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March 25, 2010

City-County effort to form regional transit authority shelved amid Albemarle’s budget woes

Reader comments (0) DailyProgress By Brian Wheeler
Charlottesville Tomorrow
Thursday, March 25, 2010

Albemarle County’s decision to build their budget on maintaining last year’s tax rate has led to the shelving of efforts to form a regional transit authority (RTA) with the City of Charlottesville. 

Supervisor Dennis Rooker delivered that assessment to a meeting held Wednesday of the work group that has been planning the authority’s formation over the past two years.

“I started out this process being a strong supporter of an RTA….It makes sense for the community to have an RTA that is jointly operated by the city and county,” said Rooker.  “Given the County’s current budget, the tax rates it has adopted, I don’t see us being a reliable partner in this in the next year or two, or three.”

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Local officials decided in February 2008 to pursue the formation of a joint authority that would assume operation of the city’s bus system, allow the county to participate in the governance of the authority, and significantly expand public transit to more locations in Albemarle’s urban areas. 

Until this month, the major funding obstacles for the transit authority had been largely at the state level.  While legislation was approved in 2009 by the Virginia General Assembly to allow the formation of the RTA, another bill that would have allowed a voter referendum on a local sales tax increase to fund transit was unsuccessful.

“We’ve got no money in the budget for our own capital [projects].  We’ve got no operating room for additional expense right now,” said Rooker describing what has now become a local funding challenge.  “I don’t want people to waste their time doing something that…we can’t implement in the next year.”

The county’s proposed FY 2011 budget recommends paying Charlottesville about $648,000 for bus service in Albemarle, a slight decrease from the prior year.

Supervisor Rodney Thomas, another County representative on the work group, said the current economic climate was not conducive to increased funding of transit.

“We just don’t have the money to put into it right now,” said Thomas.  “Of course we would like to come up with a couple hundred thousand dollars, in a windfall of some sort that we could put into it, but right now it wouldn’t be fair for us to commit to [the City].”

Thomas was in the conservative coalition of Supervisors who voted last week to advertise a tax rate of 74.2 cents, the same rate as last year.  Rooker voted against the proposal and advocated for adding two cents to the tax rate to generate funding for capital projects.

“There is no point in forming [an RTA] if it cannot be financed,” said City Councilor Satyendra Huja after the meeting. “The services are not provided for free.  I am hoping in a few years things will be better.”

The county budget proposal is about $10 million less than the current fiscal year and includes a level of cuts to most departments and services.

In recent years, Charlottesville has seen increased ridership on its Charlottesville Area Transit (CAT) system.  In FY 2009, CAT set a ridership record with over 2 million passenger boardings.

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Charlottesville Mayor Dave Norris
However, the county’s budget woes have made the addition of new bus routes difficult even within the current transit system.

At a City Council meeting last month, Mayor Dave Norris said he was reluctant to support new bus routes in Albemarle that would serve the area around Monticello High School and the Mill Creek neighborhood if the county was not in a position to provide funding.

“If the only way that we can increase service in the county is by decreasing service in the city, I don’t see us being able to defend that publicly in the City,” Norris said.

“When we started, we thought we would obtain a legislative funding mechanism for transportation in the area and devote a significant portion of that to transit,” said Rooker. 

“Now we don’t have that and what we are looking at is the best way to use our individual resources to provide the service that people want in the community,” said Rooker.  “I am afraid that until we are in a position to increase significantly the level of current funding, it doesn’t make sense to pursue this.”

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