It was a matter that wasn’t on the agenda but it could trigger millions of federal dollars for safer streets in Albemarle County and environs after a surprise $60,000 direction Wednesday by the Board of Supervisors.
Planning manager Kevin McDermott told supervisors that initially his department wasn’t going to seek the so-called “Safe Streets for All” funding but that Supervisor Ned Gallaway began pressing the issue late last week.
“Between Friday and today, we put it together,” said a relieved McDermott after the board verbalized its willingness to commit spending up to $60,000 from the county’s strategic reserve fund.
McDermott said the county’s contribution might initially be parlayed into a federal grant of $900,000 for the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission to plan such things as sidewalks, bike lanes, lane reductions and other measures intended to slow the growing carnage perpetrated by drivers in motor vehicles.
“Maybe this grant just popped out of the blue?” asked perplexed Supervisor Ann Mallek amid the unannounced presentation.
Safe Streets and Roads for All is part of the so-called Bipartisan Infrastructure Law which President Joe Biden signed late last November. McDermott told the supervisors that heavy departmental workload, including a push for a different grant, initially led him to believe that he wouldn’t be able to cross all the usual hurdles in time for the September 15 Safer Streets application deadline.
Then Gallaway stepped in. As a member of the board of the planning district commission, Gallaway learned that the multi-jurisdictional body was encouraging its member localities to scramble for the cash. He urged McDermott, McDermott said, to make the surprise funding request at Wednesday’s meeting.
In recent years, rising numbers of pedestrians and bicyclists have been killed by motorists. Particularly alarming to many planners are statistics showing that, during the heights of the pandemic, as the number of motor vehicle-miles driven was dropping, the numbers of cyclists and walkers killed was rising.
From 2020 to 2021, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, the total projected bicyclist fatalities rose by 5% with pedestrian deaths spiking by 13%.
Municipal officials in recent years have turned less to law enforcement and more to changing road designs to reduce roadway bloodshed. McDermott says the hoped-for Safer Street grant would direct $900,000 to the planning district and Central Virginia might eventually gain millions of federal dollars for safety measures during the five-year duration of the infrastructure bill.
In other business Wednesday, the county’s chief financial officer, Nelsie Birch, proposed changing the county’s “budget stabilization reserve” from 1% of the general fund to 2% percent of the total operating revenues. That would bolster the buffer as a sort of “rainy day” fund, she said.
That move, requiring a one-time $5 million shift in funds amid an apparent budget surplus, passed unanimously.
“I really commend you for your forward thinking and forward planning for our county,” Supervisor Bea LaPisto-Kirtley, who attended the meeting on Zoom, complimented Birch.
The supervisors also learned from county school board member Kate Acuff that Albemarle High School, for the first time in its history, both topped the 2,000 enrollment mark and became a “majority-minority” school.
That latter designation means that students who identify as members of racial minority groups constitute the majority of the school’s population.
Like their counterparts on Charlottesville City Council the prior evening, the Albemarle supervisors voted to recognize September 15 as International Day of Democracy. Board Chair Donna Price spoke passionately about threats to democracy, everything from the plot to kill Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh to former President Donald Trump’s denial of the election outcome.
“We may be political opponents,” said Price, “but we are not political enemies.”