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April 30, 2009

Charlottesville Planning Commission studies “permanent housing for the homeless”

As he seeks election to a second term on City Council, Mayor Dave Norris (D) has championed the use of a new model of housing for the homeless called single-room occupancies (SRO). These units would be low-rent studio apartments that would allow qualified applicants a place to stay with some level of support services.

However, the Charlottesville zoning code does not currently have any categories or districts that would allow such a facility to be constructed within City limits. On April 20, 2009, the City Council directed the Charlottesville Planning Commission to study the code to evaluate possible amendments. A week later, the Commission spent two hours educating themselves on the topic.

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They were assisted by representatives from Virginia Supportive Housing, a non-profit organization that was incorporated in 1988 to build SRO units in the greater Richmond area. Since then, the organization has expanded into Norfolk, Petersburg and Portsmouth. Now they are seeking locations on which to build a 60-unit SRO somewhere in the Charlottesville area. 

The Planning Commission hears the presentation from Virginia Supportive Housing's Candace Streett (in blue)

“All of our tenants sign leases and they pay rent,” said Candace Streett, Deputy of the Housing Division at Virginia Supportive Housing. “They pay 30% of their income on rent with a minimum of $50.” The rest of the funding comes through housing subsidies provided by the U.S. Housing and Urban Development and other entities. Subsidies for each unit go down as tenants’ incomes rise. Streett said the facility might be configured so that only 40 of the rooms are for the homeless, but the other 20 would be for other people interested in living in a studio apartment.

The organization also provides support services on-site and manages the property. Tenants enter into their units through a central hall by which they have to pass a manager on duty. The front desk would be staffed for 16 hours a day, but a property manager would live on site. Streett said the set-up is similar to what you might find in a nursing home. In this case, though, she said 90% of tenants move out after 3 to 4 years because they are able to improve their incomes.

Tenants are selected through references from agencies that deal with the homeless, and there are waiting lists in each community. Each tenant is interviewed twice by the property manager.

“They’re going to see if the individual wants to make a life change and is going to be willing to live in a community,” Streett said.

“Basically what we’re talking about is providing a studio apartment with a full kitchen and a full bath,” said Allison Bogdanovich, the Director of Housing Development for Virginia Supportive Housing.

In Charlottesville, Streett said VSH would prefer to do new construction rather than rehabilitation of an existing building so that there can be an opportunity to create an energy-efficient structure to keep utility bills down. The site must have good access to public transportation, a grocery store and jobs. 

“There are a couple of sites that have been proposed, and we’re weighing everything in terms of how close to all of that as well as the cost,” Streett said. She is estimating it will cost at least $8 million in capital costs to get the SRO off the ground.

Bogdanovic said the City would need to make sure that the project could be compliant with Charlottesville’s zoning code, which is why the Planning Commission is being asked to study possible amendments.

Streett said the project could not go forward without support from the community. She said that she would be willing to speak with neighborhood associations and residents surrounding the selected site in order to allay any concerns.

“Before we do an option to purchase [the site], we will contact the neighbors,” Streett said. “We’ve met one-on-one with neighbors before on our properties in Norfolk and Virginia Beach to make sure they understood what we were talking about and answering any questions… We do not want to find in a public hearing on the zoning that we have a couple of individuals who are very unhappy.”

Commissioner Genevieve Keller asked if there was enough demand for more than one SRO facility. If not, perhaps it would not be necessary to amend the City’s code for a one-time facility. City Planner Ebony Walden said the City should amend the code in order to support and encourage the creation of an SRO facility, even if VSH was not involved.

There was also talk during the work session about the role that Albemarle County might play in assisting with the SRO. Bogdanovic said the County could be a source for Section 8 vouchers. Streett said she would like to see the project be a regional one.

“Homelessness doesn’t have boundaries,” Streett said.

“But Virginia does, unfortunately,” said Commissioner Rosensweig.

Bogdanovic said she was confident that Albemarle would be receptive to the idea. 

Left to right) Commissioners Mike Farruggio, Dan Rosensweig and Jason Pearson

Chairman Jason Pearson asked Streett to comment on a proposed zoning text amendment drafted by Walden to see if it would suit the needs of VSH. She said requiring a special use permit would give the City a chance to make sure that a property manager is in place, and that the facility would not have too much of an impact on the neighboring community. Bogdanovic said she thought the ordinance should be flexible enough to allow the VSH or another SRO organization to find a suitable site.

