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October 06, 2008

County leaders discuss VDOT funding crisis, primary road priorities

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The Albemarle County Board of Supervisors has adopted its Primary Road Improvement Priorities for the upcoming fiscal year. However, they did so just a few hours after being told by a top official with the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) that further cuts are coming to the allocations that the County receives from VDOT. 

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Jim Utterback, the new Administrator for the Virginia Department of Transportation’s Culpeper District, said VDOT’s funding crisis is sharpening. The Highway Maintenance and Operating Fund is no longer stable, federal funding for transportation is down because people are driving less and paying less in gas taxes, and fewer new and used vehicles are being sold. 

“We know we’re going to have a significant cut to the six-year program,” Utterback said. Last year, VDOT reduced funding by 44%. In response to a question from Supervisor Dennis Rooker (Jack Jouett), Utterback said this year’s cuts would be on the same magnitude.

“If you read the VDOT mission statement, it’s plan, design, build, maintain and operate state roadways for the travelling public,” Utterback said. He added that VDOT’s challenge now will be to focus on the latter two objectives during the funding crisis, which he said could last for several years.

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Funding to replace the Advance Mills Bridge is not in jeopardy, according to VDOT's Allan Sumpter

Supervisor Ann Mallek (White Hall) asked if projects that are nearing their construction dates will be affected, such as the Meadowcreek Parkway and the Advance Mills Bridge. Utterback said those project would go forward, and that the Culpeper District has gotten “the green light” from Richmond to proceed with putting the Meadowcreek Parkway project out to bid. 

Rooker said that the area will never see a project as big as the Meadowcreek Parkway again until the funding crisis is resolved. He said the state’s economic development prospects would be lower until something can be done to allow communities to invest in their transportation infrastructure.

Allan Sumpter, the Charlottesville Residency Administrator, said his staff would be working to make sure that core services are maintained, but he could not provide any specific details on what would be cut back until the full budgetary picture develops.

Utterback’s comments cast a shadow over the Board’s discussion of primary road priorities that took place later in the meeting. Every year, the County establishes its priorities for primary roads prior to the Commonwealth Transportation Board’s fall meeting. The CTB serves as VDOT’s Board of Directors and authorizes transportation projects.

Chief Planner David Benish said this year, County staff are making only a few changes.

  • Removal of Free State Bridge project because construction of entrance road for Belvedere neighborhood renders it unnecessary
  • Addition of Bridge on 250 East at Shadwell onto list of bridge repairs
  • Removal of Route 22-Route 250 safety improvements because project is nearing completion
  • Strengthened language requesting bike lane improvements on primary roads

Supervisor David Slutzky (Rio) asked that the request to build the Berkmar Drive Extension be amended to specifically mention the required bridge over the Rivanna River. That change was made as part of the adopted priority list. 

Supervisor Rooker wondered if it were wise to include City-related projects on the County’s list, such as funding for the additional lane on the ramp from Route 29 to Route 250 at Best Buy. Benish said that the improvements would also serve to greatly improve the County’s transportation infrastructure.  He added that the priority list is worked out in conjunction with the City and VDOT as part of a joint planning process with the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission. Rooker suggested breaking out City-related projects into a category “City projects of County interest.”

“I don’t want us to be in a mode where we’re competing, and effectively asking them to do projects in the City ahead of projects in the County to the extent we get an allocation,” Rooker said, adding that the Hillsdale Drive Extension project would also assist the County.

With regards to the improvements around Route 29’s intersection with the 250 Bypass, the City has access to additional revenue sharing funds from VDOT, according to Mark Graham, the County’s Community Development Director. Additionally, Graham said that the proffers for the Albemarle Place development include funds earmarked for road work in the City.

“The private money would be used basically as a match on the revenue sharing money that the City is getting from VDOT,” Graham said.

Allan Sumpter suggested that the County “federalize” as many projects as possible, by prioritizing projects that appeal to the federal government’s transportation priorities to move people between cities.

Rooker said that he thought the County had a chance for getting primary funds for one of its goals, most notably expanding US 29 from the South Fork Rivanna bridge to Hollymead Town Center.

Benish also said revisiting the priorities may be “discouraging” given the current funding crisis, but that the list gives direction to County staff to help with decision making on land-use decisions as well as Capital Improvement Goals. Supervisor Sally Thomas (Samuel Miller) said she understood that, but also asked Benish if there was a way to indicate which project would be the most cost-effective.

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Supervisor Ken Boyd (Rivanna) and Supervisor David Slutzky (Rio)

Chairman Ken Boyd (Rivanna) also addressed the issue of prioritizing projects in the County.  “I see a lot of projects on here that sort of put Pantops behind Crozet, particularly the safety issues and sidewalks and improvements to downtown,” Boyd said. He said the recently formed Pantops Advisory Council is concerned about the “pedestrian unfriendliness” of Route 250 through Pantops, especially as Martha Jefferson relocates. “Since we have spent a lot of money in Crozet so far, with the library and other things… would it make sense to share the wealth a little bit and look at some of these Pantops issues,” Boyd said. Slutzky said that by that logic, the Route 29 North area should be moved to the top of the list, but said the Crozet Master Plan came first. 

Boyd said that he thought the members of the Pantops Advisory Council would be discouraged if the transportation elements of the Pantops Master Plan cannot be realized because of the funding gap. Rooker said that if the Board cannot have unanimity on settling its internal priorities, it would have no chance of getting permission from the General Assembly to obtain additional revenue through a sales tax. Slutzky said he would support adding Pantops as a beneficiary of additional revenue, if Boyd would go on record in support of the sales tax increase.

“I don’t want to go there,” Boyd responded.

One of the Supervisors will make an oral presentation of these priorities to the Commonwealth Transportation Board later this fall.

Sean Tubbs

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