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July 21, 2008

MPO Policy Board prepares for new transit authority; Looks for revenue from Western Bypass land

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At its meeting on July 17, 2008, the MPO Policy Board discussed the steps being taken to create a Regional Transit Authority (RTA), the future of the right of way purchased by VDOT for the Route 29 Western Bypass, and held two public hearings related to the Transportation Improvement Program (TIP).

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David Blount, Legislative Liaison for the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission, said he was able to review the General Assembly’s special session on transportation in just a few words.

“It was pretty much an exercise in futility,” Blount said. No bills were passed during the session, and legislators will not return to Richmond until January. “At this point it’s kind of hard to say what we may see in terms of an effort to  address transportation.”

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City Councilor Satyendra Huja

City Councilor Satyendra Huja asked Blount if the City and County should hold the August 5th work session on the RTA given the current stalemate. “It sounds really optimistic in light of what [The General Assembly] has done so far,” Huja said. 

Blount said he was monitoring the session hoping for a positive signal that the Assembly would support the RTA, but that it did not come. The closest thing was a bill from Senator Richard Saslaw (D-35) which would have imposed a one-cent state sales tax in Richmond and Fredericksburg to pay for transportation projects. That bill was rejected during the regular session of the General Assembly, and again during the transportation special session when it was part of a larger legislative package. Blount also said that Speaker of the House Bill Howell (R-28) has told Richmond and Fredericksburg officials that he will not support their efforts to create regional authorities until the Northern Virginia and Hampton Road authorities are fixed.

Huja asked his colleagues on the MPO Policy Board what they thought the probability of getting enabling legislation passed in 2009. County Supervisor David Slutzky (Rio) said he thought Council and the Board should proceed.

“We ought to move forward with a Regional Transit Authority because it makes sense to us, we have no choice but to put our fate in [The General Assembly’s] hands to some extent,” Slutzky said. He added that circumstances such as rising fuel costs could change the climate. “They might have to wake up between now and when we actually need them to approve the Regional Transit Authority.”

Blount outlined a three part strategy for how to get the authority enabled. The first step is the August 5th work session, followed by the actual drafting of legislation, and then a gradual implementation of the  organizational steps required to create the RTA’s structure.  Blount said the joint meeting will hopefully result in guidance from the elected bodies on structure and potential funding options. He recommended drafting the legislation locally rather than asking the General Assembly’s legislative services division to do so.  The TJPDC is asking the Board and Council for additional funds to help pay for the campaign.

“If we want to have some outside legal services, some outside lobbying services for this, and then a public awareness campaign if we’re going to take this thing and vet it out in the community,” said Blount as he outlined what those additional funds might be spent on.  

Supervisor Dennis Rooker (Jack Jouett) requested a list of specific points that MPO staff want answered by the end of the meeting.  He added that it was important to involve local legislators as early as possible to find out what they are willing to support. “All of us here support the regional transit concept, but I don’t think we want to spend a lot of money to walk in with a concept that we could have found out from them they weren’t going to support,” Rooker said.  He also said that the August 5 meeting should include a discussion of whether the authority would expand to cover all transportation, and not just transit. He also suggested that the MPO staff revisit the October 2005 Transportation Funding Options report, which outlines how the City and County may work together to jointly funding transportation projects:

“Virginia state law (Titles 15.2 and 33.1 of the Code of Virginia) essentially provides the option to create two different types of transportation districts. Albemarle and Charlottesville can create a transportation district under Title 15.2 by ordinance. This district could fund road construction using funds the City or County appropriate to it, from bonds issued by the district, or from bonds issued by either locality to meet its obligation under a contract with the district. Albemarle County cannot directly appropriate funds to the City of Charlottesville to fund transportation improvements in the City because counties lack the express or necessarily implied authority to appropriate funds to cities for this purpose.”

Blount said he had spoken with Delegate David Toscano (D-57), who told him that a referendum would likely be necessary to secure legislative approval.  Slutzky called for a campaign to get the Chamber of Commerce and other groups on board in support of the legislation.

Public hearing held for TIP, TIP amendment

Ann Whitham reviewed the changes that were made since the MPO’s last discussion of the TIP in June. The TIP will now describe projects that are not expected to receive federal funding as “illustrative project.”  These include projects such as the proposed bridge for the Berkmar Bridge extension project, as well as a West Main corridor study to serve as a placeholder for the proposed streetcar.  The TIP also includes illustrations of each project. 

Two people spoke during the public hearing. Former City Council candidate Peter Kleeman objected to the inclusion of projects that are not currently expected to receive federal funding (known as obligations). Zachary Shahan, Executive Director of the Alliance for Community Choice in Transportation, said he felt that the TIP did not go far enough in planning for pedestrian and bicycle-related projects.

“It’s a little depressing to look through this document and see how much we’re still heavily favoring
automobile-oriented transportation,” Shahan said.