Commissioner Mike Farruggio said he wanted to make sure that there were individual kitchens in each unit in order to reduce the possibility of conflict between residents. He said he was generally supportive of the idea, but expressed concern about potential impacts on neighborhoods. Farruggio didn’t want the ordinance, which would require a property management agreement, to become too lenient.

Commissioner Genevieve Keller asked if there were any possibility that a private sector developer would be able to operate a similar facility. Streett said if the target audience was students, there might be someone willing to take a risk. But she added that her non-profit provides support services, which are expensive and not profitable.

After a discussion on the finer points of Ebony Walden’s draft zoning text amendment, Chairman Jason Pearson summed up his views.

“I feel like there are many possible solutions to the social challenges we face,” Pearson said. “My sense is that there is a type of solution that has emerged over the last 20 years called an SRO that has a typology… Do we want to introduce this into our community, and if we do, what do we do from a planning perspective to get it to happen?”

Planning Manager Missy Creasy said that question had already been partially answered by Council’s decision to initiate the study. Ebony Walden will now edit her zoning text ordinance based on the Commission’s feedback in advance of a future public hearing.


  • 01:00 – Introduction of item from Chairman Jason Pearson
  • 01:30 – Staff report from City Planner Ebony Walden
  • 05:30 – Presentation from Candace Streett of Virginia Supportive Housing
  • 06:30 – Audio from video shown by Virginia Supportive Housing
  • 13:15 – Streett continues her presentation
  • 16:30 – Commissioner Mike Farruggio asks about a statistic that 90% of VSH residents do not return to the streets
  • 20:30 – City Councilor David Brown asks how VSH decides who becomes a tenant
  • 26:40 – Commissioner Dan Rosensweig asks about how to measure supply versus demand
  • 28:30 – Deputy City Attorney Rich Harris asks how residents who must attend in-patient rehab services keep their place
  • 30:00 – Commissioner Farruggio asks if a 60-unit SRO would decrease the number of homeless by 60 people over a continuous period of time
  • 34:30 – Ed Bain says that PACEM was able to get 13 individuals permanently housed during this winter’s season
  • 37:20 – Streett details what the various support services would entail
  • 40:30 – Farruggio asks where the rest of the funding comes from
  • 41:20 – Allison Bogdanovic of VSH describes the Charlottesville proposal
  • 43:30 – Commissioner Genevieve Keller asks if there is any provision for couples or families
  • 48:00 – Farruggio asks if there will be someone on duty 24 hours a day
  • 49:30 – Bogdanovic describes the schedule for the project
  • 51:00  - Councilor Brown asks what stakeholders VSH has met with
  • 53:20 – Farruggio asks if VSH has talked with any neighborhood associations
  • 55:30 – Keller asks if there will be a second SRO facility planned
  • 57:00 – Commissioner Bill Emory asks if VSH is committed to being a good manager of the property
  • 59:15 – Bogdanovic details of financing the SRO project
  • 1:02:20 – Rosensweig asks if the units would compete for other Section 8 vouchers being used in the community
  • 1:06:00 – A member of Albemarle County’s Housing Committee asks about the cost of the project
  • 1:09:00 – Chairman Pearson steers conversation back to the issue of amending the ZTA
  • 1:11:00 – Ebony Walden discusses why she wrote the draft ordinance the way she did

Albemarle releases quarterly building report data

Albemarle County released today their First Quarter Building Report for 2009.  This chart, prepared by Charlottesville Tomorrow shows the trend in building permits and their location in Albemarle's growth area vs. rural area since 1997.  The linked report has details about the specific type of building (e.g. single family detached) as well as the specific magisterial district/neighborhood area.


There is also a First Quarter Certificate of Occupancy report for 2009.

Brian Wheeler

Video: City Council Candidate Forum

A transcript and video are now available for the April 21, 2009 City Council Candidate Forum.

Download Download the transcript by Charlottesville Tomorrow.

Watch the video below:

Norris, Szakos and Taliaferro appear at first City Council candidate forum
from Charlottesville Tomorrow on Vimeo.

