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November 29, 2009

Growth strains highways, residents

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DailyProgress
This article is the first in a four-part series on the future of Route 250 published jointly by The Daily Progress and Charlottesville Tomorrow.
Part one is published here by permission of The Daily Progress.
Part: One, Two, Three, Four
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By Rachana Dixit
The Daily Progress
Sunday, November 29, 2009

Neil and Susan Means’ property is the embodiment of the rural east in Albemarle County.

They live where there are few intersections and no parallel roads. Thick woods surround their home, and few noises pervade the landscape.

But the Meanses have become dismayed with the mounting traffic and bottlenecks around their neighborhood because of surrounding growth. The couple, having lived in the area since the 1970s and in their Village of Rivanna home since 1980, says the county’s strategy of concentrating growth in certain areas makes sense.

“But out here, there is one road going past it,” Neil Means said.

The road Means refers to is U.S. 250.

From Keswick to Crozet, U.S. 250 is one of Central Virginia’s most important routes for commutes and commerce. And from one end to the other, residents share concerns about whether the road’s condition will hold up with more growth and less money, or if a decline in transportation infrastructure could pose a detriment to the area’s scenery and high quality of life.

“There is no infrastructure to support the growth we have now,” Susan Means said.

In eastern Albemarle, the challenge involves both local traffic and those residents who head to work or shopping from points nearby that are not within county limits.

“It’s the Main Street for the east part of Albemarle County, if you will,” said Steve Williams, executive director of the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission. U.S. 250, he said, is the best connection to the area’s major employment centers - downtown Charlottesville, the University of Virginia, Pantops and U.S. 29.

“No wonder the thing is congested,” Williams said.

The difficulty in balancing growth pressures and a decline in transportation infrastructure spending is growing more acute, but there is little movement toward solutions.

“We talked about the need to kind of coordinate these issues,” said Kenneth C. Boyd, a member of the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors, of figuring out transportation solutions with officials in localities farther east of Albemarle, such as Louisa. But because there is essentially no money to implement solutions, Boyd said that idea “fell by the wayside.”

“It’s an interregional problem that really is difficult to solve,” he said.

Climbing traffic

Virginia Department of Transportation traffic counts for last year estimated that 24,000 vehicles traveled on U.S. 250 between Interstate 64 and Route 22 daily, and the number is expected to increase to 42,185 vehicles by 2035.

Between Route 22 and the Fluvanna County line, daily traffic counts from last year were 5,600 vehicles and are projected to jump to 24,400 by 2035.

“Rush hour is the problem,” Neil Means said. “It can be really horrible.”

The byway in the eastern part of Albemarle has been studied in an attempt to divine how congestion could be reduced. One study was done in 2004, and in March of last year, the Eastern Albemarle Sub-Area Study - coordinated with VDOT, the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission and Albemarle County - was released and listed millions of dollars worth of recommendations.

Among them were improving the intersection of U.S. 250 and North Milton Road and constructing a roundabout or traffic signal at the intersection of U.S. 250 and Glenmore Way. The latter junction edges on the Village of Rivanna - a designated growth area east of where I-64 crosses U.S. 250 east of Charlottesville.

The village has increasingly attracted attention as its master plan is finalized and the growth-versus-infrastructure argument comes to a head.

It was decided last month that the master plan would state that unless several transportation improvements are made, many specifically to U.S. 250, the Albemarle Planning Commission would not recommend the approval of rezonings in the Rivanna growth area.

The commission solidified its opinion Nov. 17, recommending to supervisors that the Village of Rivanna master plan be approved, but authorization for developments that require rezonings would be contingent upon the completion of infrastructure upgrades.

$16 million needed

Albemarle has issued building permits in the village for hundreds of new residential units over the last 10 years, according to building activity reports. Between 1999 and the third quarter of this year, which ended in September, building permits were granted for 324 new units. The most were issued in 2003 - 53 total, 52 of which were for single-family homes.

The draft master plan points out that based on March estimates, there were 761 dwellings in the Village of Rivanna, with an estimated population of 1,617 to 1,918 residents.

The improvements that would be required to handle more vehicles in the corridor are estimated to cost more than $16 million. They include widening U.S. 250 to four lanes from I-64 to Glenmore Way; improving the intersections of U.S. 250 and North Milton Road and U.S. 250 and Black Cat Road; and improving the I-64 interchange at Shadwell.

“Beyond that, there’s really not that much more to say in terms of particular improvements to 250 that may be out there in the long term,” Wayne Cilimberg, Albemarle County’s director of planning, said of the village’s master plan.

“There’s never been any action taken on the east part of 250 by the county,” he said.

VDOT officials also say that two more traffic signals, primarily being funded by private developers, are planned along U.S. 250 near the village because of new projects - at Glenmore Way and at Route 22 in Shadwell.

Growing pains


The Meanses said they do not think the Village of Rivanna is suited to be a growth area because of where it is located in Albemarle, and because a sharp decline in transportation spending translates into U.S. 250 not being able to get the necessary improvements to handle an influx of growth.

But others say that growth will continue to happen, and if it is not concentrated in the areas that are designed for higher densities and more residents, then it would instead invade more rural areas.

“I’m having a really hard time with the thought of, OK, we’re just going to shut down our growth areas,” Planning Commission member Marcia Joseph said in an interview. Joseph said moving residents to rural areas, where it would not be realistic for them to use other transportation modes apart from their own vehicles, would ultimately not solve any traffic problems.

“What if we decide that our growth areas are no longer our growth areas?” she added. “Is that what we’re deciding? I don’t think so.”

Williams said the traffic increases that are expected on U.S. 250 are going to happen regardless of whether the village’s rezonings are approved - because of new development and employment opportunities further east, such as in Fluvanna County and Zion Crossroads in Louisa. Current sewer capacity would allow for another 300 to 400 units on top of 674 approved new units since 2001.

“We’ll deal with the specifics and the details as it moves forward,” Boyd said.

The Meanses, echoing the feelings of most county planning commissioners, say they are glad officials have acknowledged the growth and infrastructure conundrum. Even widening the roads and doing the other improvements, Neil Means said, is not going to solve U.S. 250’s traffic issues.

“Provide the roads if you’re going to have a growth area,” he said.

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