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July 30, 2008

Committee delays Eastern Connector presentation to Supervisors

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The consultant overseeing the Eastern Connector location study has been given more time to prepare a final report to the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors and the Charlottesville City Council. The steering committee spent its meeting on July 25, 2008 debating what items should be in the presentation, but ended up requesting more information on the preliminary cost estimates.

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Former City Councilor Kevin Lynch and Ken Boyd, Chairman of the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors

The committee began their meeting as Lewis Grimm, project manager for PBS&J, reviewed the presentation he was expecting to give to the Board of Supervisors in August.  Former City Councilor Kevin Lynch took issue with one item including in the meeting packet put together for Committee members. PBS&J created a spreadsheet which lists cost estimates for the various alternatives, and Lynch wanted to know how they were put together.

“Without knowing what assumptions are made, it’s hard to say that Alternative 3 could cost from $28 to $79 million dollars,” Lynch said.

Grimm said he could provide that information to the committee, but had not included the methodology in the packet because he had compiled data on right-of-way costs up until the day before the meeting.  The spreadsheet broke cost estimates into construction and right of way costs.

Lynch was particularly concerned about the figure of $54 million Grimm used as the cost to acquire the land for a two-lane Eastern Connector alignment that travels straight through Pen Park. The land acquisition costs for Pen Park alignments that skirt the park’s edges were both estimated at $14.8 million. Lynch was concerned that the high price tags would push City Councilors and Albemarle Supervisors to drop the Eastern Connector from consideration.

“If all you have is this spreadsheet, it looks like an excuse to do nothing,” Lynch said. He questioned whether Grimm’s $54 million was accurate, given that the City donated land in McIntire Park to VDOT for the construction of its portion of the Meadowcreek Parkway. 

The County’s transportation planner, Juandiego Wade, said the County’s real estate office had been involved in the calculations, and said the estimates were preliminary. Lynch urged Wade and Grimm to get more realistic cost estimates before showing them to the Board and Council. 

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Mark Graham, Director of Community Development for Albemarle County

Mark Graham, the County’s Director of Community Development, said he was concerned the numbers provided the illusion of specificity. He also questioned whether detailed cost estimates were useful at this time.

“It’s a very big project that we have no identifiable means of funding, so whether [the spreadsheet] says its $30 million or $50 million, it’s being viewed the same way. We’ll have to go and identify an entirely new  way of funding a project if this thing is ever going to have a hope of being built,” Graham said. 

For a frame of reference, Graham pointed out that the County will spend $30.5 million to construct its portion of the Meadowcreek Parkway, a two-lane road with one bridge.  That led him to assume the Pen Park route would cost somewhere in the $40 to $60 million range.  The spreadsheet with preliminary cost figures listed a total cost estimate for the northern Pen Park route at $46.4 million, and the southern Pen Park route at $28.5 million.

Melissa Barlow, the Director of Transportation Programs for the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission, urged Grimm to include the costs associated with complying with environmental regulations into the estimates. Specifically, the project will need to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) as well as a process to prove to the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) that the project is the least environmentally damaging alternative.  While not a voting member of the steering committee, Barlow said she understood Lynch’s concern, but felt the PBS&J numbers should be given to elected officials in the interest of full transparency. Lynch agreed, but said that’s why the methodology had to be open as well. 

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Planning Commissioner Mike Farruggio

City Planning Commissioner Michael Farruggio suggested breaking down the right-of-way costs further in the spreadsheet by listing the cost of private and public land. Lynch said he did not think elected officials should be given the cost figures at this time, given that the Committee was not charged with coming up with them. Farruggio disagreed and said that would be the first piece of information he would want to know if he was a Councilor.

The Committee also discussed whether the spreadsheet should include a cost estimate for the widening of High Street, a suggestion made at an earlier meeting that Farruggio felt would alleviate congestion on Route 250, as an alternate to building a new bridge over the Rivanna.  Lynch said including this would be distracting, though he could see the advantages of redeveloping High Street.  Farruggio said he did not think it should be included unless the elected officials would be presented information on whether a second bridge south of Free Bridge would be considered. The City has rejected consideration of a new bridge from the Pantops Shopping Center area as part of the Eastern Connector project, but the Board of

Historical Traffic Growth
The committee spent 20 minutes discussing the ramifications of this chart (Source: PBS&J)

Supervisors has requested modeling data to show its effect on traffic congestion. Wade suggested showing it to the County, but not the City. Barlow pointed out that there is no cost estimate for a second bridge, so the comparisons would not be complete. Ken Boyd, Chairman of the Albemarle County Supervisors (Rivanna), said he believed the second bridge was not an option because of City opposition.  

While looking at a chart titled “Historical Traffic Growth 2001-2006”, the Committee discussed the destinations of  motorists coming and going from Charlottesville across Free Bridge at the Rivanna River. In particular, the chart indicated a 73.3% growth in vehicles traveling on Route 250 across Free Bridge to Route 20.