April 29, 2009

Winning bid for wastewater plant upgrade 18.5% under earlier cost estimate

By Sean Tubbs
Charlottesville Tomorrow
Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Hazen & Sawyer's final design for the Moores Creek Wastewater Treatment's Enhanced Nutrient Removal project

The Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority’s Board of Directors has awarded a bid to an Ohio firm to upgrade the Moores Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant to reduce the flow of nutrients into the watershed and to address odor concerns. The RWSA Board approved the award to Adams Robinson Enterprises of Dayton, OH at their meeting on April 27, 2009.

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Of twelve bids received, Adams Robinson submitted the lowest bid at $40.3 million, 18.5% below the engineer’s “probable estimate” of $49.5 million for the project. Officials with Hazen and Sawyer, the engineering firm that designed the upgrades, recommended that the RWSA accept the bid. Construction will start later this year and will be completed in the winter of 2013. The RWSA Board also voted to pay $3.3 million to Hazen & Sawyer over the next four years to oversee construction.

The upgrades are necessary in order to make the RWSA compliant with the Chesapeake Bay Act, which sought to reduce the levels of nitrogen and phosphorous that enter the watershed and thus the bay. The presence of these organic materials can lead to algae blooms, which reduce the amount of oxygen available to fish and other aquatic creatures.

Three-fifths of the project’s funding is expected to come from Virginia’s Water Quality Improvement Fund (WQIF). The RWSA signed an agreement in June 2007 that allocated $15.6 million in WQIF for the project and now the RWSA is asking the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, which administers the WQIF, to amend the agreement to raise the amount of funding to nearly $21.8 million, or 60% of the winning bid.

Betty Mooney of the group Citizens for a Sustainable Water Plan demanded to know how much nitrogen and phosphorous was actually being released into the watershed, and wanted to know what the RWSA would do if it did not get the funding from WQIF.

RWSA Operations Director Robert Wichser (left) and Finance and Administration Director Lonnie Mead (right)

Bob Wichser, Operations Director for the RWSA, responded that the Moores Creek treatment plant is currently releasing between 14 and 26 milligrams per liter (mg/L) of nitrogen. By January 2011, the plant will be required to lower that figure to 6 mg/L to stay compliant. Phosphorous levels must be reduced from a current range of 3.5 to 5.5 mg/L to .5 mg/L. The upgrades are designed to allow the plant to reduce nitrogen levels to 5 mg/L, which means that the RWSA may be able to create a new revenue stream by selling pollution credits.

On the funding issue, Wichser said the WQIF funding was viable and expressed confidence the state would meet its obligations.

Other news from the RWSA:

  •  The RWSA Board will hold a retreat in June to welcome the two new elected officials who were added by the City and the County this spring. Councilor Holly Edwards was named to represent the City, but the County has not yet selected a Supervisor to join her. RWSA Counsel Kurt Krueger said they could be seated in time for the May 18 meeting.
  • On the topic of the RFP for a dredging feasibility study for the South Fork Rivanna Reservoir, Betty Mooney charged that the Albemarle County Service Authority was stalling the RFP “to prevent the community from knowing the cost of dredging.”


  • 01:00 – Meeting called to order by Mike Gaffney, Chair of RWSA
  • 02:15 – Public comments about water conservation numbers from Dede Smith of the group Citizens for a Sustainable Water Plan
  • 05:07 – Public comments from Betty Mooney of the group Citizens for a Sustainable Water Plan about the need to get an RF
  • 08:54 – Public comments from Richard Lloyd claiming that the four boards subverts the will of the public
  • 11:23 – Discussion of the consent agenda
  • 11:45 – City Manager Gary O’Connell asks to pull item E from consent agenda
  • 12:17 – Bob Wichser explains the objectives of the Moores Creek WWTP upgrades
  • 17:45 – Discussion of how to prepare the two new members of the RWSA Board
  • 19:45 – Charlottesville Public Works Director Judy Mueller asks for a timeline for all major capital projects planned by the RWSA

April 28, 2009

Video: Madison Cummings' campaign launch

Go to Charlottesville Tomorrow's audio podcast and summary of this event. Watch the video below.
Madison Cummings launches campaign for Albemarle County Board of Supervisors
from Charlottesville Tomorrow on Vimeo.

ACSA Board defers decision on dredging feasibility study; majority opposed

By Sean Tubbs
Charlottesville Tomorrow
Monday, April 27, 2009

The Albemarle County Service Authority’s Board of Directors will send an informal letter to City Council expressing their concerns over issuing an RFP for a feasibility study for dredging the South Fork Rivanna River. The majority of the six-member ACSA Board is opposed to issuing the RFP, which was requested by City Council, out of a concern that it will jeopardize the permits granted by the US Army Corps of Engineers and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality for the adopted community water supply plan.

