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January 26, 2010

Future of transit depends on cost allocation and new sources of funding

Reader comments (1) DailyProgress By Sean Tubbs
Charlottesville Tomorrow
Tuesday, January 26, 2010

A plan to create a regional transit authority (RTA) will remain on hold while Charlottesville and Albemarle officials research how much money a combined transit service would cost and the share each locality would contribute. That was the general consensus of a Monday meeting between city and county staff and elected officials on whether the authority should even be formed.

“We can use this time period to continue to assess exactly what the costs would be,” said Charlottesville Mayor Dave Norris.

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In February 2008, city and county officials agreed to pursue an RTA as a way of expanding the capacity of the Charlottesville Transit Service (CTS). Six months later they created the working group to work through the logistics of creating the joint authority.

Last year, the General Assembly passed legislation that gave Albemarle and Charlottesville permission to form the RTA, but a companion bill to allow for a voter referendum on a dedicated sales tax to fund its operations was defeated. Despite losing that potential source of revenue, officials opted in November 2009 to continue planning for the RTA.

20100125-RTA The RTA working group met for the first time this year
“We unanimously voted that from a standpoint of providing transit services in the community it would be better to operate with an RTA,” said Albemarle County Supervisor Dennis Rooker. “The question is whether or not we can get there from a financial standpoint.”

Under the existing system, Albemarle pays part of the cost of operating routes within its borders. Last year, the county paid $678,000 for routes that serve Pantops, Southwood Mobile Home and U.S. 29 according to CTS Director Bill Watterson.

Rooker said that system works for the county’s current needs, but it cannot afford any capital costs for the foreseeable future.

One question is how much Albemarle would have to pay the city for a share of CTS’ assets. City Councilor Satyendra Huja said he would want Charlottesville to be compensated for the transfer of buses and other equipment to the RTA. However, Mayor Norris said he didn’t want to “gouge the county” over this issue.

“As long as the transit service provided to the city is sustained or increased, I don’t see any need for us to make money off of the transfer of the assets because in the long run it’s going to save us money by not having to solely maintain those assets,” Norris said.

Rooker also said the County would have to establish how much it would contribute towards ongoing operating costs.

“If 80 percent of the service is in the city, and 20 percent is in the county, we wouldn’t [want to] pay half the operating cost,” Rooker said.

Charlottesville Public Works Director Judy Mueller said the city currently pays around $400,000 a year on human resources and other administrative services on behalf of CTS. She said Albemarle would need to pick up a share of this cost if an RTA was formed.

The group reached consensus that RTA staff would likely remain as employees of Charlottesville.

The topic of future funding was also broached at the meeting, with no firm decisions made about a direction.

Norris suggested reaching out to new Governor Bob McDonnell to find out if he might support a local funding option in the 2011 General Assembly.

 “I don’t suppose it could hurt to be proactive about that and see if they have any ideas for us,” Norris said.

Rooker said legislation to provide a local taxing option died in part because no other community championed the cause.  Richmond and Fredericksburg were both contemplating forming an RTA, but neither proceeded for various reasons.

The Williamsburg Area Transit Authority was authorized by the General Assembly in 2006 and was created from assets owned by James City County. No money exchanged hands when the authority was formed.

"We just show our investors what they're getting for their dollar and we fortunately have good ridership," said Director of Planning and Development Richard Drumwright in an interview. "But we've had real difficulty increasing the contributions from localities due to economic times."

Drumwright said his organization did not pursue a local taxation option because of what he called "the political reality" that the state legislature will not approve tax increases at this time.

The RTA working group will next meet at the end of March. In the meantime, city and county officials will work with the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission to establish a firm figure for how much it would cost to operate the RTA.

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