The Albemarle County Board of Supervisors and Charlottesville City Council have held
two meetings this year
they affirmed their commitment to the creation of a Regional Transit Authority (RTA)
. They agreed to seek enabling authority to create such an agency, which would be governed in such a way to allow the University of Virginia and other jurisdictions to join. They also agreed in principle to seek the ability to levy a sales tax increase to fund the RTA’s operations. But, at the most recent meeting of the working group of elected officials discussing the details, the consensus reached at the previous two meetings began to unravel as they pondered what would happen if the General Assembly denies one or both requests.
Listen using player above or download the podcast:
Melissa Barlow, the acting head of the MPO, attended a meeting of the Richmond Regional Planning District to find out how that community is preparing to write enabling legislation for its desire to create a transportation authority which would allow member jurisdictions to impose an additional sales tax. Barlow wrote a memo to the RTA working group in which she commented that Delegate
(R-97) indicated at that meeting that “he felt that the General Assembly would want to preserve uniformity in sales tax across the Commonwealth.” Barlow also wrote that Peace said localities should exhaust all existing possibilities open to them before asking the General Assembly for additional powers.
asked David Blount, Legislative Liaison for the TJPDC, if Peace’s comment was widely held in the House of Delegates. Blount said he did not think they were.
suggested that the RTA working group develop a fall-back position for funding the authority if the General Assembly opts to not allow Charlottesville and Albemarle County the ability to raise an additional sales tax. That prompted a discussion of what that fall-back position might be. Could the RTA be funded through the same options made available to the Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads Authorities in HB3202? Could the RTA be funded through a service district which would allow for the levying of additional property taxes? Could that service district only be applied to commercial properties?
Service districts and transportation districts were considered as two other options before the City and County agreed to pursue authorization for a regional transit authority. Barlow pointed out that the service district option had been ruled out by the Board and Council at the meeting in February. County Supervisor
(Rio) said it would only be considered as a default funding option if the General Assembly adopts the enabling legislation to create the authority, but does not allow the authority to have a new revenue source.
(Jack Jouett) asked if there was anything that prohibited a transportation district from running the authority itself? The City and County can create a transportation district by passing an ordinance in each locality. Becca White, the Director of Parking and Transportation at the University of Virginia, said that such a set-up would prevent UVA and Jaunt from joining the authority. Rooker pointed out that UVA has no interest in joining at this time. Slutzky said it was his belief that UVA wants to take a wait-and-see approach to whether or not to join.
Norris said he would prefer not to fund the RTA with property taxes, but it would be an acceptable to explore doing so as a fall-back position. Rooker said he was only suggesting is a tactical move to move the Authority forward in the event that the General Assembly does not provide a revenue source.
White said that UVA ridership is about 3.1 million passengers a year. The Charlottesville Transit Service (CTS) topped 1.7 million passengers in the fiscal year that ended on June 30, 2008, a new record.
Rooker said that the success of the Regional Transit Authority will depend on securing a new revenue source. “Transit is not going to be enhanced just by creating a Regional Transit Authority,” Rooker said.
“In fact, both the City and the County have huge revenue issues coming up this year… One of the things we ought to focus on is there are a number of ways we can get together and operate the transit system. The primary thing is funding.”
Slutzky suggested the County and City could both issue general obligation bonds to support capital costs. Rooker said that would not help the RTA with operating costs, which cannot be bonded. CTS Director Bill Watterson said his agency currently spends about $6 million a year in operating costs. The proposed operating costs for the additional services provided by the Regional Transit Authority range from $16 to $18 million.
The working group agreed to meet with members of the Transportation Funding Options Working Group in order to gauge what taxes the community might be willing to support. That group last met in 2005 in order to come up with solutions to pay for new transportation projects, and members of the RTA group see it representing a wide spectrum of the community.
A split developed between Rooker and Slutzky about the best way to approach the enabling legislation. Rooker suggested taking a more what he saw as a more pragmatic approach and ask for what the General Assembly might approve. Slutzky instead felt it would be more appropriate to ask specifically for what the community has already approved.
Blount reminded the members of the group that Delegate David Toscano said it was important to have enabling legislation that was supported by all of the region’s Delegates and Senators. “Probably what everyone is going to be on board with is just a formation of an authority, but not the funding mechanisms that we’re looking at,” Blount said. He is currently trying to set up a meeting between the legislators.
Rooker suggested that without additional funding, the RTA could be in a situation where the County gets an equal vote on operations, without being required to bring additional funding to the table. Norris said that Charlottesville is willing to give up control of CTS in exchange for additional funding. “And if the County is saying we’re not going to put in additional funding then it doesn’t make sense,” Norris said.
PRIORITIZING TRANSPORTATION AND TRANSIT PROJECTS
A one cent sales tax levied by both jurisdictions is expected to bring in as much as $26 million a year in extra revenue to be dedicated to transit and transportation. The first cut would go from each jurisdiction to the Regional Transit Authority, but the remaining amount would be applied to potential transportation projects. The group began a preliminary discussion of what projects would receive priority. If a referendum is required, these projects would be clearly listed on the ballot.
“When we go to a referendum, we need to be very clear and very specific on what this revenue will be used for,” Norris said. Those questions do not necessarily have to be answered before enabling legislation for an authority is presented in Richmond, but Rooker said it would be useful to present the Funding Options Working Group members with a list of the projects that would receive priority. While this projects are also on the MPO’s Transportation Improvement Program, specific projects would be listed in order to build political support.
BARLOW RENEWS CALL FOR ADDITIONAL FUNDING FROM CITY AND COUNTY
Barlow asked the group if they had thought more about the additional $50,000 requested by the TJPDC for additional study of the RTA. Each jurisdiction has already contributed $50,000 to match a $90,000 grant from the Federal Transit Administration. A good portion of that money ($148,000) has gone to pay the consultant VHB to produce a report on the RTA.
Barlow says that funding is running out for the TJPDC to continue providing support to the project, and she said additional money is needed. She reminded the group that the TJPDC supports six communities, and that work on the RTA is above-and-beyond its existing work plan. Slutzky asked if the work plan could be readjusted to reprioritize the importance of the RTA, but Barlow said it had already been adopted. Slutzky asked if it were possible to scale back the $25,000 being requested by both jurisdictions by having legal and public relations work done by City and County staff. Blount said neither he nor Barlow could answer that question until they know exactly what the elected officials want to occur. Barlow said she did not want to disrupt what she called a “high-stakes discussion.”
“You’ve invested quite a bit of time and money, and I would hope respect, into TJPDC for leading that cause,” Barlow said. “TJPDC has a reputation of being a place of collaboration and great public outreach so and public input and involvement, so I would hope that you would not fragment some of that momentum .”
All of the elected officials wanted to see a detailed budget before committing additional funds.
Other news from the meeting: