Tag Archives: public transit

Charlottesville Council Considers Agency Evaluation Metrics

By. Amelie Bailey, 2011 Field Officer Intern

Charlottesville City Council met on Tuesday, July 5, in place of their regular first Monday meeting to discuss transit funding as well as a new process of awarding funds to human services non-profits.

Charlottesville’s Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) calls to replace two diesel buses with hybrid buses in FY2012. However, the Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB) awarded only enough funding for diesel replacements, not hybrid buses. In order to purchase two hybrid buses, Council would have to decide to supplement grant funds with $270,697 of local funds. A hybrid bus is projected to have fuel savings of 10,500 per year over a diesel bus, or around 25% better fuel efficiency. The maintenance costs of such buses are not estimated to be higher, but batteries will need to be replaced during the life of the bus, and costs of such replacement are currently unknown. Council voted 4:1 to supplement $270,697 to replace two diesels with hybrids for FY2012. Councilor Brown expressed concern for costs and battery life and voted against the motion.

Much of Tuesday’s discussion was devoted to analyzing a revision of the process by which non-profits will receive funding in the region. By recommendation of ABRT (Agency Budget Review Team), a Steering Committee has undergone a nine-month research period in order to reorganize how localities will give funding to human services non-profits. Staff presented the recommendations of the Steering Committee and suggested that City Council adopt 5 of the 6 recommendations by the Committee. These five recommendations include selected priority areas for funding, as well as a rating system to determine the amount of funding to be given. Staff did not recommend adoption of the recommendation to conduct a comprehensive needs assessment every four years, due to costs of such an assessment. The last needs assessment, from 2004, had a total cost of approximately 60,000.

The primary difference between the old rating system and the new proposal is the increase in the margin by which a non-profit’s funding can change year to year. In the past, an agency rated at “Fair” was defunded by 5% of the previous year’s sum, and agencies had to be voted as “Poor” twice before being completely defunded. In the new system, a rating of “Solid” or Exemplary” will earn an agency between 90% and 125%* percent of the funding of the previous year’s total. Agencies scoring “Fair” will be defunded by at least 25%, and agencies rated “Poor” will be defunded completely. The intent of the new rating system is to better reward those nonprofits performing at a high level.

Council voiced several concerns with the proposals. Several Councilors noted the benefit to having a needs assessment despite the high cost. Councilor Edwards stressed that beneficiaries of non-profit work should be included in discussion of the new process. Mayor Norris stated that he wished for some emphasis be placed upon encouraging non-profits to help beneficiaries become self-sufficient. Council members requested that staff address the input at a future date.

Staff brought forth a recommendation to adopt an ordinance for abatement of a blighted property located on Montrose Avenue. The property in question has been cited for violations of maintenance code since 1993, and extensive termite infestation was discovered in 2002. Alloy contractors discovered significant mold, mildew, and water damage in an inspection in late April. Though the house is currently used only for storage purposes, the integrity of the structure was deemed so compromised that contractors question the safety of removing the belongings within the house. Their professional opinion was that costs of repair would outweigh the value of the property itself. Staff proposed that the house be demolished, as the City Planning Commission recommended. In one of the more difficult decisions of the night, Council granted the owner, who was present, a 30-day window to acquire a contract to either sell or renovate the property. In the event that the owner does not have such a contract after this time period, Council will most likely recommend demolition.

*Council Book Memo and Presenter quoted different numbers for possible increase in funding to agencies scoring “Solid” or “Exemplary”. Staff said there would be a possibility of receiving 125% of previous funding, whereas council book states a possible 20% increase.

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Amelie Bailey is the 2011 Field Officer Intern for the Free Enterprise Forum a privately funded public policy organization. If you find this report helpful, please consider supporting the Free Enterprise Forum. To learn more visit www.freeenterpriseforum.org

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Want to Increase Walkability? Get Rid of the Cars

By. Neil Williamson

The lead of the January 9th Washington Post article was enough to give anyone pause:

Fairfax County residents will have a harder time finding a free parking space in some neighborhoods, if transportation planners get their way.

No parking The article outlines a proposal to create a maximum limit for number of spaces in new commercial and residential developments near Metro stations.  The rationale given is these generally high density Transit-Oriented-Developments (TOD) don’t need  parking – everyone should take the train. Therefore the local government, not the market,  is seeking to severely restrict the number of parking spaces a developer may choose to provide for a project.

