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October 07, 2008

County Supervisors put Eastern Connector study on hold

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The Albemarle County Board of Supervisors has put the study of the Eastern Connector on hold for a few years until more data can be collected about how County residents move around. They made their decision after viewing a presentation on the final recommendations of the Eastern Connector Corridor Location Study. The matter has been referred to the Metropolitan Planning Organization for further negotiations between the City and the County.

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Listen using player above or download the podcast: Download 20081001-BOS-EC

The Eastern Connector originated as a transportation project when it was included on the UNJAM 2025 plan as a potential roadway, according to Lewis Grimm. Grimm is the Project Manager for PBS&J, the consulting firm hired by the City of Charlottesville and Albemarle County to conduct the study at a cost of $500,000.  After nearly two years, Grimm and the study’s steering committee recommended an alignment to connect Route 20 with Rio Road via Pen Park because it would provide the most relief for traffic congestion. Polo Grounds Road and Proffit Road were suggested as two alternatives for future corridors.

20081001-Grimm
Lewis Grimm of PBS&J

During his presentation on October 1, 2008, Grimm showed multiple slides that he said justified the project’s need. They depicted estimates for population, employment and traffic growth. Grimm also showed a snapshot of how traffic patterns currently move through the region, and the Board held a discussion about whether or not the figures were accurate. Supervisor David Slutzky (Rio) said that he was concerned that the information was flawed because it did not fully represent the origin and destination of each trip.

“It sounds like we’re challenged in our ability to gather good data because these are hypothetical trips that we can’t measure today other than through the graphic that looks at the density of future development,” Slutzky said.

Grimm defended the use of traffic forecasting models and said billions and billions of dollars are spent around the nation each year based on similar models. Supervisor Dennis Rooker (Jack Jouett) said it is prohibitively expensive to conduct origin and destination studies. Slutzky said the County and the City would soon have access to some of that information because of the National Household Transportation Study that will be conducted next year in advance of the 2010 Census. 

20081001-Chart1 Chart depicting traffic flow patterns, but not origins and destinations

That’s going to give us some potentially really useful information in informing the decision about whether we want an Eastern Connector,” Slutzky said. Rooker said the County would still need to overlay that information on the total number of trips, something he said could be expensive.

Turning to the subject of where a new two-lane connector road might go, Grimm said the location study was somewhat challenged. “There aren’t a whole lot of empty spaces in the study area we’re dealing with,” he said. “There’s a lot of existing development there, whether its residential, commercial. There’s a lot of wetland areas, a lot of historic areas, and a lot of constraints to try to work around.”

The steering committee recommended three alternatives, but said only one of them would begin to alleviate congestion on Route 250 – the Pen Park Route. “It’s only the [Pen Park] corridor improvements, either as a 2-lane or as a 4-lane, that begin to make a more significant, more noticeable change in how badly congested the 250 bridge would be,” Grimm said.

Grimm said the steering committee and his team also modeled the effects of a second vehicular bridge over the Rivanna River, south of Free Bridge, that would be built in addition to the Eastern Connector. This item could not be included as a recommended alternative due to a directive from Charlottesville City Council. Council is concerned about routing County traffic through the City. Supervisor Dennis Rooker said it was all City-related traffic. Supervisor Ann Mallek (White Hall) pointed out many people work in the City. Grimm said it depends on how you define “city traffic.”

“Some people would say a city trip is one where the origin is in the City, and the destination is in the City,” Grimm said. “If the origin is in the City, and the destination is in the County, is that a city trip, or a county trip, or half of each?”

“That would make it a joint project then,” Rooker quipped.

Supervisor Slutzky asked if PBS&J had also modeled a scenario with increased transit. Grimm said they had not because the traffic demand forecast for this region does not yet include a transit option. That will also change in the near future as the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission is working on a plan to gather that information.

