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March 26, 2010

MPO discusses U.S. 29 study, Biscuit Run funding

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By Sean Tubbs
Charlottesville Tomorrow
Friday,  March 26, 2010

At their meeting on March 24, 2010, the MPO Policy Board discussed how the proposed Berkmar Drive extension might affect traffic patterns in northern Albemarle County, the possibility of a bike commuter trail to connect Charlottesville and northern parts of the county, and the ongoing revision of a study designed to develop a master plan for all of U.S. 29 throughout Virginia.

Podcast produced by Charlottesville Tomorrow * Player by Odeo

Listen using player above or download the podcast: Download 20100324-MPO-Policy-Board

MPO Director raises questions about U.S. 29 Corridor Study

A subcommittee of the Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB) is continuing work on a study of the entire U.S. 29 corridor from the North Carolina border to Gainesville. The ultimate goal of the study, which is referred to in CTB documents as a ‘blueprint,’, is to create a master plan for the road. The Parsons Transportation Group was hired by the Virginia Department of Transportation to conduct the study.

20091007-BOS-Center-State
This map depicts an alternative for a new road passing through eastern Albemarle County. This was not included as part of the draft. Click through for a larger image (.PDF) (Source: VDOT)

When a draft was unveiled last fall, it included three concepts for projects that were later removed at the request of Charlottesville and Albemarle County. These were an extension of Leonard Sandridge Road using right of way purchased by VDOT for the western bypass, an elevated highway connecting U.S. 250 with U.S. 29 at Hydraulic Road, as well as a new road to connect Culpeper to I-64 along the Route 15 corridor in eastern Albemarle.The study, minus these projects, was submitted to the Commonwealth Transportation Board last fall. In December, the CTB passed a resolution which was critical of the way in which the study was developed. The subcommittee was appointed to evaluate the way in which the study was conducted.

On Wednesday, MPO executive director Stephen Williams told the MPO Policy Board that he had heard the three projects might be put back in the study, which the CTB instructed the subcommittee to revise with a target completion date of July 1.  

Jim Utterback, the administrator of VDOT’s Culpeper District, said he had not heard that information. Utterback, a member of the CTB subcommittee, said the resolution instructed VDOT to improve the way in which this and future corridor studies are conducted, but did not specifically ask for the three projects to be recommended.

“There has been no decision about that that I’m aware of,” Utterback told the MPO Policy Board.  In a follow-up e-mail sent two days after the MPO meeting, Utterback confirmed his understanding to local officials.

“These projects have not been put back in as recommendations and there is no intention to do such,” wrote Utterback.

Butch Davies, the representative of VDOT’s Culpeper District on the CTB, said in an interview that he also was unaware of any efforts to reinstitute the three projects.

“I’ve been to every meeting and played an active role with it,” Davies said. “The resolution adopted by the CTB does not include the adoption of the [projects].”

Davies said CTB members were concerned that the study became too bogged down on individual projects, and said that made it hard for any consensus to be reached.

“You can’t put in a dramatic interchange proposal without having local government vet it [first],” Davies said. He said several of the eliminated proposals went against the comprehensive plans put in place by jurisdictions, including Charlottesville and Albemarle County.

Davies said many of the study’s recommendations involve finding a way to limit the number of intersections along the corridor in order to protect it as a transportation asset.

Charlie Rasnick, a retired VDOT engineer, is working with Parsons on the study. He said in an interview that the final report would honor the input from local elected officials.

“Once we got comments back from the public it was little of value to keep those recommendations in,” Rasnick said.

The subcommittee met earlier this month, and will next meet on April 7, 2010 in VDOT’s Warrenton office.  The CTB has requested the full report to be ready for their review by July 1.

Federal funding request for 29/H/250 improvements

Representative Tom Perriello (D-Ivy) has informed the MPO that he has made a request for $517,000 in funding  to pay for design work for additional lanes at the interchange that connects U.S. 29 with the U.S. 250 Bypass. If granted, the money would go to assist the City of Charlottesville with design work for the project, a key step towards actual construction of a long-planned second lane on the ramp that connects southbound U.S. 29 with westbound U.S. 250.

MPO Director Williams mistakenly told the MPO that the money had been appropriated, but that will not happen until Congress takes up the federal budget later this year.