Under the current ordinances a new town home must have at least 2.75 parking spaces per dwelling.  Under the draft recommendations, parking would be limited to 1.75 spaces per dwelling unit. [emphasis added – nw]

By means of background, Fairfax County has a population of about a million people and covers roughly 400 square miles.

Stewart Schwartz, Executive Director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth is quoted in the article:

We often like to say that too much parking can be a traffic magnet.  If we’re going to address traffic and make a walkable community in Fairfax, its important to get the parking right.”

The Free Enterprise Forum believes that the new planning goal is to limit transportation choices for citizens.  parking ticket By forcing developers to limit parking options, the planners behind this proposal believe they are funneling people into mass transit; they’re wrong.  The lack of parking will lead to an increase in illegal parking (often on the skinny roads favored by New Urbanism) creating a safety issue and therefore a new citizen demand for parking enforcement. 

To be deemed a success, this new parking proposal will limit consumer transportation choices thus increasing walkability and transit use.  Such logic reminds me of the philosophy of comedian Stephen Wright who famously said:

“Anywhere is walking distance, if you’ve got the time.”

Respectfully Submitted,

Neil Williamson

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20070731williamson Neil Williamson is the President of The Free Enterprise Forum, a privately funded public policy organization covering the City of Charlottesville as well as Albemarle, Greene, Fluvanna and Nelson County.  For more information visit the website www.freeenterpriseforum.org

The Siren Song of Light Rail

By. Neil Williamson, President

Once again a local official has called for an investigatihouston-light-railon into light rail as a solution to our region’s traffic issues.  In last week’s meeting of the Albemarle Board of Supervisors, Duane Snow R-Samuel Miller District called for a study of light rail to connect Crozet, Charlottesville and the regional airport.

Charlottesville Tomorrow has the story and podcast:

It seems like there’s money in the federal budget to explore something like this right now,” Snow said …I think that a light rail system in conjunction with the rails that are already there can be installed a lot cheaper than bridges or an extra lane of traffic.”

It is easy to see why light rail seems to be a solution.  In addition to the “sexiness” of a train, there is a perception that more people will ride a train than a bus and the idea that the money would come from the federal government is also attractive.

We wrote of this siren song impacting Charlottesville City Council  in our 2008 post “A Desire Named Streetcar”

By means of background, The Free Enterprise Forum (in conjunction with The American Dream Coalition)has traveled the country looking at light rail systems.  We have visited Atlanta, Portland, Seattle, Houston, and Minneapolis.  In each city, the light rail was under utilized the majority of the day.  On average, it has been calculated each light rail trip carries just 24 people. 

Mr. Snow is mistaken regarding the costs associated with light rail.  Robert Poole of The Reason Foundation recently wrote:

At today’s construction costs,  a four-lane freeway can cost $40 to $60 million to build…  In a news release in early 2005, the Federal Transit Administration provided figures on nine light rail projects for which it had approved “full funding grant agreements.” The cost per mile ranged from a low of $44.5 million (Charlotte) to a high of $254 million (Pittsburgh). The average of these—and these are costs as of five years ago—was $124 million per mile. That’s five times what Oberstar claimed.  And the highly touted Central Link light rail that opened just the other day in Seattle weighs in at $171 million per mile, four to five times more than a mile of freeway.

Cato Institute Senior Fellow Randal O’Toole has written extensivelyotoole  about light rail.  Here are a few of his observations:

San Jose’s light rail has turned out to be an even more spectacular failure than the ones in Sacramento, Portland, and Los Angeles. Yet regions all over the country, including Houston, Seattle, and Orange County, suffer from light-rail envy and are eagerly planning new rail systems.

Does light rail improve transit? No, most cities that built light rail experienced a decline in transit’s share of travel. This is partly because the expense of light rail forced transit agencies to increase fares, as Minneapolis is about to do.

Is light rail faster and more attractive to transit riders than buses? No, transit riders are sensitive to frequencies and speed, and buses can easily run on schedules more frequent and faster than light rail. Where most light rail lines average just 20 miles per hour, many express bus routes average better than 30 miles per hour.

Does light rail reduce congestion? No, it increases congestion whenever the rail lines occupy former street space and also because it is such an ineffective form of transit. Traffic growth on the freeways paralleling Portland’s light-rail lines accelerated after the light rail replaced faster express bus routes.

Is light rail cost effective? No. The average light-rail line planned or under construction will cost more per mile than a four-lane freeway. Yet no light-rail system in the nation carries as many people (in passenger miles per route mile) as a single lane mile of typical urban freeway.

