MPO considers re-hiring consultant for further RTA studies
By Sean Tubbs
Tuesday, June 30, 2009
At their meeting on June 24, 2009, the MPO Policy Board considered whether to spend additional funds on hiring a consultant to help with the formation of a Regional Transit Authority (RTA), viewed the results of two surveys conducted on the Charlottesville Transit Service and endorsed a letter asking for earlier service for an additional passenger train that will commence in October.
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The basic framework for the proposed RTA has been put in place through work conducted by the firm Vanasse Hangen Brustlin, and specifically, transportation expert Frank Spielberg. The City and County both contributed $50,000 to match a $90,000 grant from the Federal Transit Administration to pay for their services.
Their 45-page report outlines several different scenarios by which such an authority might be formed, and details different governing structures under which it might operate. Even more intricate details about how the community could proceed are featured in the 12 appendices that accompany the report.
In August 2008, the City Council and the Board of Supervisors affirmed their willingness to create the RTA during a joint work session. They set up a working group of two Councilors and two Supervisors to help guide the process. Throughout the fall of 2008, this group spent most of their time at several meetings to determine what sort of legislation should be pursued. They decided to ask the General Assembly to pass two pieces of legislation. The first would create the RTA (HB2158), and the second (HB2161) was for permission to ask citizens in a referendum if they would support a sales tax increase of up to 1 cent to fund the RTA’s operations. The General Assembly approved the first bill, but did not approve the second.
On May 14, 2009, the working group met once more to discuss whether it was worthwhile to continue pursuing the RTA’s creation without the favored method of funding. At that meeting, consensus was reached to have Barlow and her staff prepare recommendations on RTA governance issues and to draft a budget to retain a consultant to guide the RTA’s formation and system design. That consensus was ratified by the MPO later that month. Barlow contacted Spielberg to find out how much his services would cost to address some of the remaining issues, and gave four points of his action on which his firm should base a cost estimate:
- Determine what issues must be addressed before the RTA can be formed
- Develop alternative approaches to how to resolve those issues
- Understanding different cost scenarios for each potential resolution
- Develop a comparative analysis of how similar authorities in Virginia have dealt with the issues
A representative from VHB wrote back and said that the first bullet would likely consist of resolving the issues defined in the initial report’s Appendix J. While that section of the report contains an implementation schedule that largely assumed approval of a funding mechanism, many of the questions asked have yet to be answered or fully addressed, such as:
- Do the jurisdictions want to establish the principles, or the detailed methodology, for cost sharing prior to establishment of an Authority?
- What process should be used to develop a Memorandum of Understanding before proceeding to an Authority?
- Does the County accept the cost of providing service as computed by CTS staff? If not, what would the County need to accept the cost computations?
- Should the Authority strive to establish a fully independent organization or should it obtain some services from the City and County?
- How are costs of providing service allocated to the member jurisdictions?
- How are costs of capital equipment and facilities allocated to member jurisdictions?
- Can jurisdictions provide in-kind services to fulfill their funding obligations?
- How are revenues received from state and federal programs allocated?
- How are revenues received from UVa or other sources allocated?
- How are revenues accruing to the Authority allocated?
- Do the jurisdictions need to resolve all issues prior to forming the Authority?
- Is the City willing to cede this power to the Authority?
- Is the City willing to continue to allocate a portion of these funds to County services, prior to formation of an Authority?
The letter from VHB says that the above questions, along with others in Appendix J, would be a starting point for a first meeting with Frank Spielberg. It then proposes his attendance at an additional five meetings. VHB’s initial cost estimate assumes using 14 days of Spielberg’s time for meetings as well as an additional six days for research. Spielberg bills at the rate of $215 an hour, suggesting a budget of $40,000.
