side.

“This is not designed to be a total revamp of our system,” Williams said. “This was kind of stop-gap measure because as you know, over the last six year CAT’s ridership has been declining precipitously so what we’re trying to do right now is stop that, build a nice foundation, and then build from there.”

Read more

Experts discuss links between housing, transportation costs

(This story initially appeared in the June 2, 2021 edition of Charlottesville Community Engagement)

At some point this year, we’ll know exactly how many people are believed to live in our communities when the U.S. Census is released. But, projections from the Weldon Cooper Center at the University of Virginia as well as their yearly estimates depict a growing region. As the cost of housing in Charlottesville and Albemarle’s urban ring continues to increase, many will choose or have already chosen to live in communities half an hour away or more. Data from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey shows the vast majority of people commute to work in a single occupant vehicle? But does that have to be the case? 

Data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey for commuting data, five-year average (look at the tables yourself!

In May, the Central Virginia Regional Housing Partnership held a panel discussion on the topic. For background, housing is to be considered affordable if rent or a mortgage payment makes up thirty percent or less of household expenditures. Households that pay more than that are considered stressed. 

Todd Litman is a founder and the executive director of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute. He said transportation costs also have to be factored in.

“It works out that a cheap house is not truly affordable if it has particularly high transportation costs [and] if it’s located in an area where people have to spend a lot of time and money traveling,” Litman said. “A lot of experts now recommend that instead of defining affordability as 30 percent of household budgets to housing, it’s defined as 45 percent of household budgets dedicated to housing and transportation combined.” 

Litman said transportation costs are more volatile for low-income households because of the unpredictability of fuel prices and maintenance costs. 

Stephen Johnson, a planning manager with Jaunt, said the cost of time must also be factored in.

“If I can only afford to take public transit, but that means my commute to work is going to take five to ten times longer, then that’s time that I’m losing to spend on other things,” Johnson said.

Johnson said people also can lose jobs if a transit connection doesn’t work out. He said this community has public transit options, but they are not compelling for many.

“When we put ourselves in the shoes of somebody’s who is deciding to take transit or drive, there are four factors that one would consider,” Johnson said. “The first would be the financial cost. The second would be the time cost. The third would be reliability. Can I rely on getting there on time? The fourth I think would be flexibility. Will my transportation allow me to make a last-minute change to my schedule? To travel with a friend, or to bring home a bunch of shopping.”

Johnson said public transit is cheaper to use than driving, but the other three factors are more difficult. He said transit in the area could be reformed by greater investments and better planning.

“An Albemarle planner might come to me and say ‘we’ve got this community, it’s got a lot of cul-de-sacs, a lot of houses, and we’re really struggling with congestion. Can you put a public transit band-aid on this and fix it?’” Johnson said. “In that case, the game board is already set and there’s only so much we can do as a player but I think if we can expand our idea of what transit planning is, when we think about things like density, how can we take those A’s and B’s and cluster them together so that when we put a bus out there we can cover a lot of trips?”

Litman said a goal is to not necessarily encourage people to go car-free, but to work to create areas where more trips can be taken in a walk, a bike-ride, or by getting on the bus. This was more common before the middle of the 20th century.

“So if you go back to the older neighborhoods, they’re all very walkable,” Litman said. “They have sidewalks on all the streets. You have local schools, and park, and stores that were designed. The neighborhood was organized around the idea that at least some people will rely on walking. We lost that for a while and now there’s a number of planning movements and approaches that are trying to establish that.”

Litman said developers and local governments should be working together to encourage more than just single-family housing. 

“If you’re building new neighborhoods, those that allow what we call ‘the missing middle’, compact housing types like townhouses and low-rise apartments are going to be far more affordable and therefore far more inclusive,” Litman said. 

Todd Litman of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute

But back to transit. Jaunt mostly provides on-demand service, but does have some fixed-route service. Johnson explained what works best in what situation. 

“Fixed route options are much more appropriate public transit option for dense urban cores and we see that in downtown Charlottesville and urban Albemarle County,” Johnson said. “Demand response is a much more appropriate technology for more rural areas and that’s the majority of Jaunt’s service area are the counties around Charlottesville and Albemarle.” 

However, Johnson said transit in urban areas could be transformed if systems adopt on-demand tech. Jaunt has been working on a pilot project to provide service to Loaves and Fishes on Lambs Road, a site not accessible via Charlottesville Area Transit. 

