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June 23, 2008

MPO discusses transportation improvements, streetcar

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(First of two posts)

The MPO Policy Board covered a lot of ground at its monthly meeting on June 18, 2008. Topics included the first public hearing for the MPO’s Draft Transportation Improvement Program, the first detailed overview of the transportation component of the Places29 Master Plan, as well as updates on the area’s transit systems. 

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20080618-Barlow Melissa Barlow

The meeting was also the last to be attended by Harrison Rue, outgoing Executive Director of the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission (TJPDC).  Melissa Barlow, TJPDC’s Director of Transportation Programs, will serve as the Acting Director of the MPO until Rue’s successor is named.  Barlow joined TJPDC late last year after working with the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation.

County officials concerned streetcar study may derail RTA

Last week, two City Councilors indicated support for a $200,000 conceptual study of a streetcar line for Charlottesville’s West Main Street corridor. One of the proponents was Councilor Satyendra Huja, who asked his fellow members of the MPO policy board if federal funds could be used to support the study. To do so, the project would need to be listed on the MPO’s Transportation Improvement Program (TIP), and that would happen if money from any funding source is available.

“Historically, we’ve put a project in the TIP in the hopes that sometime in the middle of the year we could get money,” Rue said. For instance, the Eastern Connector Study was added to the TIP after the City and the County contributed $250,000 to the project.  If the Easter Connector moves forward, it will already have a place on the TIP.

Albemarle County Supervisor David Slutzky (Rio) said it might seem to confusing to the public and the federal government to be concurrently seeking federal funds for a streetcar as well as for a Regional Transit Authority. He said it might make more sense to incorporate any streetcar discussion into the RTA study. Huja agreed, but said he thought it was important to conduct the feasibility study recommended by the Streetcar Task Force.

20080618-MPOright Left to right: Brent Sprinkel (VDOT) John Giometti (VDOT), Quintin Elliot (VDOT), David Slutzky (Albemarle), Julia Monteith (UVA)

Slutzky said he would only support the streetcar as an MPO study only if it were in the context of the planning for the entire system. “My concern would be if you’re engaging the public in a parallel path, towards a parallel outcome, you might end up getting competing interests, and that would be counterproductive to our goal of having a unified commitment to an expanded transit system,” Slutzky said. Harrison Rue suggested that if the MPO wanted to add the streetcar project to the TIP, it should be in the form of a mode-neutral corridor study.

Slutzky suggested that MPO staff bring back an amendment to the TIP to add an unfunded corridor study, but to phrase the language in such a way to not jeopardize the RTA discussion. The item will come back for a vote in July.

CTS Director Bill Watterson said he didn’t think the streetcar feasibility study would be incompatible with the RTA study.  He said it would be common to conduct corridor studies at this state of the planning, and that the West Main Corridor needed new infrastructure. He acknowledged that the RTA study is so far mode-neutral, which means no decisions can be made made now about what kind of system should meet the regional needs. That’s currently the strategy favored by the Federal Transit Administration, but Watterson said the rules would most likely shift in favor of transit.

“As you aware, there were streetcar studies done before of the corridor, including video modeling of how it would look on Main Street. In the past that concept had been rejected because of its cost and the amount of right of way it would take up and down Main Street,” Rooker said.  He said it was his belief that the City had agreed with the County that a Bus Rapid Transit system would accomplish more for the investment.

City Councilor Julian Taliaferro, who was the other member of Council to support a streetcar feasibility study at the June 16 Council meeting, said he changed his mind because of the possibility of developers paying for half the study and the possibility of getting federal funds. Slutzky said he was concerned that the RTA would be the region’s best strategy for getting in line for those funds.

“If we get in line to get in money for a project that will have potentially a very positive impact on a very small subset of our community’s transportation needs… it might actually undermine our access to the money that would be needed to implement the larger system,” Slutzky said. “We as an MPO certainly want to be thinking about the complex interconnected transportation challenges that we are all trying to overcome here. I would admonish the City Council to be very careful not to go too far down a path if it might undermine [the RTA].”

Rooker questions VDOT descriptions of transportation projects

U17Supervisor Rooker was concerned about the lack of specifics on a project to improve the intersection of Route 29 and the Route 250 Bypass

Supervisor Dennis Rooker (Jack Jouett)  said he was concerned that the Six Year Plan adopted Thursday by the Commonwealth Transportation Board did not contain detailed enough descriptions. He pointed to Project U-17, which is a project to make improvements at the intersection of the Route 250 Bypass with US 29, between Hydraulic Road and Barracks. The TIP, which contains the same language as in the Six Year Plan, has a broad purpose listed as: “Bypass Interchange improvements – urban construction initiative project – reconstruction without added capacity.” That somewhat vague definition confused Rooker. “I had thought part of the plan was to include an additional lane from Hydraulic Road down to the 250 Bypass, and then an additional ramp in front of Best Buy, and then carry that lane out onto the Bypass,” Rooker said.

