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August 06, 2008

Council, Board appoint working group to continue planning local transit authority

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The Albemarle County Board of Supervisors and the Charlottesville City Council have renewed their commitment to the creation of a regional authority to expand transit services in the two communities. Any questions left unanswered after their joint meeting on August 5, 2008 will be decided by a working group consisting of two Supervisors, two Councilors and other key stakeholders in the discussion.

This was the third time in as many years the two elected bodies have held a joint work session to address the possibility of finding new sources of revenue to expand transit service. This time around, the goal was to provide direction to the staff of the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission (TJPDC) as they craft enabling legislation in time for the 2009 session of the General Assembly which would later allow Albemarle and Charlottesville to establish the authority.

20080805-CTA-vs-RTAFrank Spielberg with the firm Vanasse Hangen Brustlin (VHB) reviewed the final report of a study his firm produced which outlines several scenarios under which the Regional Transit Authority (RTA) might be operated. At the last joint meeting on February 11, 2008, the Board and Council indicated support for the creation of an authority to manage an expanded transit system.

“The direction we heard was that you’re not looking for a slight increment in service. You want a change in the paradigm, a different way and different view of how transit services are delivered,” Spielberg said. He then presented a cost estimate based on the scenario called Option 4-A: eight new local routes, two new commuter routes, and increasing frequency on existing City services to 15 minute headways during peak service hours. That would push the annual operating cost from the $6 million of today’s Charlottesville Transit Service (CTS) to as much as $18 million due to a tripling amount of employees to drive buses and maintain the system’s expanded “rolling stock.” He acknowledged that the plan was ambitious.

"The direction we heard was if such a plan could be developed the community would find a way to address the cost,” Spielberg said. “And the transit authority is one way to do that.”

SpielbergSpielberg said two questions need to be answered before the legislation is taken to the General Assembly: How will the governance structure be put together, and what specific revenue options will fund the RTA? Spielberg said he did not need decisions made today, but recommended the formation of the working group to continue to figure out the details.

The discussion between the two Boards began when Supervisor Sally Thomas (Samuel Miller) asked Spielberg if the RTA could have any power to tax, given that the Supreme Court of Virginia ruled the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority’s taxing powers were unconstitutional. Spielberg said he thought the RTA could be structured in such a way to pass constitutional muster, pointing out that several jurisdictions in Northern Virginia levy taxes to pay for the Virginia Railway Express.

Supervisor Ken Boyd (Rivanna) took issue with Spielberg’s characterization of the consensus reached at the February 11 work session.

“I didn’t hear the group say that money is no object,” Boyd said. “I’m really concerned about the cost of this and I’m certainly concerned about taxing our citizens to do this.”

Supervisor Dennis Rooker (Jack Jouett) said that he supports a robust transit system, but the scope of the expansion would depend on finding new sources of revenue. At Rooker’s urging, the 2005 Transportation Funding Options Report  was included in the booklet provided to the elected officials to demonstrate that a one-cent sales tax could raise as much as $23 million. VHB's final report suggested that such a sales tax would generate $26 million in 2009.

Rooker also raised the possibility that the General Assembly would not approve enabling legislation unless there’s a referendum. He suggested one way to build broad based support to ensure passage by legislators and voters would be to create a Regional Transportation Authority which would also raise funds to pay for connector roads, bike paths and walking trails. To stay constitutional, Rooker suggested each jurisdiction would levy the additional tax, and then use a percentage of that revenue to operate the expanded transit system. Money left over would go to pay for other transportation projects as each jurisdiction saw fit. 

City Councilor David Brown said he was concerned the funding model recommended in 2005 was based on a desire to build more roads, possibly at the expense of transit. In response, Rooker said he thought it would be difficult to get broad support among County voters for a sales tax increase to exclusively fund transit. Rooker said the County’s rural areas would likely never be served by transit. The County has other transportation needs which are going unfunded, and Rooker said building support will mean finding a “balanced use” of the revenue such as the strategies offered in the Transportation Funding Options report.

Supervisor Ann Mallek (White Hall) represented the Charlottesville-Albemarle Regional Transportation (CHART) Committee on the task force that put together that report, and she said that support for increasing asphalt-related projects such as roads was given in part to increase the enhance bus operations.

Councilor Brown noted that most of the conversation during the work session was between the Supervisors, and not the Council. He said that made sense given that most of the proposed service expansion would take place in the County.

“I’m very comfortable with moving forward with a transit or transportation authority without a funding capability as long as that’s the game plan,” Brown said. “The County has shown good faith… in investing in more transit, but I think the deal in a nutshell all along has been the City giving up control. To some degree, the ball is more in the County’s court.”

Supervisor Lindsay Dorrier (Scottsville) said that it was important to provide accurate cost estimates for what the expansion would cost, and to define what the County and the City want to achieve. Dorrier said riding the bus is a good deal for the average citizen, especially on high-frequency routes such as the #7 to Fashion Square Mall. He said the conversation should be focused on a transit authority, rather than expanding it to transportation.

“While a transportation authority is broader, I think it’s going to dilute our focus,” Dorrier said. “I think a transit authority is the right way to go because the City has already bought into it and I think we have a job ahead of us to persuade the County that this is the best option for the future.” Dorrier said that an incremental approach would improve the system on a step-by-step basis.

