The city of Charlottesville has commissioned a $116,000 study to examine whether its bus routes should be restructured, a little over a year after another company recommended against the idea.

Nelson Nygaard is a San Francisco transportation consultancy firm with clients around the country.

12 of 13 of CAT routes radiate from the Downtown Transit Center

“They’ve not worked here for our transit system before so we think it’s a new set of eyes, taking a look at everything we do and how we might improve what we do,” said Judy Mueller , the city’s public works director.

In July 2010, the city held a transit summit where the City Council was told that the best way to increase ridership is to provide more frequent service.
“We hear a lot that — ‘I would ride the bus if it came more often,’” Mueller told members of the Planning and Coordination Council recently.
The Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation requires the development of a non-binding transit development plan every six years. As part of that process, the city hired the Connetics Group in late 2010. They were asked to evaluate a “trunk-and-feeder” system in which some buses travel more frequently through neighborhoods to deliver riders to main routes.
The DRPT paid for the Connetics study on the city’s behalf.
Connetics produced a nine-page report that recommended keeping the existing “radial” system in which 12 of 13 of Charlottesville Area Transit’s routes utilize the Downtown Transit Center . On a trunk and feeder system, they said passengers would likely have to make more transfers to reach their destination.
“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.
However, all five current city councilors support a further study of the trunk and feeder system.
“The last study took a cursory look at how a trunk and feeder system might work and I don’t think they even thought through some of the most important variables,” said Councilor Dave Norris . “We wanted to get a group in and empower them to look at our transit system as if
they were proceeding with a blank slate.”
The existing system, however, continues to draw in ever-increasing numbers of passengers.
“All of our boardings have increased every month for the last two years over the previous year at that month,” Mueller said. “We’re growing at about 5.3 percent and we think that’s due to the marketing and trying to listen to our customers.”
CAT has an operating budget of $6.5 million for fiscal year 2013.
Mueller said 43 percent of that amount comes from federal and state sources, 33 percent comes from the city’s general fund, 13 percent comes from fares and 11 percent comes from Albemarle County .
The Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission recently used traffic modeling software to predict how many people would choose transit if buses ran more frequently.
“You get a lot of increased ridership out of that concept,” said Stephen Williams , executive director of the TJPDC. “The downside is there’s a lot of cost because when you double the headways, you’re doubling capacity, so you’re doubling the numbers of buses.”
The Nelson Nygaard team will be charged with laying out more specific details than what was provided by Connetics. The consultants will travel to Charlottesville in July to make a presentation to the City Council and will meet with local stakeholders.
Norris said he wants to see more specific budget figures.
“They may well come back and say it is not feasible or it’s too expensive but I think we owe it to the riders of the system and to our citizens and taxpayers to think about how we might structure the system better and in a more efficient way,” Norris said.
Councilor Kathy Galvin said she supports the study as part of a larger plan to coordinate transportation planning with the creation of new housing.
“The Nelson Nygaard study will be different from the earlier ‘white paper’ because it is specifically charged with developing and evaluating several alternatives to the pulsed, radial system based on these future compact patterns of economic development and redevelopment and population growth,” Galvin said.