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The RFP was approved by City Council on April 6, 2009, and is now before the other three boards (ACSA, Board of Supervisors, and the RWSA Board)

The discussion took place at a special meeting of the ACSA Board on Wednesday, April 22. The ACSA usually meets once a month, but they adjourned their regular meeting the previous Thursday before discussing the RFP.

They began their conversation by trying to establish exactly how the RFP has come to this point. There are still no officially approved minutes of the March 3, 2009 meeting of the four boards  where Council decided to review and amend a previously written, but not released, RFP for a series of dredging studies.

Each of the members of the ACSA Board discussed the sequence of events that lead up to the RFP being written and endorsed by the City Council. Chair Don Wagner (Rio) said the idea of creating an RFP came out of the March 2009 four boards meeting, and that the ACSA neither endorsed or rejected the idea at the time. Liz Palmer (Samuel Miller) said the City was asked to put its idea in writing, and that she was surprised when RWSA Executive Director Tom Frederick ended up writing the RFP. Executive Director Gary Fern said he recalled that it was clear that RWSA Staff was going to write it. Both Palmer and John Martin (White Hall) said they felt no obligation to approve the RFP. 

 “We did not agree to that, and we would have come out of our seats in objection had that been the suggestion,” Martin said.

Download Download the RFP

But Jim Colbaugh (Scottsville) said he could not remember any objections raised by the ACSA, RWSA or the County Board of Supervisors.

“Once you write an RFP, there’s certainly a reasonable obligation to move forward with it,” Colbaugh said. Colbaugh said that the ACSA could suggest a cap on the total amount to be spent on the survey, but that it would be “disingenuous” to stop the RFP in its tracks.

Clarence Roberts (Rivanna) said he was not prepared to vote on the RFP until the legal advice regarding the effects a dredging feasibility study might have on the federal permit authorizing the implementation of the adopted community water supply plan. That was another outcome of the March 2009 four boards meeting.

Palmer wanted to send a letter listing the concerns she and other Board members have about the impact the dredging feasibility study would have on the adopted water supply plan.

“One of the big things the City Council has articulated and has talked about several times is the idea of a smaller water supply plan, and that is not addressed in the feasibility study,” Palmer said. She added that the opponents of the water supply plan are now pointing out what they see as flaws in the May 2004 demand analysis. Palmer said City Councilors are getting bad information from the opponents of the plan.

Though he agreed with many of her arguments, Colbaugh was opposed to the tone of the letter that Palmer circulated during the meeting.

“What I heard the City say in the meeting of the four boards is they simply want some sort of an idea of what [restorative dredging] would cost,” Colbaugh said. “That’s why the four boards in that room allowed Tom [Frederick] to move forward with a feasibility study that looked at what could be done, how much capacity you could get out of the reservoir, and how much it would cost…. All City Council wants is a number that’s different from the $250 million thing that Gannet Fleming gave them.”

Wagner said there was likely going to be a study no matter what, given the desires of City Council.  Martin said the adopted community water supply plan has already gone through the planning process and should be implemented without a dredging component.

“We had an agreement, a contract, with the City for a water supply plan and based upon that agreement that we reached we submitted permit applications and we got this thing permitted,” Martin said. “And now the City is coming in unilaterally wanting a change in that agreement.”

The newest member of the ACSA, Richard Carter (Jack Jouett), said the opponents of the water supply plan will not give up and that the feasibility study should go forward because it would not automatically nullify the existing agreement between the four Boards.

The RFP will not be on the agenda for the RWSA’s Board of Directors meeting until May. Martin suggested that the ACSA defer the RFP until a special meeting can be held before the RWSA’s May 18 meeting. Palmer continued to suggest that a letter needed to be sent to give guidance to members of the other three boards. Other members of the board suggested a new letter be drafted up that would be less harsh than Palmer’s. ACSA Counsel Jim Bowling and Gary Fern are now writing up a letter conveying the sense of the ACSA Board about the RFP.

April 27, 2009

VDOT helps builders and citizens adjust to new secondary street standards

By Daniel Nairn
Charlottesville Tomorrow
Monday, April 27, 2009

VDOT: "Current development patterns often rely on isolated street networks."