In this community, there are three transit systems. They are the Charlottesville Area Transit (CAT), the University of Virginia Transit Service (UTS)  and Jaunt. In September, BRITE will begin the Afton Express service between Staunton and Charlottesville. How do all of these many pieces come together? Here’s Stephen Johnson again.

“Charlottesville and Albemarle are working together through the Regional Transit Partnership to try to help build a cohesive vision there of how Jaunt and Charlottesville Area Transit and UTS can all work together to provide a cohesive transit system for the residents of Charlottesville and Albemarle,” Johnson said.

You can view the entire video on the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission’s YouTube page

Both CAT and Regional Transit Partnership studying ways to improve serve in northern Albemarle

(This article originally appeared in the April 27, 2021 edition of Charlottesville Community Engagement. Subscribe now so you don’t miss an episode!)

Preparations continue for a study of how transit could work better in Albemarle County. Some fixed-route service is provided by Charlottesville Area Transit, which is owned by the City of Charlottesville. Jaunt provides fixed-route service between Crozet and Charlottesville as well as paratransit service throughout the region.

The Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission is shepherding a Regional Transit Vision as well as a study of additional service to serve Albemarle’s urban areas. A kick-off meeting for the study will take place in early June. Jessica Hersh-Ballering is a planner with the TJPDC. She spoke at the April 22 meeting of the Regional Transit Partnership.

“This is a project to determine the best way to expand transit service to three priority locations in Albemarle, and those priority locations are Pantops, north 29, and Monticello,” Hersh-Ballering said. “The goal is to apply for funding to implement that service in fiscal year 2023.” 

To do that, the study will need to be completed, including public review, in order to apply for a demonstration grant by next February. 

Albemarle Supervisor Diantha McKeel is the chair of the Regional Transit Partnership.

“I just have a comment, Jessica,” McKeel said. “I looked at that February date in February and thought, wow, that is a tight timeline but I’m sure you all have figured it out.” 

The University Transit System is a member of the Regional Transit Partnership and they updated community officials on the results of a recent passenger survey. The pandemic skewed ridership last year, with almost 90 percent of people taking shuttle routes to the Health Complex, a figure that was 57.25 percent in 2019. Academic routes usually make up just over forty percent ridership, but that dropped to ten percent last year. 

An image from the recent UTS ridership survey (download)

The University Transit System is completely separate from Charlottesville Area Transit, but does offer some service on some streets in the City of Charlottesville.

“We are the public provider on 14th Street, Grady, Rugby, Arlington, Massey,” said Becca White, the director of Parking and Transportation at UVA. “People who have been around long enough know that CAT used to serve some of those corridors and were able to concentrate elsewhere while UTS agreed to be the public provider on those corridors.”

However, Charlottesville Area Transit said they are in talks with UTS about whether that will continue.

CAT Senior Project Steve MacNally told the Regional Transit Partnership about upcoming capital projects, including the potential for a transit hub and park and ride lot on U.S. 29.  They’re looking for a suitable two acre lot. 

“I’ve been busy looking at some vacant or unoccupied properties, looking at right of way issues, the access to those, and a number of other criteria,” MacNally said. 

CAT is about to begin work on two studies of its own. One will look at the need for future facilities and a more dedicated look at the park and ride possibility with the firm Kimley Horn. 

In response to a question from White, CAT director Garland Williams said he has not been in touch with anyone from the University of Virginia Foundation, which owns many properties in the 29 North corridor, including the North Fork Research Park.

“This is our kickoff to bring all those elements together, so the study is really going to look at whether the corridor itself is ripe for transit,” Williams said. “We do believe that it is.”   

Williams added this could help CAT increase ridership which would in turn bring in more funding. 

“Initially we have looked at potentially the airport to [the University of Virginia] as the initial corridor of looking at, kind of the route, but that’s up for discussion as we’re working with our consultant,” Williams said. 

The work by Kimley Horn is separate from the work being done by the TJPDC on behalf of Albemarle County. Williams said the work is complementary and will function together. A third transit-related land use study in the same geographical area is a potential relocation of Albemarle school bus fleet to land somewhere in the U.S. 29 corridor.

Christine Jacobs, the interim director of the TJPDC, said the conversation was a sign of the role the Regional Transit Partnership can play. 

“I think this is really exciting because there’s a lot of synergy and coordination that is occurring between some of these corridors and I just want to make sure I remind you that the PDC we will also be doing through the MPO in their North 29 study corridor from Airport Road all the way up into Greene,” Jacobs said. 