Mayor Dave Norris said the 2010 General Assembly may be more amenable to granting the authority to raise revenues, but that the City and County should not wait to create a governance structure. “If we don’t get the funding mechanism this coming year, then at least we’ll be in a better position to get it the following year,” Norris said.

Rooker agreed that the governance structure should be put in place, but reiterated that the working group focus on exploring funding options with area legislators.

Supervisor Mallek said she “would be thrilled” to pass a local sales tax to raise revenues, but that the conversation on how the authority should be put together should also move forward. Mallek also said that a tax increase might pay for a service that would allow people to drive less – and save money.

Councilor Holly Edwards said that she felt any taxes would be regressive, and that the legislation would have to be crafted carefully to get the public on board. She likened creating an authority without revenue-raising abilities to “getting a toy on Christmas without the batteries” but said that might provide incentive to push Richmond for action.

Boyd-dorrier-taliaferroChairman Boyd said that he thought a transportation authority would receive more support in the County than one just for transit. However, he also said that he did not think this was the best time to be raising taxes, especially when the County has many other needs.

Slutzky said there’s a cost to not creating more transit opportunities, because that would mean more vehicles on the roads, which would then require more maintenance.

“It’s imperative that we recognize that we should move forward with a regional transit authority, and we should significantly expand our transportation options for our citizens,” Slutzky said.

Councilor Huja said he would support either a transit or a transportation authority, but that a clear vision was needed if the County and City were to achieve their goals.

Mayor Norris said that it was important to stay true to the community’s desire for a more reliable, more frequent transit system.  “I’m not in favor of a regional transportation authority per se because I think it implies a whole new level of bureaucracy and transportation planning decisions,” Norris said, though he said he did support exploring regional transportation funding options “with revenues that would accrue to local government who could then pass it on to a regional transit authority to manage this new robust system.” 

Supervisor Thomas challenged the Board and City to support additional transit. She arrived at the meeting straight from the airport after spending a week in Portland, Oregon.

“It’s a community with very little car traffic, and it was pretty amazing to us to see as big a city with as so few cars on the road,” Thomas said. That community changed the culture through a comprehensive approach.

“It included things like they weren’t going to allow any more vacant lots to be turned into parking,” Thomas said. “But we’re still rural, and not a very transit-available community.”

AREA LEGISLATORS WEIGH IN

ToscanoAt the beginning of the work session, the Board and Council were briefed by TJPDC Legislative Liaison David Blount. He said the 2009 session of the General Assembly would be “tumultuous” because of the state elections, as well as continued decline in state tax revenues. Blount added that the legislature’s inability to fix the funding structure of the Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads transportation authorities signals a potential roadblock.

Two of the area’s legislators were on hand to give their thoughts on the idea. Delegate David Toscano (D-57) is a member of the House Transportation Committee. Toscano said a regional transit authority could likely pass the muster, but that adding the power to raise taxes could be problematic given the climate of the House. 

“Northern Virginia tried to get a bill even introduced in the last session that would have fixed the problem created by the Supreme Court decision, by enabling the elected officials in the localities to raise money, they couldn’t even get permission to get the bill introduced, let alone get a vote on it,” Toscano said.

Toscano supported Rooker’s concept of creating a transportation authority, rather that limiting it to transit, because not all of the County will benefit directly from more bus service.

Senator Creigh Deeds (D-25) began his remarks by saying that he would carry whatever legislation the Board and Council jointly wanted, but also said that he was in favor of a state-wide solution rather than a regional one.

“I’ve supported them in the past because I thought it was the only way we were going to get things done,” Deeds said, pointing to the decline in the quality of life in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads due to traffic congestion. But, he says regional solutions threaten the integrity of the Commonwealth. He said a transit authority bill might be easier to pass because of its more limited scope. But, Deeds said the timing of the venture could be problematic given that the House of Delegates will be less likely to support anything related to raising taxes in an election year.

He said it was crucial for the community to get the support of Rob Bell (R-58) and Senator Emmett Hanger (R-24) as well.

“If there’s even one who is out there saying this is not a good idea, this thing is going to be dead in the water,” Toscano said. 

After hearing the advice from Deeds and Toscano, Supervisor Boyd asked the group if there was an advantage to going forward with an authority without a dedicated revenue source, perhaps as a first step. That prompted Mayor Norris to ask a question of Boyd:

“Would the County be more comfortable in increasing its general fund support for transit if it had more of a stake in the management and governance of the transit system?” Norris asked.

“I think we’ve always said that,” Boyd replied.

“That answers the question, I think,” said Norris.

NEXT STEPS

20080805-RTA-ImplementationAt the end of the meeting, the TJPDC's Director of Transportation Programs said she had heard consensus in favor of a regional transit authority with regional transportation options. No one objected to Melissa Barlow's assessment.

The City Council then named Mayor Norris and Councilor Huja to serve on the working group, and the Board appointed Supervisors Rooker and Slutzky to serve in addition to their duties on the MPO Policy Board. Staff members from the University of Virginia, JAUNT and CTS will attend the meetings to answer any questions that come up. Rooker suggested that the first task of the working group should be to sit down with area legislators to find out what they would support.

To speed the process along, the working group will report its recommendations to City and County individually rather than have their work vetted by the MPO Policy Board first.

Sean Tubbs

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