On April 21, 2009, Representatives from the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) spoke at the Albemarle County office building as part of a state-wide “listening tour” to explain new rules for building secondary roads in Virginia. New Secondary Street Acceptance requirements were passed by the Commonwealth Transportation Board in February , and will become mandatory on July 1, 2009. Until then, developers can opt to use either the older or the newer system. Although a period of public review was conducted prior to the finalization of the policy, this next round is intended to help developers and interested citizens understand the transition process.

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According to VDOT, the three main objectives of the new requirements are to increase of connectivity of roads, enhance pedestrian accommodations, and provide a public service. More connectivity is expected to decrease congestion, enhance emergency services, encourage pedestrians and cyclists, and open up new street design potential. The standards specifically call for narrower streets, which VDOT believes are safer, less costly, and less susceptible to water run-off.

Existing streets are not affected by the change, and non-compliant new streets are not outright forbidden. They will simply not be eligible for state maintenance.

“Essentially streets that don’t satisfy these requirements are private in nature,” said Ken King, VDOT’s Southwest Regional Operations Director. “If the purpose of the street is [to be] private it should be maintained privately.”

There are many variables in determining how these requirements are measured, and VDOT officials repeatedly admitted that there is no way to capture every possible case in a set of regulations. Requirements vary depending on whether the parcel is categorized as urban, suburban, or rural. Exceptions will be allowed by-right under specific conditions, such as a river blocking access on one side of a street. An appeal process has been set up for situations that are not covered by these exceptions.

VDOT is maintaining a web site intended to guide regular citizens through the transition process, and they are developing a more comprehensive manual that will be available some time before July 1.


0:45 - Nick Donahue, assistant secretary of transportation, introduces secondary street requirements
1:30 – Ken King outlines new street acceptance requirements
2:40 – Problem is increasing congestion on arterial roads
3:30 – Current funding constraints require more careful spending
5:00 – The problems with current disconnected subdivisions
8:10 – Accidents and congestion occur at traffic signals
9:00 – Three main objectives of new requirements
10:30 – Regulation doesn’t prohibit private streets
11:00 – Listing of the benefits of the new system; emergency services
13:10 – Process of creating new regulations
14:15 – Graduated approach meets the diverse needs of the state
16:15 – Streets are added as a network, rather than one by one
17:35 – Introducing the connectivity index concept
18:50 – Appropriate pedestrian accommodations
21:40 – Public service requirement; excessively wide streets
25:05 – Rob Hoffricter, assistant division administrator of VDOT maintenance division, provides some specific implementation examples
27:00 – More details on the different connectivity index requirements
28:10 – Cul-de-sacs are not prohibited, only reduced in number
30:40 – Process of determining exceptions, automatic or by petition
33:35 – Details on acceptable pedestrian accommodations
35:10 – Street design standards; widths and parking
37:50 – Fee structure and inspections for new roads
40:50 –Timeline of the transition period into new policy

The TJPDC announces a new Executive Director

By Fania Gordon & Brian Wheeler
Charlottesville Tomorrow
Monday, April 27, 2009

Executive Director of the TJPDC Stephen W. Williams
The Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission (TJPDC) announced last week that it has hired Stephen W. Williams as its new Executive Director beginning on May 11, 2009.  Williams succeeds Harrison Rue who stepped down June 30, 2008 to take a position as a consultant with ICF International.

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Mr. Williams brings over 25 years experience as a professional planner in work at local and regional planning agencies, most recently as Executive Director of the Nashua (New Hampshire) Regional Planning Commission (NRPC).  Mr. Williams brings special skills in the area of transportation planning.

Albemarle Supervisor Sally Thomas (Samuel Miller) served as Chair of the Selection Committee.  “The search for just the right Director has come to a delightful conclusion,” said Thomas in a TJPDC media release.  “We think that Mr. Williams brings an extensive background in many areas in which the Planning District provides services to localities in the region.”

At  a press conference held on April 21, 2009, Mr. Williams commented, “I’m looking forward to working with our local government officials and TJPDC staff to continue the important planning projects underway and to look for new opportunities to assist our localities as they plan for the future.”

Under Mr. Williams’ leadership, the NRPC was recognized as a leading regional planning commission in New Hampshire. He received gubernatorial appointments to the state’s Climate Change Task Force and the Freedom’s Way Heritage Commission. He also was vice-chairman of the New Hampshire Rail Transit Authority. “Recently, I have been most heavily involved in the areas of transportation, transit and rail,” Williams said.

