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November 30, 2009

Political problems on Pantops

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DailyProgress
This article is the second in a four-part series on the future of Route 250 published jointly by The Daily Progress and Charlottesville Tomorrow.
Part two is published here by permission of The Daily Progress.
Part: One, Two, Three, Four
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By Rachana Dixit
The Daily Progress
Monday, November 30, 2009

Albemarle County resident Hank Bourguignon has a blunt assessment of the traffic situation outside of the home he has lived in for more than 10 years: nothing will be done, and the problem will persist.

“I will be in my grave before there are solutions to these problems,” said Bourguignon, who lives in the Fontana subdivision on Pantops Mountain and sits on the board of directors of its homeowners association.

Determining how traffic on U.S. 250 on and around Pantops in Albemarle, and subsequently on the U.S. 250 Bypass in Charlottesville, can be relieved is in a deadlock not only from a lack of finances.

City and county leaders for years have been unable to compromise or take unified steps to alleviate the congestion that, all of those involved agree, is only going to get worse, especially as large developments such as the new Martha Jefferson Hospital set up shop.

“[The] Pantops area is booming, and yet, even before a lot of the recent growth, there already were bottlenecks there,” Mayor Dave Norris said. Referring to county officials, he added, “They never should have allowed the rate of growth we’re seeing in that part of the county.”

In 2000, 30,000 vehicles traveled daily on the road between the city’s eastern edge and Route 20, a 0.2-mile section. That number increased to 52,000 last year, according to Virginia Department of Transportation traffic counts.

County officials say that to help traffic on U.S. 250 on Pantops, two major things should be looked into - building another crossing over the river into the city and widening the bypass.

“The city needs to get over it,” said David L. Slutzky, chairman of the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors. “That route needs to be widened.”

The Pantops master plan says housing units nearly tripled since 1996 and roughly 300 acres were developed or redeveloped for commercial use. Like the other documents done for county growth areas, it includes an extensive list of transportation recommendations intended to allay congestion on U.S. 250.

It also acknowledges that regional coordination and funding will be necessary to address traffic on Pantops and on U.S. 250 to the Fluvanna County line.

“That’s Richmond’s job, to fund the necessary infrastructure,” Slutzky said of the state government’s role to provide financing for transportation projects.

Interchange expected to help flow on U.S. 250 Bypass

A $32.5 million interchange project in Charlottesville is likely to be the only major road improvement that will be seen on U.S. 250 or the U.S. 250 Bypass anytime soon.

The structure, to be located at the U.S. 250 Bypass and McIntire Road, will function as the endpoint of the controversial Meadowcreek Parkway. The 2-mile road begins at East Rio Road in Albemarle and will connect to the interchange in Charlottesville by going through McIntire Park.

While City Council members recently voiced concerns about pedestrians and bicyclists having sufficient amenities as a part of the interchange project, they are expected to take a vote on the final design before the end of the year.

A timeline projects that the Commonwealth Transportation Board will approve the interchange this winter, and construction would begin in the spring of 2011.

City officials say the mostly federally funded road improvement will help to allay bypass traffic, which has been steadily creeping up.

“Traffic is growing at a pretty good rate on that road, and it’s going to deteriorate as long as it keeps doing that,” said Jim Tolbert, director of Charlottesville’s Neighborhood Development Services.

Charlottesville traffic projections for 2030 - which assume that the city’s portion of the Meadowcreek Parkway will be built - estimate that 25,075 vehicles will travel per day on the bypass between U.S. 29 and Hydraulic Road, that 48,750 will move between McIntire Road and Park Street and that 50,350 vehicles will drive daily between Locust Avenue and High Street. Those figures are an increase from the 23,000, 36,000 and 38,000 vehicles, respectively, seen on those segments on average last year.

Tolbert said that not having a typical intersection at the U.S. 250 Bypass and McIntire Road will help congestion there somewhat by not allowing it to get worse. But, he said, “it won’t do anything for the flow at Free Bridge.”

The city expects that 56,400 vehicles will move daily across Free Bridge roughly 20 years from now. And officials agree that they do not know how that bottleneck, and others along U.S. 250, will ultimately be relieved.

“I don’t know that there is an easy answer to any of this,” Mayor Dave Norris said.

According to a list of projects from UnJAM 2035, the area’s long-range transportation plan, the U.S. 250 corridor improvements that are called for in the master plan alone would cost $42.1 million. Adopted in March 2008, the plan says improvements should provide for a Hansen Mountain Road connector; additional sidewalks and bike paths; more transit; widening U.S. 250 on Pantops (but not to more than six lanes); and another Rivanna River crossing into Charlottesville, among a slew of other ideas.

A 2004 study on the eastern part of U.S. 250 also suggested that park-and-ride lots be built at Interstate 64 and at Route 616.