City Traffic Engineer Jeanette Janiczek said the City is pursuing that strategy, and has applied for VDOT revenue-sharing money based on those exact improvements. However, on-going traffic analysis might determine another design would be more efficient, thus she said the purpose is written broadly.

“We’ve got to make sure that it works from a traffic standpoint,” said Quintin Elliot, the Acting Culpeper District Administrator for VDOT. “We don’t want to go narrowing ourselves in to what we’re going to do when something else might come out of the traffic analysis.” 

Rooker said the description was potentially misleading, and narrowed the scope in such a way that might prevent proffer money from being applied to the project. He said a portion of proffer money from the rezoning of Albemarle Place is supposed to contribute to the project.  Rue encouraged the City to brief the County on the status of the project, given the County would be contributing in the form of the proffer.

(Left to right at table: Harrison Rue, Dennis Rooker (Albemarle), Satyendra Huja (Charlottesville), Julian Taliaferro (Charlottesville))

Huja asked why the Hillsdale Drive project is on the TIP, and said he heard there is no money for the project from VDOT.  Elliot said that previous allocations have already been made to pay for preliminary engineering. He said the City is investigating the possibility of having much of the right-of-way donated to keep the project alive. “If the right of way doesn’t move forward, then the project may not,” Elliot said. Janiczek said City staff are nearing completion on the design of the road “so that if money falls out of the sky, we’ll start tomorrow.” So far, $3.1 million has been spent on the project, which is currently estimated to cost $30.5 million according to the Draft TIP.

Huja asked again if the streetcar could be added to the TIP as a placeholder. Rue said they would agree to discuss that at the next meeting. UnWanna Dabney of the Federal Highway Administration said she could understand the point of leaving items on the TIP, but said she would like to see a narrative that explains the MPO’s financial strategy to obtain funds.  Rue said the MPO had a fairly good track record in securing money for projects placed on the TIP, again pointing to the example of the Eastern Connector. 

Supervisor Slutzky asked if a placeholder should also be included for the Berkmar Bridge, given that developer Wendell Wood has offered to contribute to some of the cost of the project to extend Berkmar Drive over the Rivanna River. 

The TIP will be voted on at the MPO’s meeting in August, after two more public hearings.

CTS and RTA Updates

Bill Watterson, the Director of the Charlottesville Transit Service, predicted his agency would reach almost 1.7 million riders in fiscal year that ends at the end of this month. He said CTS has experienced a 12% rise in passengers over last year. Watterson said the increase is mostly due to the ride-share agreement with the University of Virginia, and are not due to the increase in fuel costs.

“We would be seeing a lot more change due to fuel prices if we were a regional provider, because people making longer distance commutes would be making the switch from driving to riding the bus,” Watterson said. He called for continued study of a Regional Transit Authority so that outlying areas could become part of the system.

Barlow said she is trying to arrange a joint meeting with the City Council and the Board of Supervisors to further discuss the Regional Transit Authority. Harrison Rue said he did not have much hope that there would be any new information following the June 23rd special session on transportation funding, but that David Blount, TJPDC’s Legislative Liaison, would be closely following events in Richmond.  Rue said the next step is to draft the enabling legislation to allow the City and County to create the authority, and Rue said it would be important to have unanimous support from the 11 elected officials who make up Council and the Board. 

Watterson said the Commonwealth Transportation Board’s adoption of the FY09-FY14 Six Year Plan means that night service will be added to CTS Route 5, a loop that connects Barracks Road Shopping Center with Fashion Square Mall and Wal-Mart via Commonwealth Drive. The change will take effect on August 23, 2008. Watterson said CTS was aiming to connect its real-time bus tracking system to Google Maps before the end of July.

Car-sharing service to debut on Grounds, study West Main/JPA intersection

Julia Monteith, Senior Land Use Officer in for the University of Virginia’s Office of the Architect, told the MPO that the University is planning on offering a car-sharing agreement this fall with an initial fleet of up to six cars.

“It’s a car-sharing program where you’re able to use a car for a specific period of time,” Montieth said. “It’s a really sleek program that works well for everybody involved. For instance, you could use a car to go grocery shopping, or you could use a car for a day to go up to D.C. You typically pay by the hour.”

The service will be provided by Zipcar, a company that Monteith says is gradually rolling out its services to university towns like Charlottesville. One possible location for the Zipcar lot will be near the new 11th Street Parking Garage, as Monteith said Zipcar wants its distribution points to be visible by the public.

Monteith also announced that UVa is studying the Lee Street Corridor in front of the hospital in anticipation of the new Emily Couric Cancer Center. The demolition of the parking garage that previously stood on that location has disrupted pedestrian patterns for patients and staff. Monteith said potential  plans include a raised pedestrian walkway linking the 11th Street Garage to the Medical Center’s East Parking  Garage.
Monteith said plans are also underway to reconfigure the intersection of West Main Street and Jefferson Park Avenue as a right-angle.  Currently the two roads meet diagonally, creating a long intersection that Monteith said is a hazard.

Sean Tubbs


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