Slutzky said he could not support any of the alternatives. “I’m not the least bit comfortable with these options as the three options, and I’m certainly not comfortable… with having us go forward with a recommendation that is very strongly opposed by my constituents,” he said. “I think there are other opportunities for us to get the notion of an Eastern Connector right that might require us to wait until… we have better origin and destination data… and we see where we are or are not going with our transit system in the next couple of years.”

20081001-Chart2
Source: PBS&J

Supervisor Rooker said he was concerned that the Pen Park route would overload the intersection of Route 20 and Route 250, which he said is already a difficult intersection. Grimm acknowledged the concern, but pointed out that the Pantops Master Plan calls for a multimodal transportation system which is in part intended to spread traffic flows around. He said the Eastern Connector has never been conceived of as a by-pass, but as one part of an integrated network that will evolve over time.

Slutzky said that Grimm had clearly shown that neither Proffit Road or Polo Grounds Road could serve as the Eastern Connector, but also highlighted the importance of solving the congestion on Free Bridge.
“The level of service failure that we’re confronting imminently is going to prove to be really problematic,” Slutzky said.

Boyd agreed, and said the issue is one of what the County wants versus what the City wants. “I thought that what we wanted was to alleviate the congestion on Route 250, and that might be best served by a bridge on the other side of 250, at the High Street Route. We really didn’t look at that because the City said the purpose of the study was to figure out how to lessen the number of cars that are driving through [Charlottesville].”

Slutzky said that was the view of Kevin Lynch, and not necessarily City Council. Boyd said Lynch was a member of City Council, and continued to represent Council on the steering committee, even after leaving Council.

Rooker said the County can’t force the City to build a bridge, but could point out the effects of not building the bridge. Slutzky suggested the conversation continue at the MPO. Slutzky and Rooker serve on that body along with City Councilors Satyendra Huja and Julian Taliaferro. Rooker said there was little chance there would be enough funding for a full Eastern Connector “in our lifetime” given the current cutbacks in state transportation funding.

“And the question is, how much more do we spend on this project when we have many many other needs for projects that are already in the [UNJAM 2035] plan that we know we need?” Rooker asked.
Slutzky said he agreed, but also did not want to send the signal to the City that the County is abandoning the Eastern Connector. Rooker said he did not disagree, but did not want to spend any additional money specifically on studying the Eastern Connector at this time. He agreed with Slutzky’s approach, and said that the County would need to come up with a creative solution in the future.

The Charlottesville City Council will view the report in November, according to a comment made by Jim Tolbert at the end of their meeting on October 6, 2008.

TIMELINE FOR PODCAST:

  • 1:00 -  Introduction from Juandiego Wade, County Transportation Planner
  • 1:45 - Presentation from Lewis Grimm of PBS&J, beginning with recommendations of committee
  • 4:30 - Grimm reviews the origins of the Eastern Connector
  • 7:45 - Rooker asks for clarification of traffic data
  • 8:30 - Slutzky requests traffic information from the intersection of Rio/Hillsdale to where Rio becomes Park
  • 10:00 - Grimm reviews population growth and employement projections, and then moves on to slides depicting how traffic moves along Route 250
  • 13:50 - Thomas asks Grimm why traffic numbers for AM and PM differ, prompting discussion of traffic modeling
  • 21:00 - Grimm reviews current transportation projects
  • 26:40 - Grimm reviews the final concepts arrived at by the steering committee
  • 31:24 - Grimm discusses how his team modeled the effects of a second bridge over the Rivanna
  • 35:38 - Slutzky asks if a transit-only project was modeled
  • 38:15 - Slutzky says he cannot support the committee's recommendations
  • 45:40 - Rooker discusses the funding gap, prompting discussion of potential funding options
  • 50:20 - Rooker asks about the possibility of getting the federal approvals to go through Pen Park
  • 52:10 - Thomas asks about the possibility of having a transit-only road through the park, leading to a discussion of need for additional origin and destination information
  • 59:30 - Slutzky wraps up the discussion by suggesting carrying conversation into the MPO

Sean Tubbs

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