According to building activity reports, Albemarle County issued building permits for 835 new residential units in the Pantops area between 1999 and this year’s third quarter, which ended in September. The largest number came in 2001, when the county issued permits for 11 single-family homes and 265 multi-family units.

Additionally, according to county development activity reports that were kept from 1999 to 2003, which gauged serious development interests, there was nearly 770,000 square feet in major non-residential site plans for Pantops signed off on by county leaders.

“It’s a bottleneck now, obviously,” Bourguignon said of Free Bridge. “If there were a crossing of the river somewhere behind where State Farm is, going over to downtown Charlottesville, you’d divert so much traffic. But nothing will be done.”

Grant Cosner remembers when there was no U.S. 250 Bypass and when the same stretch that runs through Pantops was only two lanes.

“High Street was also two lanes, of course,” Cosner said on a recent afternoon from his auto body shop.

The Cosner Bros. Body Shop has been at its Charlottesville High Street location, where Free Bridge is in plain view, for 53 years. In that time the business has witnessed a substantial evolution of the corridor, as growth on Pantops has exploded and thousands use U.S. 250 to go to work, to shop and to get home.

“I think it’s all been good. I also think the bypass was a really good thing,” said Cosner, who takes U.S. 250 in his 50-minute roundtrip commute to and from the Shadwell area.

VDOT’s average annual daily traffic counts show that while traffic volumes are high on the U.S. 250 Bypass in Charlottesville between Emmet Street and the city’s eastern line, the vehicular increases vary depending on the segment of road.

In 2000, the 0.42-mile segment of the bypass from Hydraulic Road to Dairy Road saw 39,000 vehicles per day, and the figure increased to 43,000 last year. Generally, excluding the Free Bridge area, counts jumped between 1,000 and 4,000 vehicles from 2000 to 2008.

Jim Tolbert, Charlottesville’s director of Neighborhood Development Services, said congestion on U.S. 250 is certainly an issue because of the bottlenecks residents sit through at particular times of the day.

“Is it a massive issue? No, but 250 is an area where traffic is increasing. We know that, so it’s got to have some attention,” he said.

Charlottesville officials, however, say they have no interest in taking measures such as widening the bypass. Tolbert said he would love to see the city and county come to a mutually acceptable solution, “But I don’t think there’s any interest in a solution that just puts the burden on city streets.”

“We are not going to be the conduit of traffic for the whole region,” said City Council member Satyendra Huja, who sits on the Charlottesville-Albemarle Metropolitan Planning Organization.

The refusals are mutual. City officials say they want to see Albemarle pursue an eastern connector, a road whose feasibility was jointly studied by the localities. After studying the road for nearly two years, the recommended alignment to relieve the most congestion was to connect Route 20 with Rio Road by going through Pen Park.

But last year, the county Board of Supervisors decided to hold off on studying the road more until it had more data on traffic patterns.

The City Council eventually followed suit, even though city staff recommended the county study two of the proposed routes in more detail and that the route move forward if located outside city limits.

After getting new data, “maybe we can take another look at it,” said Albemarle Supervisor Kenneth C. Boyd, who said he is not opposed to building an eastern connector.

Some city and county leaders have relentlessly advocated for a more robust transit system that is not downtown Charlottesville-centric, yet a lack of state funding and the inability to raise large amounts of local revenues have, for now, essentially tabled that idea, as well.

Steve Williams, executive director of the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission, said achieving agreements between the two localities must begin with a neutral party doing technical work at the staff level that all parties can trust. Once that is in place, the localities must define the issues they face and the benefits they could accrue from various solutions.

Williams said, in his view, the traffic troubles that plague Free Bridge and parts of Pantops are not a capacity problem, but one that could be helped through intersection improvements. On expanding transit, Williams said, “There’s just not enough capacity for transit to be the entire solution.”

Slutzky said that the county has largely addressed what it can about the future of U.S. 250 through its multiple master plans, which all have their own transportation recommendations. But he has suggested doing a master plan for the entire area as a way to help officials reach the consensus needed to solve the area’s traffic problems.

“It would be our product, our common solutions, about what would work best,” he said. But concerns about how much such a plan would cost, and limited local resources to collaborate regionally, made it so the idea never got traction.

“Nobody ever talks about it,” Slutzky said.

Norris said to solve the problem, he thinks it will have to come from those residents who have to constantly deal with the pressures of growth and its effect on U.S. 250. Once they voice their concerns and demand that action be taken, maybe then elected officials would come around.

Pantops resident Bourguignon only sees more talk.

“Let us be frank. How long has it taken to get the Meadowcreek Parkway off the ground?” he asked. “They’ve been talking and talking and talking and planning and planning and planning and fighting and fighting and fighting for what, 35 or 40 years?”

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