Regional Transit Partnership briefed on regional transit vision, looming Charlottesville Area Transit route changes

Since October 2017, the Regional Transit Partnership has met as a program of the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission (TJPDC). The group consists of Charlottesville and Albemarle officials, and the University of Virginia joined the partnership by the end of 2019. The idea is to share information with an eye to having the city-owned Charlottesville Area Transit, the public service corporation Jaunt, and the University Transit System work better together. 

Last week, regional leaders got an update on the creation of a regional transit vision that the TJPDC is working on that will serve as a blueprint for a more efficient system. The next milestone is for a committee to select a firm to work on the project. Jessica Hersh-Ballering is a transportation planner with the TJPDC who spoke at March 25 RTP meeting. 

“The regional transit vision plan requires technical assistance from a consulting team and the role of the selection committee is to review proposals from those firms to the vision plan [request for proposals] and then to recommend to the Regional Transit Partnership a preferred firm to complete the vision plan,” said Hersh-Ballering. 

Read more

Jaunt audit finds former CEO Sheffield “violated” policies

An audit of the transit agency Jaunt has found that former CEO Brad Sheffield “purchased numerous expenses for goods, services, and travel which violated internal control policies of the corporation.” The Robinson, Farmer, and Cox (RFC) review of the fiscal year budget also found that the total amount of alledgely misused funds could not be calculated. The agency issued a statement this morning about the irregular transactions.  

“As RFC’s audit progressed, and more information came to light, Jaunt’s Board felt that they were no longer comfortable with the business judgment of then-CEO Brad Sheffield,” wrote communications director Jody Saunders. “On December 5, 2020, with the audit findings still months away, the Board made the difficult decision to request Mr. Sheffield’s resignation as CEO.”

Read more

Regional Transit Partnership meets for first time in 2021

All localities in the Thomas Jefferson Planning district except Nelson County experienced population growth in the last decade. To reduce the likelihood of traffic congestion, local governments and organizations are seeking ways to improve transit service throughout the community. 

Last week, the Regional Transit Partnership held its first meeting of the year. One of the first actions was to allow a group called the Charlottesville Area Alliance to sit on the body as a non-voting member. Jessica Hersh-Ballering is a transportation planner with the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission. 

Read more

MPO holds first meeting of 2021

Last week, the regional body that takes votes on transportation projects met for the first time in 2021.

One item on the agenda was a public hearing on a cost increase for the Belmont Bridge replacement. That project has been in the planning stages for over ten years and set to get under construction this year. The cost estimate for the project is $31.1 million, or about six million higher than the most recent estimate included within the Metropolitan Planning Organization’s transportation improvement program. 

Charlottesville’s capital budget for the current fiscal year includes $5 million toward the project, and the draft capital improvement program includes $2.5 million. No one spoke at the public hearing. 

Read more

Regional Transit Partnership discuss fare-free, lessons from the pandemic

The pandemic has affected much of how the community functions, and has drastically affected how transit agencies get people around the region. 

On October 22, 2020 the members of a working group of Albemarle and Charlottesville officials talked about lessons learned as buses have been running at reduced capacity due to the need for physical distancing. 

Take a listen to an audio version of this story!

Albemarle Supervisor Diantha McKeel is the chair of the Regional Transit Partnership. 

“The thought was today to have a work session for our group to discuss transit in light of the pandemic,” McKeel said. “Is our strategic plan still relevant? Do we need to articulate a new direction in some areas? What is absolutely the most important thing about transit today, which may not have been true when we were looking at our strategic plan?” 

The Regional Transportation Partnership has been meeting since October 2017 and is a forum to talk about ways to increase coordination between multiple transit agencies in our area. 

Brad Sheffield is the executive director of Jaunt, which is a regional transportation system that serves the city and surrounding counties. He said the pandemic has led to increased communications between his agency, Charlottesville Area Transit and the University Transit Service.

“Going forward there’s going to be a need for more and more communication and more positive communication about what safety measures are being taken and so forth,” Sheffield said. “We can’t just assume that something we put out today is going to be remembered two months from now.” 

But what if there are fewer potential passengers in the future? 

Albemarle Deputy Executive Trevor Henry said the county is putting together its budget for next year, and wanted to know what financial changes can be identified now. He said many companies may allow their employees to continue to work from home after the pandemic. 