“That’s the traffic we’re trying to hit with the Eastern Connector road, and that’s what we’re trying to narrow down and find out what traffic we’re possibly going to divert,” said Boyd.

Wade directed Grimm to provide information on how many vehicles turned left onto East High Street, turned right onto River Road, or continued on the Route 250 bypass. Grimm said he was not sure if he had that information, but said he could use the forecasting model to obtain the data, or could look at any traffic counts conducted by the City or VDOT between 2001 and now.

Lynch said the City has numbers of movements on the bridge, but did not have similar counts for Locust, Park and Hydraulic to find out where vehicles go when they continue into the City.  Farruggio said it was important to get that data.

“You’ve got to determine where the traffic is going once it crosses that bridge. Is it ending up on Rio Road, is it ending on Hydraulic Road, is it ending up going straight, is it ending up going left onto McIntire or left on High Street? You need to be able to break that part into where they’re going,” Farruggio said. He asked how hard it would be to come up with that data. City Traffic Engineer Jeanette Janiczek said she was not sure if the City had enough counters, but they could look into getting the data on turning movements. Farruggio said the count would need to be done on a day when the University of Virginia is in session.

Farruggio is the most recently appointed member of the Committee. Wade reminded him that the topic of traffic destination has been a subject of debate since the beginning of the corridor location study.

“When we first started, we thought the major thrust [of the corridor location study] was traffic on 250 seeking to go to Route 29 North and vice versa, and I think what we found was that wasn’t necessarily the case,” Wade said. 

The bridge again came up after Grimm went through the various alternatives, and explained how each was still supported by the Committee, he went on to describe how various improvements to Route 250 might relieve traffic congestion. He said purely looking at the data, two new bridges over the Rivanna would provide the most traffic relief.

The mention of a two-lane bridge crossing from Pantops into the City troubled Farruggio because unlike the other alternatives, there was no cost estimate for it on the spreadsheet. Lynch agreed there should be a cost estimate associated with the south bridge, but that the Committee has already decided it will not be presented as an option. Wade asked the Committee if it should be taken off. Farruggio suggested including information as a summary at the end separate from the Committee’s recommendations.

When Farruggio asked Janiczek’s opinion, she said she was concerned that the committee was focusing too much on fixing Free Bridge. “If we increased the function of the bridge, that is going to push the problem [of traffic congestion] further along,” Janiczek said. “I’m not quite sure if we have the infrastructure to accept all of these cars coming in so much faster.”

Lynch said he could understand why the County wants a southern bridge. “The City is in the middle of the County, and it’s always going to be more efficient to drive another road through the City, then to go around it,” Lynch said. Boyd began to object, and Farruggio called time out and said that Lynch’s comment was “kind of divisive.”

“If the traffic is going downtown, we have to build our infrastructure to accommodate it, or we have to build an alternative way for them to get into the City. If the case is what we originally thought, which is that they’re going up on 29, then we do need to find an alternate route around the City to get there,” Farruggio said.

Janiczek said East High Street cannot absorb any more traffic, and doesn’t know if the City has the resources to widen it.  Lynch said the County’s urban ring has developed rapidly without the proper infrastructure being in place. “There’s no way to get around the urban ring other than going through the City,” Lynch said. He said Avon, Park and High Street all served as north-south corridors.  Janiczek said she thought the Committee had not done a good job of addressing the purpose and need of the location study. Boyd said that in his mind, the ultimate purpose of the study is to find out what infrastructure improvement will provide the most relief to US 250, which is projected to worsen into a “disaster” over the next twenty years. “If an Eastern Connector on the north side of 250 is the solution to that congestion, then let’s build it,” Boyd said. But he added that it was not worth building if it did not provide a way to divert significant amounts of traffic. Boyd acknowledged that he was not pushing for the southern bridge as an Eastern Connector, but that the region might benefit more from concentrating on fixing Route 250 by expanding it to six lanes and by reducing the number of access points.

Graham suggested that the final report include a statement that the Committee acknowledges some of the challenges associated with Alternative 3 (Rio Road to Route 20 via Pen Park), not the least of which is the opposition from many City residents to using the park for a road. Second, he said it would be difficult to obtain federal environmental permits to go through the park.  He also said both Alternatives 1 and 2 could potentially be obstructed by conservation easements as well as the Southwest Mountain Historic District.

Farruggio said he had no problem with adding such comments, but added that the hurdles associated with widening Route 250 and building a southern bridge be listed too. County Planning Commissioner Cal Morris (Rivanna) said he did not want the report to be too watered down.

“All of the information we’ve shown shows that we can’t just sit by and do nothing,” Morris said.

After reviewing the next steps, the committee decided that the consultant would need more time to prepare the next set of cost estimates. They decided to postpone the Board of Supervisors presentation to the first meeting in October, two weeks after the presentation to City Council. The committee will meet again to review the work before then.

Sean Tubbs

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