The Charlottesville Area Transit system would appear to be at a crossroads. The big question facing the City Council is whether the bus system should have more frequent service on similar routes, a new route system or perhaps something even “bolder.”
At Monday’s City Council meeting, councilors were briefed on the start of a new nine-month, $116,000 study to answer just that question.
“Our goal is to determine the most effective way to organize and run transit in Charlottesville,” said Geoff Slater, a project manager with San Francisco-based consultants Nelson Nygaard. “We want to increase ridership; we also want to attract new riders to the system and provide better service to existing riders.”
Slater’s team began meeting individually with city councilors on Monday to launch the study.
“I am encouraged you are going to look at things that are not just tweaking,” said City Councilor Kristin Szakos. “You will look at things we have never heard of … . I really appreciate the breadth and creativity you will bring to this process.”
“We have heard you want us to be a lot bolder than what has been done before,” Slater responded.
Mayor Satyendra Huja called on the consultants to “think bold, think radical.”
Longtime transit manager Bill Watterson left in May for Burlington, Vt. Under his leadership, annual CAT ridership increased from 1.35 million in 2004 to 2.4 million in 2011.
While a national search will soon be underway for Watterson’s replacement, the goal remains clear — Charlottesville wants public transit to be an attractive choice so there will be increased mobility and fewer cars on city streets.
“We are looking to having a new set of eyes look at what we do,” said Judy Mueller, the city’s director of public works, in an interview. “The study will also evaluate how we spend our money today. Is there a better way to spend the money we already have?”
So with increasing ridership, does Charlottesville literally need to reinvent the wheel?
Since 2007, CAT routes have followed what is known as a timed-pulse or radial system in which 12 of 13 routes radiate from a common point, the Downtown Transit Center.
One alternative is the trunk-and-feeder approach, which has the benefit of getting buses deeper into neighborhoods, but requires more transfers for riders once they reach a main trunk line.
If this transit cogitation sounds familiar, that’s because another study was completed a little over a year ago. In February 2011, the Connetics Group recommended keeping the city’s current radial route plan.
A trunk-and-feeder system could improve the shortened routes that no longer have to go to the Downtown Transit Center, but Connetics said it could increase the overall commute times as passengers wait longer at transfer locations.
“While the savings in travel may generate modest savings in running times, those savings do not offset the added inconvenience placed on the passenger,” the report concluded.
Slater emphasized a broad range of alternatives would be considered by his team.
“We will examine existing service, then look at alternatives,” Slater said. “For example, we will look at flex service…like a super shuttle from an airport. Also we will be looking at developing outlying hubs and potential changes to every route in the system.”
“We will have a public meeting at the end of October after we have developed more concrete ideas about the service scenarios,” Slater said. “After that there will be two more public forums.”
Paul Long, a former City Council candidate and co-founder of the Transit Riders Association of Charlottesville, asked the council earlier in the meeting to pass a resolution calling for a $5 million investment in transit from the Virginia General Assembly.
“We need more extensive public transit in the area,” Long said in an interview. “It’s becoming more urbanized and congested.”
“One way to deal with that is offer people a usable public transit system,” Long added. “It has to be expanded and the busses need to run more frequently.”
The City Council will receive a draft of the Nelson Nygaard report in January.