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August 24, 2007

Eastern Connector panel to meet this afternoon

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The area within the dotted lines is being studied for three possible routes for the Eastern Connector

The main charge of the Eastern Connector Steering Committee is to determine whether a road between two of Albemarle County’s urbanized areas is necessary.  But, a recent discussion by the Charlottesville City Council about transportation priorities may come up during today's meeting.

Earlier this summer, City Councilor Kevin Lynch told his fellow councilors that he did not think the County was serious about even building the roadway.

"My sense from serving on that committee is that it exists mostly to figure out ways not to build the Eastern Connector," he said. Lynch went on to recommend that final City approval of the Meadowcreek Parkway should be withheld until an alignment for the road is chosen, and a plan for funding has been put into place.

So far, the County Board of Supervisors has not taken up the City's request at one of its meetings. But Lynch serves on the Steering Committee, alongside Board Chairman Ken Boyd.

The Metropolitan Planning Organization has identified the Eastern Connector as a potential project in its UnJAM 2025 Area Mobility Plan. The road is seen as "a possible alternative to address existing and future traffic volumes on Route 250 East, Route 29 North, and the Route 250 Bypass."

The current feasibility study is being conducted by the engineering firm PBS&J, which is trying to determine whether those future traffic volumes will be enough to justify the construction of a new road to connect the Pantops area with the 29 Corridor in Northern Albemarle County.

“The long range forecast says we're seeing more interaction between the two areas, but we have few transportation linkages,” said Lewis Grimm, Senior Program Manager for Transportation at PBS&J. 

      This chart depicts how traffic congestion can be measured

The MPO’s UnJAM plan is designed to "create a balanced, multi-modal transportation network" by making the area's road system more connected and by making more transportation choices available. Under the MPO’s traffic modeling program, the area's existing roads are projected to have a failing level of service by 2025, assuming no improvements are made. One of these roads projected to "fail" includes Profitt Road from 29 North to Polo Grounds Road, a two-lane road that will carry a lot of traffic to and from the County's northern development area.

The Eastern Connector would be designed to address the "significant east to north traffic pattern" that’s expected to increase as the County continues to develop. 

As the committee evaluates possible locations for the corridor, they will be investigating potential impacts on natural and cultural resources. How, for instance, would it affect Pen Park? If bridges are necessary, how would the Rivanna watershed be affected?

The committee also has to take a look at how the Eastern Connector would fit in to the Albemarle County Comprehensive Plan, as well as the Pantops and Places 29 Master Plans.

They'll also have to determine what the design speed for the road will be. That will determine how wide the road will be. One thing is for certain – the roadway will be designed with bike lanes and sidewalks.

The road will be built using context-sensitive design, an evolving philosophy to transportation planning which involves blending the roadway into the surrounding environment.  “You have to look at the exsiting landscape in which you propose to make the improvements and keep those factors clearly in mind as you go to construction,” said Grimm.  “Everything doesn't have to be designed for 75 miles an hour.”
Detailed engineering issues will not necessarily be fleshed out during the feasibility stage. But, Grimm said questions about the eventual scale and purpose do need to be answered. Should it be an arterial road, or a collector road?

“One of the things we have been hearing is, let's look at this transportation improvement as being multimodal first,” he said. “Second, how can it link other existing transportation corridors. We very definitely don't want this thought of as a bypass.”

At today's meeting, committee members will review public comments made at two information hearings on May 22 and May 24. They’ll also plan for the next public meeting, which is tentatively scheduled for sometime in October.

The corridor study will be finished by next spring. After it is delivered, the County will decide whether to proceed with preliminary engineering, which will involve a more detailed look at the area.

“Any significant project can take a decade to move an idea to a point where it's actually under construction,” Grimm said.


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