The City Council told the acting manager of Charlottesville Area Transit late Monday night to hold off on making a route change that would have eliminated a direct bus connection between the Fry’s Spring neighborhood and downtown.
The council also wanted to wait on major changes until the completion of a study of whether the entire system should be restructured.
Every year, the transit manager appears before the council to get their approval of route changes.
“Rather than do strictly a maintenance effort where we just fix a few small things that aren’t working, it gave us an opportunity to consider some of the lessons we’re learning as part of the transit study,” said Lance Stewart, the city’s facilities manager and acting transit manager.
Stewart appeared before the council Monday to explain major modifications to three of the city’s bus routes, changes councilors ultimately postponed.
One of the suggested changes is to shorten Route 4, which serves the southwest portion of the city. Currently, it travels between the Fry’s Spring neighborhood and the Downtown Transit Center.
“Route 4 is a troubled route,” Stewart said. “It’s very long. It’s very circuitous. Overall, our ridership in the last five years as a system has increased 50 percent, but this route has decreased 8 percent.”
Under the new plan, the route would stay completely within southwest Charlottesville. Riders seeking to get downtown would have two transfer points where they could catch the free trolley-style bus if they wanted to reach downtown.
Route 3 and Route 6 currently are two halves of service for central Charlottesville. Under the proposed plan, the route would be formally split in half. Both would become loops that would no longer travel to the Downtown Transit Center. Instead, they would reach a transfer point on Water Street at the Omni Charlottesville Hotel.
“This proposal essentially provides a dedicated bus to each route so that they get half-hour service all day long, six days a week, from 6:45 in the morning to 7 in the evening,” Stewart said.
The changes appear to be consistent with the council’s vision of CAT’s future.
In July, the firm Nelson Nygaard began a $116,000, nine-month study of whether the entire system should be restructured. Since 2007, 12 of the system’s 13 routes have radiated from the Downtown Transit Center.
Nelson Nygaard is studying whether the system should be converted to a “trunk-and-feeder” system. In February 2011, a study by the Connetics Group recommended the system be left as is.
Despite being in the middle of another transit study, the changes were originally on the council’s consent agenda, which is usually reserved for routine business and items that have already had a public hearing. However, Councilor Dede Smith asked that it be removed and discussed in full session at the request of the Fry’s Spring Neighborhood Association.
“Looking into the specifics of the Number 4 bus route change, we as the FSNA board, recognize some complications and time problems with the proposed changes and are requesting some discussion before changes to the routes are made,” said Hardy Whitten, president of the neighborhood association.
Councilor Kristin Szakos, a proponent of restructuring the system, welcomed Stewart’s suggested changes.
“One of the things that we really talked about over the last couple of years is that we really want to see the possibility of, is that not all roads lead to downtown,” Szakos said. “This is an attempt to have a route not go downtown.”
Szakos acknowledged that some city residents could lose direct connections to downtown, but experimentation could be worth the effort.
“There’s no pain-free way to change transit,” Szakos said.
Mayor Satyendra Huja also supported the proposals but had concerns that changes might be made before Nelson Nygaard finishes its work.
“We haven’t had much of a community participation in this process of change and I think it would be helpful to do so,” Huja said. “I worry that we’ll have to re-change the whole system again a year or so from now. We ought to just wait another year.”
Stewart said Nelson Nygaard will appear before the City Council in early October with possible scenarios.
The council did approve minor changes to other routes. For instance, the free trolley will temporarily use Alderman Road rather than McCormick Road due to bridge repairs over Emmet Street.
Stewart has been serving as acting transit manager since February, following the departure of Bill Watterson to Burlington, Vt.
The department has faced other staffing challenges, as well. A new operations manager has only been on the job since the beginning of the year and the marketing director and grant writer positions are currently vacant.
“We’ve been all pulling together over the course of the calendar year to weather the business of running a transit organization, a transit study, and trying to review and make some improvements,” Stewart said.