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June 02, 2008

Eastern Connector recommendations to be finalized this Fall; Pen Park alignment remains favorite

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The Albemarle County Board of Supervisors and the Charlottesville City Council will not be presented with the recommendations of the Eastern Connector Steering Committee until at least the fall of this year.

On May 30, 2008, the Steering Committee met to refine the recommendations made at its previous meeting. Consultant Lewis Grimm of the firm PBS&J sought feedback on an expanded version of a presentation he will present to the Board and Council at a later date, and the Committee further discussed whether it had met the goals established at the beginning of the evaluation process.

To recap, the Committee is recommending a four-lane route to connect Rio Road with Route 20 along an alignment that would go through Pen Park (Alternate 3). The Committee also suggests two other alternatives, Polo Grounds Road (Alternate 1) and Proffit Road Relocated (Alternate 2), be presented to elected officials. 

Following up on the April meeting, Grimm also provided the Committee with a list of short, intermediate and long-term recommendations for other ways to relieve traffic on Route 250. Actions to be taken in the next five years would include traffic signal coordination between the High Street and Route 20 intersections, as well as greater headways on the existing Charlottesville Transit Service Route 10 to Pantops. Actions to take place before 2025 would include expanded public transportation to connect the Pantops area with Route 29 north in the County, as well as further planning efforts to identify other crossings of the Rivanna River in the future.

Grimm also said in the short-term, the Polo Grounds and Proffit Road alignments should be included in UNJAM 2035 long range plan as “unfunded needs,” and that detailed engineering work and environment studies should be conducted on Pen Park Alternate 3. In the long-term, construction would begin on Alternate 3 while detailed planning work would begin on Alternate 1 and Alternate 2. Grimm said he thought it was important to recognize the work that has already going into exploring those roads.

“At one time those were clearly identified as free-standing independent options, and I think now what we’ve seen through the analysis and the discussion is that they’re really elements of the larger ultimate system,” Grimm said.  The County’s transportation planner, Juandiego Wade, also pointed out that the Committee had suggested recommending that the County take steps to preserve the right of way for those alignments for eventual construction. Mark Graham, the County’s Director of Community Development, said that would require a change to Albemarle’s Comprehensive Plan.

“If we don’t put it into our land use plan, if properties out there come in and apply for conservation easements, effectively blocking the ability to build that road in the future, we won’t have a basis for recommending against that,”  Graham said.

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Former City Councilor Kevin Lynch (left) and Mark Graham, Albemarle County's Director of Community Development

Ken Boyd (Rivanna), Chairman of the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors, said he wanted to add a caveat to the recommendation for Alternate 3 to make sure that the eventual alignment chosen would be the one “least invasive” to Pen Park. “I just want to make sure that it gets  to the public and the Board and the Council that they recognize that was a very important part of our discussion and public input,” Boyd said.

Because the Eastern Connector is still in the conceptual phase, it is not yet known if the road would be a primary or secondary road under the Virginia Department of Transportation.  The designation would carry funding implications, as primary roads are more likely to be funded. Grimm suggested that whatever the designation, the more jurisdictions that can contribute funding to the project, the more likely the road can get funded. However, he said primary roads generally connect two communities

Former City Councilor Kevin Lynch, who continues to represent Charlottesville on the Committee, said he did not think that the Committee had met the goals set forth for it. The Request for Proposals for the study states:

“The successful project will result in the design of several alternative road alignments that will provide a connection between US 250 East of Route 20 and US 29 between Rio Road and Proffit Road. Study shall provide a thorough assessment of issues related to each alignment and a recommendation on preferred alignment based on analysis and direction provided during project.”

“And I don’t see that we’ve done that,” Lynch said. “I’m having difficulty figuring out what we can really say that we’ve accomplished in these last 18 months or however long it’s been.  We knew going into this that we had some options and that it looked like the closer option would move more traffic, and that’s kind of what we’re saying now, that we have this alternative that could go through the park, it could go to the north, or it could go to the south, but we don’t really want to show you where because that would be politically difficult.”

Lynch went on to say that the Committee had done nothing more than reproduce how the UNJAM 2025 plan describes the potential Eastern Connector – “a big blob” that only vaguely shows where the road might go. Instead, he wanted to depict a specific route such as the one he advocated in November – a two-lane road that utilized an existing access road straight through the middle of Pen Park.

City Resident John Pfaltz disagreed, and said the Committee’s recommendation of a four-lane road across the Rivanna River was a step forward. The Committee made that determination in April after reviewing traffic data from PBS&J which showed a four-lane road would take more cars off of Route 250.

“I think we’re coming out with a pretty strong statement,” Pfaltz said. “I think this is a fairly large step forward in kind of a difficult political situation.”

But Lynch said the recommendation would provide political cover for elected officials to do nothing.  He said a four-lane road through Pen Park would be controversial, and reminded the Committee that the Meadowcreek Parkway was originally a four-lane road but was only accepted by City Council after the plan was dropped to two lanes. Lynch said he wanted to be able to issue a minority opinion stating his opposition to a four-lane Eastern Connector.

“Having lived here for 27, 28 years I think I’ve got a pretty good handle on what’s feasible and what’s an excuse to do nothing,” Lynch said. He told Committee members that he wanted to recommend something that could get built.

Juandiego Wade, the County’s Transportation Planner reminded Lynch that the Committee had looked at over a dozen alternatives and narrowed it down to 3 that would be presented to the Board and Council. He said elected officials may well decide to go with a two-lane version.

“It’s kind of late in the game to say we’ve not done what we were asked to do,” Wade said. He said Alternate 3 was an alignment, not a detailed construction plan.

Lewis Grimm of PBS&J said that at one point, there were three conceptual options for the Pen Park alignment. Two skirted the edges of the park, and one went directly through the park.  He said these concepts could potentially be resurrected if it were the will of the Board and City Council. Pfaltz suggested incorporating the three concepts into the recommendation, which seemed to satisfy Lynch.

“That advances the ball a little further,” Lynch said. He was also receptive to the suggestion of County Planning Commission Chairman Cal Morris that the Committee specifically recommend the Comprehensive Plan changes suggested by Graham.

Grimm and his team will make one more series of refinements based on input at the meeting. The Steering Committee will reconvene after Labor Day to go over those changes before the final recommendations are presented to the Board and City Council.

The project leader also the Committee that they were planning for a long-term project, or series of projects, and that they should keep in mind an adage he learned early in his career.

“No project worthy of implementation ever happens until it is old enough to vote,” Grimm said.

Sean Tubbs

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