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November 30, 2007

Public sends Eastern Connector study back to the drawing board

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The dots on this easel-pad represent the preferences of attendees. The other three options received one or two dots each

Members of the public who attended a second information session on three proposed routes for the Eastern Connector overwhelmingly told the consultant to return to the drawing board to come up with other alternatives for the region’s problems with traffic congestion. The overwhelming majority of attendees who voted for an option selected the no-build alternative, which includes widening Route 250 to six lanes through the Pantops area.

Podcast produced by Charlottesville Tomorrow * Player by Odeo

Listen using player above or download the podcast:  Download 20071129-EC-Public.MP3

Over seventy-five people attended the event, which featured a presentation from Lewis Grimm of PBS&J as well as a series of break-out sessions designed to give feedback on the three routes. During his presentation, Grimm wanted to make sure the audience knew that the concepts on display are preliminary.

“We’re not talking about getting ready to go to build anything next Tuesday,” he told the crowd. “We’re still in the mode of looking for as much input as we can possibly obtain, because it’s you the community that really needs to support whatever recommendations are done.”

The scope and purpose of the study, which uses the traffic forecast model prepared by the Metropolitan Planning Organization in its UnJAM 2025 plan, is to develop a series of alternatives for a potential  new connection east of Route 20 and US 29 somewhere between Rio Road and Proffit Road.  Grimm told the audience that the study assumes that the population of the area is going to grow substantially in the next few decades.

“Between the year 2000 and the 2030, the projections are for about a 40 percent increase just in population,  and that’s going to generate a significant increase in [traffic] demand  in this particular region,” Grimm said.

Alternative zero assumes that other projects listed in the UnJAM 2025 get built, including the Meadowcreek Parkway, and Hillsdale Drive Extended. UnJAM also assumes improvements will be made at the intersection of U.S. 29 and the Route 250 Bypass.

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Lewis Grimm addresses the crowd

But Grimm said there are no projects in the UnJAM plan to address how to get from the Pantops area to US 29.  As a result, roads in the area are expected to have failing levels of service during peak travel times.  Grimm added that the kind of road being proposed as an Eastern Connector is a two-lane collector road.

“Not major roadways, not regional facilities, but two-lane roadways to build a better system of streets and highways in the Charlottesville area, not big major roads,” Grimm said. He added that any road would also feature bike paths and sidewalks.

PUBLIC OPPOSITION

After hearing Grimm detail the three alternatives, members of the public were vocal in their opposition. 

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Charts provided by PBS&J listing the relative merits and costs of each alternative

Many were concerned that none of the three alternatives would make a significant difference in reducing travel time, despite the large price tag. This analysis was based on a hypothetical trip from Hollymead to Pantop. Under the no-build, that would take 37.8 minutes in 2025, compared with 37.4 minutes for Alternative #1 (Proffit Road relocated), 36.8 minutes for Alternative #2 (Polo Grounds Road Connector), and 35.9 minutes for Alternative #3 (Rio Road to Route 20 via Pen Park).

Applause broke out in the auditorium after Grimm mentioned that a participant of the first information session had suggested that the parameters of the study be widened to as far north as Ruckersville and as far east as Shadwell.

“I’d be more than happy to do that, but it’s not in my current scope of work or budget,” Grimm said.
Clara Belle Wheeler, who owns a large property along Route 20 within the study area, suggested that the current scope is not wide enough.

“You talk about making significant improvements, and yet by your own study you’re going to reduce the traffic time by only two minutes [using the Pen Park route,]” Wheeler said. “I don’t think that’s cost-effective.”  Wheeler also generated applause when she demanded that Pen Park not be turned into a road.  Grimm told her to make sure that she and other opponents submit written comments to ensure their feedback is taken into consideration.

Another woman asked about the possibility of a bypass for U.S. 29 around Charlottesville. She said that would accomplish many of the same goals as the location study.  Grimm said that a bypass alternative has been selected, right of way had been purchased, but he was not hired to study such a road.  He later mentioned that such a project could approach a billion dollars, if a route from I-64 to Ruckersville were undertaken.