During the MPO’s meeting, Barlow said she wanted to get input on whether this proposed estimate matched the MPO member’s expectations of what Spielberg’s future involvement should be. She also said her contact at the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation (VDRPT) said there are least two grant-funding opportunities to help pay for VHB’s additional work. One would be a “technical assistance” grant where VDRPT would pay half of the costs with the rest coming from local sources. The second would be a federal planning grant in which 80% of funding would come from the federal government, 10% from VDRPT and a required 10% match from localities.
Councilor Satyendra Huja said he was more interested in getting additional information about how to fund the RTA, given that the state denied the sales tax referendum. Barlow referred him to Appendix H of VHB’s RTA plan, which lists several other potential funding mechanisms. She said some of these were discussed at the May 14 meeting of the RTA Working Group.
“Before moving in any direction on how to fund the RTA, the question arose as to exactly what is it going to cost us to develop this in terms of what bridges we need to cost, what we do with employees, what we do with assets,” Barlow said. Huja is also a member of the RTA working group.
Councilor Julian Taliaferro, who is not a member of the RTA working group, asked if Albemarle County would “put up any money” to purchase some of the assets currently owned by City of Charlottesville.
“I guess the question is, are we going to do a study if we don’t know what [Albemarle County’s] commitment is,” Taliaferro asked. “It perplexes me a little bit that we’re going to do a study and we really don’t know if anyone is going to join in.”
Neither Supervisor David Slutzky (Rio) nor Dennis Rooker (Jack Jouett) was present to respond. The County’s Chief Planner, David Bennish, was the County’s lone representative at this meeting and he said the purpose of the additional study by VHB would be to determine if there’s a way for the City and County to work together to plan for future transit.
CTS Director Bill Watterson said that the study is a “work in progress” to determine how hard it would be to resolve some of the remaining questions. He said the further study’s scope of work could be expanded or reduced.
Barlow suggested that the discussion should be postponed until the MPO’s July meeting. Huja concurred.
MPO VIEWS TWO PRESENTATIONS ON IMPROVING CTS
At the May 2009 meeting of the MPO Policy Board, Chair David Slutzky had mentioned that a class at Monticello High School had conducted a survey of CTS passengers. Their basic recommendations focused on adding more buses at night, adding more stops at night, and to expand bus service further in Albemarle County.
Some of these findings were echoed in a more complex survey conducted by the Southeastern Institute of Research. Anna MacIntosh, Program Director for the firm, related the results of her group’s marketing study, which was conducted under the brand “Transportation Tomorrow.” The project was paid for in part by a grant received by the MPO to assess interest in forming a Regional Transit Authority. MacIntosh said the project was designed to increase public awareness of transportation planning. Outreach efforts included a telephone survey, an on-board passenger survey, a widely-promoted online survey as well as a paper survey handed out at places such as Charlottesville’s Senior Center. As a result, MacIntosh claimed 4,385 citizens participated in the process.
Some of the findings from the random phone survey of 300 citizens:
- 13% of respondents said they are involved in local transportation planning
- 56% said they have never been involved with local transportation planning
- 9% said they ride a bus, including the free trolley, once a week
- 74% said they never ride a bus
- 61% said they do not have a bus stop within a mile of their house
- 11% said they would be likely or very likely to increase their usage in the next year
- 70% said they are unlikely to increase their usage in the next year
- 38% said they would use transit more often if they were closer to stops
- 39% of Albemarle County residents surveyed would be interested in a long distance commuter bus
- 46% said they would ride the bus more often if there were more frequent headways
- 67% are either in favor or very much in favor of establishing a Regional Transit Authority
- 88% said they are in support of a public vote on public funding for the RTA
MPO ADOPTS RESOLUTION CALLING FOR EARLIER AMTRAK TRAIN
Earlier this year, the Commonwealth Transportation Board approved three years of funding to launch new daily Amtrak passenger service from Lynchburg to Washington. At the time, it was believed that the service’s schedule would allow for citizens to conduct a full day’s business in the nation’s capitol.
However, when the schedule was released, it depicted the train leaving Lynchburg at 7:43 a.m., with the train not arriving at Union Station until 11:20 a.m. This is because a railroad line owned by the CSX Corporation cannot accommodate the earlier schedule, which is considered a “peak-hour” slot.
