In the wake of more bad news from VDOT on state road funding, the City-County work group developing a legislative strategy for the formation of a Regional Transit Authority (RTA) met on October 3, 2008 to review a revised list of priority transportation projects. In addition to public transit, the list includes Hillsdale Drive extended, the Fontaine Avenue-Sunset Connector, and various improvements along Route 29 and at its intersection with the 250 bypass. Each of these projects could receive support if Charlottesville and Albemarle get permission from the General Assembly to form an RTA and fund it through a 1 cent addition to the sales tax.
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Earlier in the week, the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors heard an update on the state “budget crisis” from Jim Utterback, VDOT’s Culpeper District Administrator. Utterback said declining car sales and declining fuel consumption (which generates gas taxes) have both contributed to significant revenue reductions.
“We know we are going to have a significant cut to the six year program,” said Utterback. “I think last year we went through a 44% cut. I would feel certain that it’s going to be of that magnitude [again]. I don’t think it will be as high as 44%, but it certainly is going to be a significant cut….Two years in a row, it is significant.”
At that meeting, Supervisor Dennis Rooker (Jack Jouett) gave what has become his frequent refrain to bad news from VDOT. “What people need to understand is that we will never see another project like the Meadowcreek Parkway built in this area as long as this funding situation continues,” said Rooker. “It would be impossible to ever come up with $25 million for a project at the secondary road fund rate…which sounds like it will be less than $2 million a year….This is something that is going to impact the quality of life for our citizens, and citizens throughout the state, and the economic development potential that the state has.”
As a result of the continuing state funding cuts, most members of the Board of Supervisors and City Council have stated that an RTA with taxing authority is the only foreseeable way to raise revenues for local transportation needs.
The focus of the RTA work group meeting was to provide input on a draft list of transportation projects that would accompany the group’s legislative recommendations. The work group’s goal was to develop a “menu” of representative high priority road projects of interest to both the City and County.
Projects facing what the group described as significant public opposition were removed from the list. These included the Eastern Connector and the Southern Parkway. While those projects remain on long range road plans, there was some concern their appearance in the legislative package might lead to opposition to the RTA and a sales tax increase. Other projects on the list had their estimated costs adjusted to reflect current conditions and priorities. Another draft of the project list will be reviewed at the work group’s next meeting on Friday, October 10, 2008.
The RTA Work Group also scheduled two additional meetings. It will meet again with the Transportation Funding Options Work Group (TFOG) representatives on October 17, 2008. At that meeting, the group hopes to receive endorsements of the RTA and funding strategy from the TFOG organizations who were briefed at a meeting in September. Then on October 23, 2008 it will meet with at least four members of the local General Assembly delegation.
In other business, the work group received a visit from Chip Badger, Deputy Director of the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation. Badger told the group that if it was able to expand public transit operations in the area by, for example, combining efforts with the University of Virginia, it would be eligible for greater support from the state. Badger projected that the RTA could get 20% of its operational costs paid by the state. He also cautioned that the University needed to approach this very carefully to not jeopardize its charter operations, activity that cannot be supported by federal funds.
Badger also informed the work group that the state’s rail spending plan, while delayed, should be released later in October and will include a funding request for three years of operational support for new passenger rail service between Lynchburg and Washington, D.C. including stops in Charlottesville.
“Our intent is to, for at least for a three year demonstration period, to pay for the operational costs of that train,” said Badger.