In order to engage the public in transportation planning in Nashua, Williams explained that the NRPC utilized town hall meetings to find out what the citizens wanted.  “At NRPC we have worked to find ways to take the transportation process out to the people instead of asking them to come to us,” said Williams.

When asked about why he wanted to work in Virginia, with its reputation for inadequate funding for transportation projects, Williams responded that he expected to work to address this problem.  “There are 50 states with a reputation for not adequately funding transportation,” Williams said  “A critical part of the role that I expect to play here helping the region to try figure to out how to pay for those projects moving forward.”

TJPDC Chairperson Connie Brennan, Vice Chair of the Nelson County Board of Supervisors, said the Commission is excited about Mr. Williams’ arrival to the region. “We believe Steve can jump right in to build on the good work already underway at the Planning District,” said Brennan. “The region’s localities stand to benefit from the knowledge and expertise he brings with him.”

Mr. Williams holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Montana State University and completed masters’ degree coursework at California Polytechnic State University.

The TJPDC was established in 1972 to promote the efficient development of the physical, social, and economic policies across the region by assisting its member local governments to plan for the future. The Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission is one of 21 such organizations in Virginia. Planning District Commissions seek to facilitate regional solutions to issues of significance to local governments, including transportation, water resources, housing programs, and economic development. The TJPDC's work is managed by a professional staff in cooperation with elected officials and citizens appointed by local and regional governments. 

TJPDC staff manages the local Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) which is responsible for our region’s transportation planning.  They raise no revenues of their own and act essentially as advisory bodies to the elected governments within their jurisdiction.  The TJPDC serves the City of Charlottesville, Albemarle County, Fluvanna County, Greene County, Louisa County, and Nelson County.


Madison Cummings launches campaign for Albemarle County Board of Supervisors

By Sean Tubbs & Brian Wheeler
Charlottesville Tomorrow
Monday, April 27, 2009

Madison Cummings (center) surrounded by friends and family

On April 27, 2009, Democrat Madison Cummings of North Garden formally launched his campaign  for election to the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors. He is running for the Samuel Miller District seat being vacated by the retiring Sally Thomas. Cummings is competing against Lucia Phinney  for the Democratic nomination, which will be decided at a caucus on Monday, May 11.

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“I’m running because I want to help make Albemarle County an even more wonderful place for this and future generations,” Cummings said during his formal announcement. Cummings delivered his speech in front of the Albemarle County Office Building surrounded by friends and family.  Officials appearing with Cummings included current Albemarle County School Board member Diantha McKeel (Jack Jouett) and former School Board member Gordon Walker (Samuel Miller).

Madison Cummings

“As a member of the Board, I intend to work with my colleagues to provide better opportunities for affordable housing, bring a greater emphasis on buying from local producers… and to resolve the knotty issue of ensuring a reliable long-term guarantee of clean water from our own watershed,” Cummings said.
As an example of one of his transportation priorities, he pledged that the Meadowcreek Parkway will be completed with the cooperation of the City of Charlottesville.

Cummings served on the Albemarle County School Board as the Samuel District representative from 1994 to 2001. He was first appointed to that body by Thomas, but won election to the position in 1997 when the County moved to an elected School Board.

Cummings will turn 66 in June and he is currently a part-time pharmacist at the University of Virginia Medical Center.  He retired from his full-time work in that same position in 2004.  He moved to the area in 1970, is married to Pat Cummings, and has children and grand-children living in the community.

See Charlottesville Tomorrow's Election Watch page for complete coverage of the County's 2009 elections.

April 24, 2009

New passenger train schedule may be obstacle for business trips from Charlottesville

By Daniel Nairn
Charlottesville Tomorrow
Friday, April 24, 2009

After years of advocacy for better passenger rail access along the US 29 corridor, in February of 2009 the Piedmont Rail Coalition (PRC) saw their goal come to fruition when the Commonwealth Transportation Board agreed to support a new daily route between Washington D.C. and Lynchburg. This is the first time the Commonwealth has ever agreed to fund intercity passenger rail, and it opens up the possibility of more transportation options for thousands of Virginians along the corridor. However, in recent weeks an unanticipated scheduling change has threatened to jeopardize the entire project, at least in the eyes of  PRC Chair Meredith Richards.