“Whether  or not that project is going to advance is not up to me, but if there’s enough support from the community for a project of that nature, all of your local elected officials, all of your state elected officials, clearly need to hear that,” he said.

Another man stood up and asked if the cost estimates for the projects included court costs, hinting at a possible law suit if the Pen Park route ends up as the selected alternative. Another person asked if increased public transportation was considered as an option for relieving congestion.  Grimm said that the federal government will not allow the MPO to model that possibility in its traffic demand forecasts.

“The [Charlottesville] urban area is kind of right at that marginal size of whether or not the federal government will support a mode choice model,” Grimm said. He also pointed out that a $50 million capital investment would also require ongoing funding to maintain and operate the expanded facilities. “If the local government wants to do it, it has been done in other parts of the country, and it can be done here.”

Sarah Hendley has organized a committee to preserve Pen Park, and says that she has collected well over 1,600 signatures from people who do not want the park to be used for a road. 

“I am struck by the emphasis placed on building the road through Pen Park in spite of federal laws and restrictions on building a road through a park… when there are feasible and prudent alternatives,” Hendley said.   “Why spend millions of dollars to ruin our best park and save two minutes of driving time?”

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Attendees were asked to add comments to maps of the three options during the workshop portion of the event

After the presentation, members of the audience were instructed to sit at one of several tables to participate in workshops to critique the alternatives. When they were finished, facilitators reported back their findings to the main group. County Senior Planner Judy Wiegand reported that the group she oversaw wanted to see a connection between northern U.S. 29 and Interstate 64, and that none of the proposed alternatives should go forward.  The next group concluded that none of the three solved a local traffic problem, and suggested an origin and destination study be conducted.  The other groups echoed the same result – that none of the alternatives helped solve any traffic problems.

Grimm acknowledged that he knew that any of the alternatives as proposed would not solve all of the region’s traffic woes.

“This is an issue where we’re looking to help define a better system for the Charlottesville area,” he said. Responding to audience complaints that the projections of spending $50 million to reduce traffic time by 2 minutes, Grimm said that was a policy decision that would ultimately be left to local leaders.  He said more study would be needed if the public wanted more details of who uses our area’s roads.

“The questions we’ve raised tonight have really pointed out the very large-scale regional issues that are involved,” Grimm said.

County transportation planner Juandiego Wade said about sixty people attended the first information session. Grimm said that many people at that meeting wanted to know why the study area was so limited, and that new alternatives may very well be drawn up from that meeting.

Charlottesville City Councilor Dave Norris sits on the MPO Policy Board, but is not a member of the Eastern Connector Steering Committee.  He suggested a new approach may need to be taken.

“Part of the problem is that we haven’t looked at this whole issue regionally to the extent that is really necessary, and we’ve sort of been approaching transportation on a somewhat piecemeal basis, “ Norris said.  “The broader conversation needs to be about the system as a whole.”

The Eastern Connector Location Study Steering Committee will consider public input at their next meeting on December 14.

TIMELINE FOR PODCAST:

  • 00:56 - Lewis Grimm of PBS&J provides an overview of the project
  • 10:10 -  Grimm introduces the alternatives
  • 23:53 - Grimm answers a question about computer modeling that went into the project
  • 27:04 - Comments from Clara Belle Wheeler, who owns property in the study area
  • 31:56 - Grimm answers a question about the possibility of a bypass around Charlottesville
  • 34:46 - A man asks about more details about the possibility of route improvements on U.S. 250 through Pantops
  • 36:10 - Another man questions Grimm's figure of two minutes of time savings time using #Alternative 3
  • 38:02 - Pen Park activist Sarah Hendley addresses the crowd
  • 40:34 - The breakout groups report back their thoughts on the three alternatives

Sean Tubbs

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