The manager of Charlottesville Area Transit is leaving his position at the end of this week to operate the regional system that serves Vermont’s largest city.
“I’m going to leap from the land of Thomas Jefferson to the land of Ethan Allen,” said Bill Watterson, who has run Charlottesville’s bus system since 2004. He will become manager of the Chittenden County Transit Authority near Burlington.
A nationwide search to replace Watterson will be conducted.
“Our goal is to hire a manager who has a strong vision for the future of CAT and has the experience and innovation to take us to an even higher level of service for our customers,” City Manager Maurice Jones said.
Ridership increased during Watterson’s tenure from 1.35 million in 2004 to 2.4 million in 2011. Watterson said most of the growth could be attributed to a partnership with the University of Virginia that gives student, faculty and staff free fares by showing an ID card.
“I feel proud we have made a lot of improvements,” Watterson said. “But there’s always room for improvement.”
Some members of the City Council agree, and some have expressed a desire to reengineer the system.
“Perhaps the change in leadership does give us an opportunity to take a fresh look at how the system is structured,” Councilor Dave Norris said in an email.
Councilor Kristin Szakos also supports a fresh look to make it easier for people to use the bus.
“I would love to see some sort of … system that enables us to have much quicker headways on heavily used routes,” Szakos said, referring to the time between buses at a given stop. “To have it be where people could just show up and the bus would come. That sort of system gets a lot more ridership.”
Both Norris and Szakos said Watterson has done a good job, but call for an analysis of a “trunk-and-feeder system” where major routes are served by smaller neighborhood routes that run more frequently.
In an interview, Watterson said CAT now uses a “timed-pulse” system where all but one of the bus routes converge at the same place at the same time, allowing passengers to transfer to other bus lines.
This system was enabled in 2007 when the Downtown Transit Center opened on Water Street. Before the station, Watterson said, it was difficult to achieve the “timed pulse” because there was not enough room on Market Street for the buses to queue.
“Passengers also certainly enjoy the opportunity to be indoors and get assistance from staff,” Watterson said.
Watterson said one challenge facing the expansion of transit is that Albemarle and Charlottesville are separate political jurisdictions.
“The community is interwoven between the city and the county, but transit is run by the city,” Watterson said. “The county’s urban ring has unmet transit needs that have been difficult to realize.”
Watterson said federal and state dollars fund more than 40 percent of the cost of running the system, with around 13 percent coming from the fare box. A portion comes from UVa, and the rest comes from the city and county.
Charlottesville’s contribution to operating CAT will be $2.12 million in fiscal year 2013 if the proposed figure is adopted by the City Council. However, Charlottesville will also pay a similar amount for bus replacements and other capital costs such as bus shelters.
The proposed county budget for fiscal year 2013 allocates $722,555 to pay Albemarle’s share of running routes that serve Pantops, the Southwood mobile home park and Commonwealth Drive.
Watterson said there are no service expansions proposed in the next fiscal year.
In recent years, the city and the county negotiated the creation of a regional transit authority that would have given the county more control over how CAT operates.
In 2009, the General Assembly passed legislation allowing Albemarle and Charlottesville to form such an authority, but the legislature did not allow a referendum on whether to levy a sales tax increase to fund transit and other transportation projects. The project has been in hibernation ever since.
“I think it would probably be a possibility if cash was not so tight,” said Albemarle Supervisor Rodney Thomas, who serves on the Metropolitan Planning Organization’s policy board.
Thomas said he would like the city to use some of the annual revenue-sharing payment to help pay for new routes in Albemarle, including a route to Hollymead Town Center and the North Pointe development past Airport Road. Watterson told supervisors last year that such a route would cost around $325,000 a year to operate.
“I don’t think we as a county are going to be able to do anything until we can use some of the money we’re giving the city now,” Thomas said.
“Whether I am here or not, it’s always council’s decision,” Watterson said. “Council will review the plan and make the decisions.”
Watterson begins work in Vermont on Monday.
“The idea of cooperating regionally has been accomplished in Burlington, but that’s not happened here,” Watterson said.