Richards, who founded both the advocacy group CvilleRail and the Piedmont Rail Coalition, had been under the impression that the planned rail service would depart from Lynchburg at 5:05 AM, arrive in Charlottesville by 6:17 AM, and reach Union Station at 8:40 AM. In fact, these times appear in a January 2008 AMTRAK document, which also  states “the combination of the morning and evening trains would establish a good service pattern for business travel to and from Washington, D.C. – a first for this region.” The merit of this schedule is that it would get passengers into the nation’s capital in time for a 9 o’clock meeting, justifying rail travel for many commuters and day-trippers alike.

The proposed schedule recently released by the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation (DRPT) shows the morning route to be leaving about two and a half hours later than earlier indications. The train is scheduled to leave Lynchburg at 7:45 AM, come through Charlottesville around 8:45 AM, and arrive in Union Station by 11:30 AM, giving only about a five hour window of time before the returning south-bound train leaves the station. Based on her experience, Richards said, “This schedule will bypass the lion’s share of the market that is not now riding the trains.”

20080507-Amtrak2 But what concerns Richards most is that this new regional rail service has only been granted funds by the state for a three-year period. The future of rail along the corridor is contingent upon an acceptable performance for this demonstration project. Virginia DRPT estimates that both the service to Lynchburg and a separate new service to Richmond could together remove 1.4 million cars from highways each year, saving around 8.3 million gallons of fuel. Yet these estimations are based on peak-hour transportation projections. What happens if the service does not perform as well as expected because of scheduling that is less than ideal?

Railroad scheduling is an incredibly complex ordeal. Over the last century, the total railroad track mileage in the United States has dropped from a peak of 260,000 miles in the 1930s to under 100,000 miles today. Rail as a form of passenger transportation lasted through decades of stagnation and neglect, yet the industry of freight rail has actually undergone a resurgence in the last several years. The trouble is that the increased volumes of freight travel have not yet led to an equivalent increase in track capacity, leaving the less profitable passenger service fewer slots available for usage.

On April 1, 2009, Governor Tim Kaine joined Wick Moorman, CEO of Norfolk Southern Railway, at Lynchburg’s Kemper Street Train Station for a ceremonial signing of an agreement to begin improvements for the new passenger rail line between Lynchburg and Washington D.C. The Virginia DRPT has agreed to $43 million worth of infrastructure improvements, such as side-tracks for parking the train and parallel tracks along congested corridors, and these agreements need to be established not only with Norfolk Southern, but with three other parties that either own track or operate their own rail service: AMTRAK, CSX, and the Virginia Railway Express (VRE).

Although the Virginia DRPT makes the final scheduling decisions, each of the five parties have to sign off on the schedule. The two most significant scheduling hurdles are created by a short segment of CSX track along the route that receives heavy freight traffic and potential conflicts with an existing VRE service between Manassas and Washington D.C. Furthermore, the new rail service through Virginia is technically the extension of an existing line that runs between New York and Washington D.C., and the timing of this line needs to be taken into account as well.

However technical the issue of scheduling is, according to Richards it still remains the case that no representative from the public was at the table to express the needs of travelers and commuters when the scheduling decisions were made. All of the negotiations and contracts were held behind closed doors. The Piedmont Rail Coalition is embarking on a campaign to encourage the DRPT to engage in a public participation process. If this is unsuccessful, the coalition intends to move forward with a participation process themselves in hopes that the DRPT will join them in their efforts.

The Virginia DRPT considers the schedule they have posted to be tentative. Although all of the agreements between the five parties have already been secured, the contracts list the scheduling as an “exhibit,” which leaves AMTRAK with a certain degree of flexibility.

According to Richards, “This is the first new passenger service for the US29 corridor in 53 years.  It is a great gift to our region, for which we are extremely grateful. But we have one chance to get it right. And if we don't get it right, it's ‘stuck on the highway’ for thousands of our residents who would rather be taking the train.” She hopes that a full-fledged public participation process will ensure that the final schedule will sufficiently meet the needs of riders.

The planned start date for the new Washington D.C. to Lynchburg service of October 1, 2009 serves as a functional deadline for the scheduling decision, since nobody has an interest in seeing the new service delayed at all. However the scheduling decision is resolved, Charlottesville residents will see their options for rail travel more than double when the new service starts.