Nor is light rail cost-effective when compared with bus transit. One dollar spent on bus transit can provide the same benefits as $10 to $100 spent on light rail. Light rail is so expensive that most cities that have built it lacked the funds to make needed bus improvements.”

Light rail does seem to work in Europe and Asia, places with significantly higher population density than Central Virginia. 

Many years ago, when the Free Enterprise Forum was advocating (successfully) to have light rail removed from Albemarle County’s Comprehensive Plan, Planning Commissioner Pete Craddock said, “I hope I am six feet under ground before Albemarle has the population density to support light rail”.  In addition to its low relative population density, Chbuss rapid transitarlottesville and Albemarle’s jobs and homes are widely dispersed. 

Based on all of the above, light rail does not fit in Charlottesville/Albemarle.   In addition to increasing lane miles, we believe examining Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), Park and Ride lots and incentivizing Employer van pools is a better use of limited transit dollars.  Regardless of the origin of the funds, it is all our money and we should use the funds to achieve the most effective /transit system possible.

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20070731williamson Neil Williamson is the President of The Free Enterprise Forum, a privately funded public policy organization covering the City of Charlottesville as well as Albemarle, Greene, Fluvanna and Nelson County.  For more information visit the website www.freeenterpriseforum.org

The Bottom Ten — Dredging Albemarle’s Survey

By. Neil Williamson

Earlier this month, Albemarle County released their  Biennial Citizen Survey (300+ page PDF) conducted by the University of Virginia’s Center for Survey Research. Understandably, when the survey was released Albemarle County focused on the many positive aspects of the report.

The Free Enterprise Forum has studied the survey results and finds many positives.  One measure the survey attempts to track is the importance of particular service items.  Table III-1 ranks 38 service items by importance. 

While the top end information is interesting, I was fascinated by what I call “The Bottom Ten”  These are the ten lowest ranking service items based on the 2008 survey data:

28.  Promote the development of affordable housing

29.  Support affordable child-care

30.  Provide support for people in financial need

31.  Make it easy to get around by bus or van

32.  Preserve historic buildings

33.  Make it easy to get around by public transportation

34.  Provide learning opportunities for adults

35.  Preserve historic buildings not protected by private groups

36.  Support cultural and entertainment opportunities

37.  Regulate outdoor lighting to reduce light pollution and glare

38.  Promote tourism in our area

It is understandable that politicians generally focus on those areas where citizens want additional funding but it should be of at least equal if not greater value those services that they do not rank as very important.  This may or may not indicate a lack of interest in the issue merely a lack of interest in government support of the issue. 

Number 31 and 33 reflect the generally low priority for public transportation as local officials were seeking the power to impose a sales tax to pay for an expanded transit system (and other transportation projects).

Even as the citizens place low priority on historic preservation of buildings, Albemarle County has a historic preservation ordinance in the Community Development work plan.

As one who spent the time reading the expansive cross tabulated survey results, it is of critical importance that Albemarle County officials read and understand the Top Ten and the Bottom Ten.

If information is power and the opinions of the people matter, one might expect a reduction in government expenditures (and staff time) in those areas ranked low in importance. 

Unfortunately, the cynic in me thinks not.

Regional Transit Two Step – a new $20 Million Tax Dance

Understandably, there is some confusion regarding the Regional Transit Authority (RTA) legislation The City of Charlottesville and Albemarle County are seeking from the upcoming session of the General Assembly. Rachana Dixit wrote a good background article in yesterday’s Daily Progress.

As explained in yesterday’s Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) meeting, the legislative goals are two fold: the authority to create an RTA and, separately, the ability to generate revenue (a 1% sales tax is being contemplated) to be dedicated to transportation funding.  According to Supervisor David Slutsky’s comments at the meeting, “A significant portion of the revenue would be dedicated to transit”.  As a point of reference a 1% sales tax applied in the region is estimated to produce $20 million dollars in new revenue ($8 Million from Charlottesville, $12 Million from Albemarle).

The Free Enterprise Forum considers this a Transit Two step as it creates a yes/no decision regarding the Regional Transit Authority absent the funding and cost data contained in the transportation funding legislation.  Interestingly, the Draft RTA Final Report (pdf) that was released last month indicates:

The development of a Charlottesville-Albemarle RTA would first require a city/county consensus on the desired powers and funding authority, followed by the introduction of the legislation and legislative approval.” (Page 15)

In an attempt to answer this charge, the RTA Joint Working Group has revived an old broad based committee The Funding Options Work Group (FWOG) who produced their final report in 2005 regarding alternative funding mechanisms for regional transportation projects. 