“His staff told me that he views this as a very high priority project for his district, and one that will really serve the needs of his constituents all the way throughout his district down into Lynchburg and Danville,” Williams said.

Perriello made several other requests this year, including $4 million for the Battelle Corporation to develop a new interface for detecting biological threats on the battlefield. Battelle has a presence in the University of Virginia’s Research Park in northern Albemarle.  

Perriello also requested $1.5 million for the Jefferson School restoration and redevelopment project, $500,000 for Habitat for Humanity’s redevelopment of the Sunrise Trailer park, $2.2 million for Crozet’s downtown streetscape project and $720,000 for construction of a bridge to carry bikes and pedestrian over the north-south railroad line that bisects McIntire Park. Perriello also requested $1 million towards the extension of the runway at the Charlottesville-Albemarle airport.

Jessica Barba, a spokeswoman for Perriello, told Charlottesville Tomorrow that 17 of the congressman’s 48 appropriation requests in FY2010 were ultimately funded. She said decisions would be made by Congress by early May.

Federal government clears up source of Biscuit Run funding

In January, Williams sent a letter to the then-Secretary of Transportation Pierce Homer requesting information about why the MPO was not consulted when Virginia acquired the Biscuit Run property as a new state park. Nearly half of the $9.8 million price was financed using federal transportation dollars.

Virginia’s new transportation secretary, Sean Connaughton, wrote Williams to say that the money did not actually come from a funding pool from which the MPO needed to be consulted. The MPO is required by law to sign off on most federal funds granted to localities and the state for transportation purposes.

“The funds allocated to the Biscuit Run project were not Transportation Enhancement Funds but Equity Bonus Funds, which are statewide discretionary funds,” wrote Sean Connaughton in a letter dated February 8, 2010. That pool of money is not subject to the MPO’s jurisdiction.

The three paragraph letter says former Governor Tim Kaine directed Virginia Department of Transportation officials to work with the Department of Conservation and Recreation on a solution that would allow Virginia to buy the land to create a new park.

In an interview with Charlottesville Tomorrow last February, Williams explained how equity bonus funds work.

“Every state on an annual basis gets an allocation of formula funds,” Williams said. This money goes to pay for maintenance of road surfaces and bridges. “At the end of the year, if a state has not used up their entire allocation of funding, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) takes back the money.”

Then each state competes for a share of the additional money.

“My understanding is that Virginia got funds [and then] decided to spend the money for Biscuit Run,” Williams said.  

The MPO voted to authorize a letter which invited the Secretary to meet with the MPO to discuss transportation projects in Charlottesville and Albemarle.

Board members express skepticism over Berkmar Drive computer simulation

The MPO’s new transportation planner has used computer models to depict how traffic patterns would be affected by the construction of new roads. One of his first tasks, according to Williams, was to model how driver behavior would change if the proposed Berkmar Drive extension and a new bridge over the South Fork Rivanna River are built.

Download Download Williams' presentation of Berkmar traffic model

However, members of the MPO Policy Board did not think his first effort used correct information, and thus generated incorrect results.

For instance, existing conditions used to set a baseline for the model described Earlysville Road as having a level of service (LOS) of D. The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) describes such conditions as “approaching unstable flow.”

20100324-MPO (left to right) JAUNT Director Donna Shaunesey, Albemarle County Supervisor Dennis Rooker, City Councilor Satyendra Huja, Albemarle County Supervisor Rodney Thomas

Supervisor Dennis Rooker said that did not meet with his experience.“I drive on that road frequently and I’ve never stopped that I can recall on the road,” Rooker said. He added he never stops now that there is a roundabout at the intersection of Earlysville and Dickerson Roads.

City Councilor Kristin Szakos questioned the current population figures used in one section of northern Albemarle County, saying they were too low. 

Rooker made the point that he wanted a model to serve as a tool to determine if a road such as Berkmar Drive should be built, especially if it means changing the land use of the property along the way.

Currently the land is designated in Albemarle’s rural area, but developer Wendell Wood has offered to pay for a portion of the road, but only if land he owns along the route is brought into the growth area.

“If you do nothing and you don’t expand the growth area over there, what happens with traffic?” Rooker asked. “What’s the gain for the investment, I want to find out. The cost of the bridge is probably $30 million.”