At the May 2009 meeting, the MPO Policy Board directed staff to write a resolution asking the VDRPT to “closely monitor the ridership performance during the first year… to determine if it is meeting expectations.” A fear held by some in the community is that the three-year experiment will not be extended if it is not useful for business travelers. The resolution also asks for state transportation officials, including Governor Tim Kaine, “to do everything within the state of Virginia’s legal power and authority to negotiate an additional peak hour slot” for the service.
Service is expected to begin this October.
FEDERAL & STATE OFFICIALS CONFIRM UNJAM 2035 IS ‘FISCALLY CONSTRAINED’
As area planners and elected officials formulate and adopt plans for the community’s future infrastructure, one issue they face concerns how to best represent cost estimates for large capital projects. Critics of the adopted community water supply plan have repeatedly said that plan is unsound because some elements lack definite cost estimates. In June, the Free Enterprise Forum released a critique of the Albemarle County Planning Commission for using current year dollars for road improvement projects called for in Places29 rather than figures adjusted for inflation.
At the MPO’s May 2009 meeting, former City Council candidate Peter Kleeman questioned how the UNJAM 2035 long range transportation plan factors in the costs related to maintenance and upgrade associated with Interstate 64. He said that because that funding can only be used for that purpose, it artificially misleads the public into thinking that the community has more money to spend on transportation projects then it really does.
“There was something on the order of $100 million of funding in the long-range plan that are Interstate dollars that have been distributed for non-Interstate projects,” Kleeman said at the June 2009 meeting. He claimed that as a result, the UNJAM 2035 plan cannot be implemented or approved by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA).
Acting MPO Director Melissa Barlow said she reviewed federal regulations after receiving Kleeman’s comments, and said her interpretation was that the federal requirement for “fiscal constraint” takes all sources of funding into consideration: federal, state and local.
“There is no direction that I could find that you needed to financially constrain yourself to a particular system,” Barlow said. She then checked with VDOT and FHWA officials who agreed with her assessment. Unwanna Dabney, the FHWA representative on the MPO Policy Board, said the MPO met her agency’s basic requirements for showing fiscal constraint.
“That is the demonstration that a cumulative amount of funds are reasonably expected to be available over the 20 year timeframe [of the long range plan],” Dabney said. She said that some MPOs across the nation do break down the funding sources in their long-range plans, but that the goal of such documents is to serve as a planning document. Dabney also pointed out that much of the federal funding that comes to local communities comes through the SAFETEA-LU Act, which expires this year.
“It’s asking a bit much to constrain everything by program when we really have no idea what the next federal legislation [for transportation] is going to look like,” Dabney said.
This was the last meeting for Melissa Barlow, who will leave the MPO and the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission for a job with the Federal Transit Administration. The TJPDC’s new Executive Director, Steven Williams, has been officially certified as the Director of the MPO
TIMELINE FOR PODCAST:
- 01:00 – Meeting called to order by Vice Chair Satyendra Huja
- 01:20 – Public comment from Peter Kleeman regarding long range plan
- 04:46 – Public comment from John Pfaltz asking that the MPO tell the County that the Woodbrook be connected to the rest of the County’s transportation network so regional transit can work
- 06:54 – Adoption of minutes from May 2009 meeting
- 07:26 – Acting MPO Director Melissa Barlow notes that David Benish is Supervisor David Slutzky’s alternate for the purposes of a quorum
- 08:00 – MPO begins “fiscal constraint discussion”
- 16:30 – Presentation of Monticello High School CTS Survey
- 26:00 – Presentation of Southeastern Institute for Research’s RTA Toolkit
- 1:15:15 – Discussion of letter to support earlier schedule for AMTRAK Passenger Service
- 1:18:40 – Discussion of funding of further study of RTA by Frank Spielberg of VHB
- 1:28:45 – CHART Member Mac Lafferty reports on Bike Virginia
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