The FWOG and the RTA Joint Working group will meet on Friday, September 19th.  As a part of the prepared agenda for this meeting, it is suggested that two of the “TOUGH ITEMS YET TO BE DISCUSSED”: Cost Allocation Method – how costs will be segregated between City and County and Revenue Allocation Method– how revenues will be segregated between transit and other transportation projects:

Will be decided AFTER enabling legislation has been received. (emphasis in original – nw)

Therefore, the Joint Working Group wishes to obtain two pieces of legislation this session: A new authority to run a transit system, absent a funding mechanism AND new transportation taxation powers without disclosing how they intend to spend the money.

Please pardon the dated transportation reference, but this is clearly putting the cart ahead of the horse. 

Citizens should demand the policy makers determine the cost allocations and funding allocations prior to permitting this proposal to move forward.  The cynic in me believes the Joint Working Group would rather not state how much the $20 million will be required to fund the RTA as opposed to other more widely used transportation projects.

If everyone paying this consumption tax will be subsidizing the fare for the small percentage of the population that rides (or will ride) transit, the citizens deserve to know how much of their $20 million dollars of sales tax burden will be left for long languishing road “priorities” that serve both transit and automobile users.

Depending on the answer, this Regional Transit Two Step could be over before the music starts in Richmond.

Editorial

Get on the Bus?
By Natasha Sienitsky

I, like many people others in this community, like the idea of transit, but rarely take it.  I live and work close to bus stops along the Route 7 bus, the main line for the city of Charlottesville and Albemarle County, and as a UVA grad student, I ride for free, yet still I don’t take the bus.

The main issues for me are time and convenience. Every time I take the bus, I am frustrated with long travel and wait times. According to a Federal Transit Administration report, buses travel on average at about 60% of the speed of automobiles. On a recent bus trip from my house near the Amtrak station to Free Enterprise Forum headquarters on Hillsdale Drive, a 10 minute car commute, I waited for the bus for 10 minutes. The trip took me 22 minutes. A round trip transit ride, although cheaper, costs me about 50 more minutes of time inclusive of walking to the stops or 5% of my waking day. Since I am among the lucky who have a choice, I choose not to take transit.
I wasn’t always a transit avoider. Although an automobile dependent American, when I lived in Prague, I never begrudged the fact that I didn’t have a car. With twice the density of Charlottesville, Prague’s development is concentrated around transit stops. Coming home from work, it was easy to pick up a roast for dinner and walk the block home.  Trolleys and metro both run frequently and provide quicker routes to destinations than automobiles.
Aspiring to be more like Prague and other cities which developed largely before the advent of the automobile, Places 29 envisions a mix of uses and dense development around transit nodes. This vision is far from the current market based reality, where current land use patterns and zoning parameters favor automobile travel.
Even with the new vision proposed in Places 29, the incredible pressure to limit development densities have lead the Board of Supervisors and Planning Commission to routinely ask for density reductions in development area projects. I have serious reservations about whether transit options such as Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) are currently viable options for our region given the vocal opposition to population densities needed to support a more serious transit system. Further, I wonder even if the densities need to support transit were allowed, what is the extent of the market for this type of development. Instituting an expensive addition such as BRT without even a glimmer of the supportive densities and land use patterns will result in millions of local investment wasted as the empty bus syndrome continues. Undoubtedly with an aging population and increased attraction to urban living, there will be some demand for this kind of development, but will it be enough?
Instead of the large step of paradigm changing upgrades to the transit system vis a vis Bus Rapid Transit with dedicated lanes, the City and County should take an incremental approach. The new GPS tracking system for buses will hopefully be extended to allow some of us with internet access real time information to provide more transportation choice and reduce wait times. Other more modest options such as decreasing service headways and expanding routes are manageable and welcome improvements. These along with education and other service options such as an on-demand dynamic local service should be explored as options for increasing ridership. According to the CTS Director, Bill Watterson, programs and service improvements increased ridership by 11.5% this year.
With the depth of both city and county coffers in question and impending economic slow down, both localities will have to carefully examine spending priorities. Transit competes with other pressing needs for funding. Fancy rapid transit buses estimated to cost approximately 4 to 6 times as much as a conventional bus and a dedicated BRT lane are a waste of taxpayer money. If the county is serious about its commitment to a paradigm shift in transit, then they should encourage development with densities supportive of transit in the development areas of the county. Until those densities are promoted by the county rather than discouraged and there is a positive market response creating that development that would encourage transit use, a system overhaul doesn’t make much sense.