Williams said he would work with his staff to factor that into the next version of the model. But he also said that from a regional perspective, the model is designed to address traffic congestion on U.S. 29.  

"As 29 becomes more congested like we have in the no-build scenario here, traffic pushes off of 29 to surrounding roads and actually causes traffic and safety issues on Earlysville Road [and] Proffit Road,” Williams said.

During the public comment period at the end of the meeting, Morgan Butler of the Southern Environmental Law Center asked if the traffic model took into account that commercial land uses tend to generate large amounts of traffic.

Williams said the model factors in a 120,000 square foot “big-box” store located just north of the proposed Berkmar Bridge.

Supervisor Rodney Thomas asked if paving Rio Mils Road had been modeled to see if that might alleviate congestion. Williams said that scenario was not modeled because it not in the county’s transportation plans.

County Planner David Benish said significant terrain issues would prevent that road from being upgraded simply by adding asphalt. Rio Mills is one of only two roads in the development area that are unpaved.  

Williams said his staff will continue revising the model in response to feedback from elected officials.

Also at this meeting, the Policy Board members voted to join the new Virginia Association of Metropolitan Planning Organizations. However, some members did express concern that joining might take away from time spent dealing on local issues.  

TIMELINE FOR PODCAST:

  • 01:00 - Meeting opened by Chair Satyendra Huja
  • 01:15 - Public comment from Peter Kleeman, who requested public forum on Meadowcreek Parkway
  • 03:20 - Public comment from Neil Williamson of Free Enterprise Forum, against Kleeman's request
  • 04:20 - Albemarle County Supervisor Dennis Rooker says opportunities for public comment on parkway have been numerous
  • 06:00 - MPO adopts minutes for January meeting
  • 06:30 - Discussion of proposed Northtown commuter trail
  • 10:30 - Discussion of Rep. Perriello's request for funding to pay for
  • 13:30 - Discussion of MPO's work plan and subsequent funding,
  • 14:45 - City Councilor Kristin Szakos requests work to build ridership on area transit
  • 16:45 - Rooker calls for work to make sure areas around transit stops are safe for pedestrians
  • 17:45 - Huja asks for more trails to be built linking city and county
  • 18:45 - County planner David Benish says Parks Director Dan Mahon is not working on trails much at the moment
  • 20:15 - Huja calls for more work to be done for cyclists and pedestrians, not so much on roads
  • 21:10 - Williams updates MPO on potential of joining Virginia Association of MPOs
  • 28:30 - Williams updates MPO on funding for Biscuit Run
  • 30:30 - Williams presents results of modeling study of the proposed extension of Berkmar Drive
  • 36:00 - Rooker expresses concern about LOS given for Earlysville Road
  • 39:00 - VDOT Engineer Chuck Proctor explains LOS
  • 41:00 - Williams explains how the model projects several potential scenarios
  • 45:30 - Williams describes the proposed alignments that were modeled
  • 48:30 - Szakos asks why model shows traffic as increasing on U.S. 29 if Berkmar Drive is extended
  • 55:15 - Rooker describes what he wants a model to achieve
  • 1:00:00 - UVA Senior Land Use Officer Julia Monteith asks
  • 1:14:20 - Rooker questions 2035 numbers for one section of the road
  • 1:26:30 - Monteith asks why the extension and the bridge were modeled, and what will be done with results
  • 1:27:30 - Williams describes why the Transportation Improvement Program is being adjusted for changes in McIntire Road interchange funding
  • 1:29:00 - Williams describes how the recently concluded General Assembly session affected transportation policy in Virginia
  • 1:31:00 - Williams begins discussion of U.S. 29 Corridor Study
  • 1:34:00 - Jim Utterback questions Williams' assertion that eliminated projects may be reinserted
  • 1:44:30 - JAUNT director Donna Shaunnesy gives a report on her agency
  • 1:45:30 - Nancy Ahrens of CAT gives a report on her agency
  • 1:47:00 - Update from Julia Monteith on UVA
  • 1:48:00 - Szakos discusses efforts to ban extra-long tractor trailers from U.S. highways
  • 1:49:00 - Williams talks about new coalition of federal agencies to plan for sustainability at a regional level
  • 1:50:30 - Public comment from Morgan Butler of the Southern Environmental Law Center

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