In response, Rooker said it was important to recognize the TIP for what it is – an outline for how federal and state funds will be spent over the next three years. “If you want to see a long list of pedestrian-bicycle projects, look at the long-range plan for the area,” Rooker said. “But you can’t spend [federal] primary road funds on things other than primary roads.”  He also claimed that illustrative projects had been placed in the TIP at the request of the public.

“We have gone over the years to a document that includes a lot of things that don’t get federal obligations so people can pick up a document and find out about secondary roads,” Rooker said. “And I will say I’ve heard Peter speak in favor of doing that in the past.”  However, he accepted Kleeman’s criticism and suggested that the TIP could be restructured.

The MPO will hold a final public hearing on the TIP and will take a vote at their meeting in August.

The MPO also voted 5-0 to amend the current TIP to add a category that will allow federal funding to be reallocated to pay for cameras that would be used to assist VDOT manage traffic flows through the MPO area. These cameras will not be used to help coordinate traffic signals, but instead will help VDOT traffic analysts to know where traffic is currently congested.

MPO discusses Berkmar Bridge, fate of Western Bypass land

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The TIP contains this information about the proposed Berkmar Drive extension, but only as an illustrative, non-funded project

Supervisor Slutzky told the MPO Policy Board that the Board of Supervisors had reaffirmed its support for a new bridge over the South Fork of the Rivanna River in order to extend Berkmar Drive up to Hollymead Town Center. 

“We recognized as a group that the integration of land-use planning and transportation planning is sort of the backbone of [the Places29 Master Plan] exercise,” Slutzky said. He told Quintin Elliot, the acting director of VDOT’s Culpeper District, that the Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority is interested in working with VDOT to do preliminary engineering along the alignment for the Berkmar extension.  

However, Rooker said it was important that any work VDOT does on Berkmar does not displace the County’s primary road priorities – most notably to widen Route 29 from the South Fork Rivanna Bridge to Hollymead Town Center.

Slutzky also asked for Elliot’s opinion on what will happen if land purchased by VDOT for the Western Bypass is sold. If the road is not constructed within 20 years of VDOT’s purchase, VDOT has to offer to sell the land back to the original owner at the original sale price. VDOT first began purchasing land for the project in 1992, and it will need to be sold by 2012 if the road is not constructed.

“There’s a possibility, I’ve been told, that that right of way will need to be sold back, and money will move around, and at the end of the story there might be extra cash available to the district for use in other projects… alternatively I’ve also been told there might be money owed at the end of unraveling the bypass if that’s the we go,” Slutzky said.  “The swing of those two options is several million dollars in either direction… rather than wait for 2012 to ascertain what’s the actual economic impact… I think it might be helpful for VDOT to take a square look at that and advise us.”

Elliot said that VDOT is assuming that the money will be able to be used for other projects along the Route 29 corridor in the Culpeper District, based on conversations he has had with Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) officials. However, he said it was too premature to know if there would be a surplus, given that VDOT will have to pay certain “damages” to the original landowners such as legal and relocation fees.  

20080717-Slutzky Supervisor David Slutzky chairs the MPO Policy Board

Rooker agreed with Slutzky that he would like a determination sooner rather than later on what will happen with the right of way. “What we do have here are some assets that can generate some substantial money to do some projects that keep getting more expensive as we wait,” Rooker said.

Elliot said he could not speculate on that matter, given that VDOT is about to begin a study of the entire Route 29 corridor from the North Carolina border to Gainesville.  “We’re not ready to pursue that answer yet, officially, because we want to find out what the study is going to come back and tell us with respect to the entire corridor,” Elliot said.  The study is expected to be complete by the end of 2009.

Slutzky said he was concerned that might not be quick enough for an answer, given that the County needs to know how it will pay for the Berkmar Bridge. If the County knew it could count on some of the money from the sale of the right of way, it could begin taking proffers from developers for their share of the Berkmar Bridge. Elliot said it would be unfair for him to preempt or influence the corridor study, which he said would include a significant public input component.

TIMELINE FOR PODCAST:

  • 1:00 - Ann Whitham reads from a letter from Joel Kovarsky regarding bus service to Crozet
  • 6:30 - Ann Whitham gives an update on the UNJAM 2035 Planning Process
  • 13:30 - David Blount, the TJPDC's Legislative Liaison, discusses the Regional Transportation Authority
  • 37:00 - Ann Whitham reviews changes made to the draft TIP since the June meeting
  • 42:20 - Ann Whitham discusses the TIP amendment to obligate federal funding for cameras to improve ITS along the US 29 corridor, prompting a discussion of the coordination of traffic lights throughout the corridor
  • 48:45 - Slutzky tells VDOT officials that the BOS has reaffirmed its support for the Berkmar Bridge at its July 2, 2008 meeting
  • 55:45 - Slutzky asks VDOT's opinion on the sale of right of way for Western Bypass
  • 1:08:30 - Public hearing on the TIP opens, with comments from Peter Kleeman and Zachary Shahan
  • 1:28:00 - Public hearing on the TIP amendment, with comment from Peter Kleeman
  • 1:32:30 – Follow up comment by Zachary Shahan

 Sean Tubbs

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