“We didn’t have a work from home policy and we created one in three days whenever we forced everyone out of the office, and we’ve been able to keep county operations hit,” Henry said. He added that the county will expect to keep a virtual option open going forward. 

“We’ve upgraded all of our conference rooms and we’ve made the assumption that we’ll never have a meeting that everyone is in the room together,” Henry said. 

Sheffield said Jaunt has switched its dispatchers so they can work at home. That means they may not need to expand their administrative building. . 

“It’s really challenged the fact that we’ve been shoehorning our staff in the current facility that we have, and this has really shown that we can’t do that anymore,” Sheffield said. “We see that this is part of that future issue where we need better space planning now to just be ready for how we come out of this.”

And then there’s the cost of cleaning and disinfecting all of the buses. CAT Director Garland Williams said his agency is using money from the CARES Act to cover the high cost.

“There needs to continue to be that level of cleaning to make sure the public feels safe when riding public transportation,” Williams said. “Our cleaning bill is fairly high. We’re at half a million dollars already and growing.”    

Another topic is whether transit agencies will resume collecting fares after the pandemic. On CAT buses, passengers now enter through the side door bypassing the farebox as a safety precaution. McKeel said she wanted to know if that could be continued in the future as a way to boost ridership.  

Chip Boyles, the director of the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission, said he supported such a study but said the term “fare-free” can be misleading from a budgetary standpoint.

“A lot of people think fare-free and it’s not,” Boyles said. “Somebody’s paying. It just may not be the end consumer handing a dollar bill over to the driver. Somebody’s paying, but I have seen it directly experienced where there are a lot of benefits.”

During the pandemic, that means contactless transit. It also would mean not having to pay someone to account for collecting the fares, or installing expensive fareboxes. He said fare free transit usually works in college towns where the school picks up the tab. 

“Somebody writes one check instead of a million people handing over 75 cents,” Boyles said.

Williams said he believes CAT could go fare-free in the future and he is working on a pilot project.

Neal Sherman with the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation said his agency was in the process of developing a grant program for this purpose before the pandemic, but they want to use a different phrase.

“We are changing the terminology to zero fares,” Sherman said. 

Fares make up about ten percent of CAT’s budget, for instance. The University Transit Service is fare-free. UVA Parking and Transportation Director Becca White said the University pays about a quarter of million dollars to CAT for its employees to ride CAT buses fare-free. 

“We consider our program with CAT to be a reciprocal ridership program such that UTS provides service on Grady, Rugby Street, 14th Street, JPA, we just open the doors and anyone boards,” White said. “CAT used to run on Massie Road and Arlington Boulevard and Rugby Road and because of our coordination with our routes, CAT was able to reallocate resources to other routes and UTS became the public provider on some roads.” 

As the meeting was a work session, there were no decisions made. The TJPDC is awaiting news about whether it will get a planning grant from the DRPT to come up with a way to improve the regional vision as well as enhanced transit service in Albemarle. The Commonwealth Transportation Board did not make a decision at their meeting on Tuesday. 

Supervisor McKeel said her interest in transit leans toward finding ways to serve a growing urban population in the county. Albemarle pays for service by CAT, but the process to get new routes is a long and uncertain one. The county is working with Jaunt on potential on-demand service to augment CAT and UTS. 

“Fixed routes are not going to serve our population by themselves,” McKeel said. “We hardly have a proposal that comes to us now that doesn’t talk about the need for some sort of transit or on-demand, and we’re talking about transit stops that also offer opportunities for on-demand and looking at them as multimodal stops with bike racks, shelters, charging stations.”

The Regional Transit Partnership is next scheduled to meet in late January 2021.

Where will be in the pandemic by then? Stay tuned.

Regional transit agencies update partnership on pandemic service

Even though the University of Virginia is not yet in session, activity around Grounds has increased. The University Transit Service (UTS) is running on a new set of routes in part because McCormick Road is now closed to motorized vehicles. Becca White is Parking and Transportation Director at UVA and she spoke at yesterday’s meeting of the Regional Transit Partnership (RTP). 

“We’re already seeing more passengers riding this week than pretty much we had all summer on any route besides our employee routes,” White said. “But we are still limiting to 20 passenger boarding. We’re still using all the same precautions. Rear door boarding. A barrier in the aisle so that passengers can’t get six feet from the drivers.” 

Read more
Recent Entries »