Transit planning consultants trying to develop a vision for the future transit in the Charlottesville region is seeking public input, after receiving few responses so far.
The Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission received funding earlier this year from the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation for the creation of a regional transit vision plan, which will result in a document with recommendations for the short-term, long-term and extended long-term timeframes through 2050. Consulting firms have been hired to complete the plan .
An initial round of surveys — a traditional eight-question survey and a map to place comment markers — are available online at bit.ly/3rMpq8S until Jan. 3.
According to consultants working on the plan, about 130 people had taken the survey as of last week.
The project study area consists of the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission area, which includes Charlottesville and the counties of Albemarle, Fluvanna, Greene, Louisa and Nelson, as well as Buckingham County, which is served by Jaunt.
When it comes to the long-term vision for area transit, goals around enhancing service and improving equity and access for area residents and expanding transit service were ranked “most important” by the most survey takers.
If the region had additional money for transit service, increased bus frequency ranked the highest priority by survey takers so far.
Scudder Wagg, a planning consultant with Jarrett Walker + Associates, told the Jefferson Area Regional Transit Partnership at its meeting last week that they would have more demographic information about who took the survey when it closes.
Mayor Nikuyah Walker asked if there were going to be a campaign to entice people to participate in the survey.
“Because as large as the city and county are, if we can increase that number in some way, I think that will be important,” she said.
Tim Brulle, a transportation planning manager with AECOM, said that for the second round of engagement, the consulting firms will be revisiting their engagement approach.
“I definitely think trying to reach people where they are, in my experience, has been the best way,” Wagg said. “Particularly if you’re trying to reach existing riders, either going to the transit center or riding buses is usually the most likely way to get folks to actually respond.”
Transit partnership members also suggested additional organizations to send the survey to, as well as printed surveys.
Lucinda Shannon, TJPDC’s transportation program manager, said the PDC sent the surveys to 160 organizations in the community and asked them to spread the word, and also had bus drivers hand out flyers to riders and posted flyers at the transit station.
“I don’t think there’s anyone on this current call that thinks that that’s a sufficient response,” TJPDC Executive Director Christine Jacobs said. “We fully intend to be relooking at the strategy and to do all of these things that you all are suggesting, because this is not a regional vision if we don’t get the engagement that we need in order to hear from the community … please know that we will do our due diligence to get more responses.”
In the next phase of the plan development, the consultants will present different scenarios on what potential future increased funding for transit could allow in terms of more frequent and/or expanded service.
“The input we’ve received so far in the survey suggests there’s a lot of interest both in expansion and in enhancing with more frequency, and those are heading us in different directions on the ridership/coverage balance,” Wagg said.
He said Northern Virginia, Hampton Roads and Richmond regions have sought money from different funding sources to significantly expand their transit services.
With the Central Virginia Transportation Authority, which was established in 2020 and covers the Richmond area, localities in the boundary are now subject to a 0.7% sales tax, a wholesale gas tax of 7.6 cents per gallon of gasoline and 7.7 cents per gallon of diesel fuel. Of that money, half of the funding will go back to the localities, about 35% will go to regional transit priorities and 15% will go to the Greater Richmond Transit Company.
Wagg said if a regional transit authority like CVTA was done in the Charlottesville area, it could generate about $29.7 million, based on 2020 sales, and about three fourths of that would come from Charlottesville and Albemarle County.
“You could set a division budget, if you had a regional authority, and you were using all that funding for transit, and you could set a regional policy of perhaps half of your resources are going to be devoted to ridership-oriented services and half are going to be devoted to coverage,” Wagg said. “You would say that that coverage portion of the pie, perhaps, would basically be distributed by population, perhaps. And so the big question becomes what’s that balance between the two slices of the pie?”
Authorization to establish the Charlottesville-Albemarle Regional Transit Authority was approved by the state in 2009, but new taxing power was rejected by state lawmakers. When the Jefferson Area Regional Transit Partnership was formed in 2017, it was said that it could be a test run for what a regional transit authority would look like.
“I would just like to get a sense of the partners here at the table about do you all want to explore a vision at a level of the $30 million a year of a regional transit agency, or even higher than that, or something much lower?” Wagg said. “Do you want to explore vision at a much higher investment level, assuming something like this might happen? That’s kind of a big question here — how high do we want to aim?”
Charlottesville Area Transit Director Garland Williams said if the localities decided to pursue regional funding, it could be “a game changer for this region for public transportation.”
“If the larger context is to do something that is regionally based, that is designed to lessen the burden that continues to grow on the general funds of the city and the county to fund public transportation increased needs, this is an avenue we do need to explore and consider seriously to make sure that this happens eventually, in the next three to five years,” he said.
Jacobs said the regional transit partnership needs to decide how aspirational it wants to be.
“Then we can bring that back to our rural governments and say, ‘Is this an investment that you would be interested in making in order to get us to that aspirational place?’” she said.
Wagg said he would bring back two different levels of investment in the scenarios.
“I think in terms of ridership/coverage balance, we’ll hear more from the public on that front and can work with PDC staff on thinking about where’s the right balance point to explore in the scenarios at different investment levels,” he said.