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June 11, 2010

VDOT may wield influence in maintaining overpasses in Places29

Reader comments (0) DailyProgress By Brian Wheeler
Charlottesville Tomorrow
Friday, June 11, 2010
 
Since the Places29 master planning process began in 2005, the Virginia Department of Transportation has been playing a prominent role advising Albemarle County officials on the future of the U.S. 29 corridor. Some local business leaders and elected officials, however, have been opposed to VDOT’s recent preference for building grade-separated interchanges on U.S. 29 instead of building a western bypass.

Now, state regulations approved in 2006, which require VDOT to review plans such as Places29, may limit the transportation options under consideration to those approved by the state.

David Benish, Albemarle’s chief of planning, said at a public hearing Wednesday that the draft Places29 master plan recommends improvements at both the Hydraulic Road and Rio Road intersections as top priorities. At these locations, VDOT has recommended that traffic lights be eliminated in favor of overpasses that would allow U.S. 29 to pass beneath the cross streets.

However, this week’s meeting was the first time county staff have shared publicly that there may be consequences to removing these and four other grade-separated interchanges from the 20-year master plan.

“Staff talked to VDOT recently to get some preliminary information about what the implications would be if the interchanges were deleted from the master plan,” Benish said. “The master plan … is subject to review under a fairly recent state code that we refer to as the ‘527 review process.’”

According to information presented by Benish at the public hearing this week, VDOT views the interchanges as necessary for U.S. 29, with or without a western bypass, and that removing them from the master plan could put Albemarle at odds with state law.

The staff report read, in part: “[I]f the master plan is adopted without the proposed grade separated improvements, the supporting traffic analysis funded and approved by VDOT would no longer be valid, and the master plan would not be compliant [under] the Va. Code 527 regulations. The grade separations were identified in the traffic analysis as necessary to support existing and future land uses and local and regional transportation needs.”

“I have a tendency to want to push back a little bit to VDOT when they want to start dictating what we have planned and they are not providing any money for the next 30 years to do it,” said Supervisor Kenneth C. Boyd. “I think it is irresponsible for them to hold us to anything like that.”

A representative for VDOT was unavailable for comment Thursday.

VDOT conducted a pilot study for the regulations in 2006 when it did a traffic impact analysis on a 28,000-home development project near Dulles Airport in Loudoun County. That analysis showed the development would bring gridlock to the area without hundreds of millions of dollars of new roads.

Local business leaders said in interviews that they were skeptical VDOT would block the master planning effort if the interchanges were removed. Further, they continued to express concerns at the public hearing about the disruption the interchanges would cause to existing businesses on U.S. 29.

“What we heard was a third-party view of what VDOT may or may not do,” said Timothy Hulbert, president of the Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce. “That may or may not be accurate.”

“Certainly, VDOT should have a role in transportation planning on major arterial roads, but the question is, ‘What do they bring to the table?’” asked Neil Williamson, executive director of the Free Enterprise Forum.

“The General Assembly has unfunded VDOT and streamlined their operations to the point of a diminution of services to the localities,” Williamson said. “If they aren’t going to support the funding of the roads they are mandating, should they have as high a standing in this partnership?”

“That’s ridiculous, they aren’t mandating anything,” responded Jeff Werner with the Piedmont Environmental Council in an interview. “The intent of the regulations is that VDOT is involved, and if we say we want to do something different, then we have a responsibility to say whether the alternative meets the level of service objectives.”

Williamson said the Free Enterprise Forum is committed to working toward a Places29 plan that the Charlottesville-Albemarle business community can support, but that the assessment of VDOT’s position raises some questions for local officials.

“The Free Enterprise Forum is concerned that the Board of Supervisors will be boxed into a corner where they must support a plan that has elements that they do not support, like grade-separated interchanges,” Williamson said.

Said Werner: “These grade-separated interchanges are what the experts think is the best solution for U.S. 29 … it comes from the findings of a thorough technical analysis. If you want to build a better mousetrap, you just can’t say it is better, you have to prove it is better.”

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