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November 23, 2010

Meetings sought to conclude unfinished US 29 corridor study

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DailyProgress

By Sean Tubbs
Charlottesville Tomorrow
Tuesday, November 23, 2010

A subcommittee of the Commonwealth Transportation Board is calling for a series of meetings of localities along U.S. 29 to build consensus on projects to improve travel times on the highway.

In 2009, the CTB commissioned the Parsons Transportation Group for a $1.5 million study of the entire 219 mile U.S. 29 corridor. The goal was to develop a blueprint to guide planning for future infrastructure improvements for the road, which is considered a “highway of national significance.”

Originally expected to be completed in November 2009, the study has been in limbo after several potential alternatives were removed from a draft at the request of Albemarle County supervisors.

One was the extension of Leonard Sandridge Road from the University of Virginia’s North Grounds using right of way originally purchased by the state for the U.S. 29 western bypass.

“[The study] failed to note that [it] would be a secondary road and there’s no visible means to ever fund such a road,” said Supervisor Dennis S. Rooker at Monday’s meeting of the Charlottesville Metropolitan Planning Organization.

20091007-BOS-Center-State
This map depicts the eastern bypass alternative removed from the corridor study. Click through for a larger image (.PDF) (Source: VDOT)

Another was the consideration of a new road that would travel north-south near Albemarle’s eastern border. Supervisors expressed concern that the route would require the use of many properties that are under conservation easements.

In a vote last December, the CTB expressed dissatisfaction with the way the study was undertaken. A subcommittee was tasked with developing “a plan to improve mobility and accessibility north of Charlottesville.”

The subcommittee’s recommendation, outlined in a Sept. 15 draft report, is to hire a professional facilitator to conduct a series of meetings, including a joint workshop in which Charlottesville, Lynchburg and Danville area officials would participate.

“The outcome of this workshop should be the identification of … potential solutions and new ideas and approaches into outcomes that have cross-jurisdictional support,” reads the draft outline.

Download Download subcommittee's draft recommendations

However, the different localities along the corridor maintain widely divergent positions about the future of U.S. 29.

Earlier this month, the Lynchburg City Council passed a resolution calling on the CTB to restore the alternatives that Parsons removed at Albemarle’s request.

Mark Peake, Lynchburg’s representative on the CTB, supported the resolution.

“I think it’s an excellent proposal and we have to keep the heat on them,” Peake said in remarks to the Lynchburg council at its Nov. 9 meeting.

Lynchburg City Manager Kimball Payne acknowledged in his presentation that the existing bypass route is obsolete.

“Anybody who’s been out there lately realizes the amount of development that has occurred in that corridor in the last 25 years,” Payne told his council. “The need for the bypass certainly hasn’t gone away, but the utility of that corridor that was set aside … is now greatly in question.”

Payne said his city’s resolution was intended to send a message that Lynchburg wants a long-term transportation solution that supports statewide and national interests.

“The work that went on last summer came up with a number of ideas about what a bypass alternative might look like,” Payne said. “I think it was the expectations of the stakeholders that those ideas were going to make it through the report and be in the final published report.”

Since the 1990s, the Charlottesville MPO has consistently stood against funding construction of the western bypass, which remains in VDOT’s long range plans. The MPO’s preference has been to increase traffic flow by widening U.S. 29 and synchronizing traffic signals, building the Meadow Creek Parkway and building a series of grade-separated interchanges on U.S. 29.

This approach, which said the western bypass should be considered only after these improvements had been completed, was codified in the so-called “Three Party Agreement ” signed in December 1991 by Charlottesville and Albemarle, and then in February 1992 by the University of Virginia.

However, the future of the grade-separation on U.S. 29 is now in doubt. The Albemarle Board of Supervisors has directed staff to de-emphasize the role that the interchanges will play in the 20-year Places29 master plan.

The transportation priorities still remaining in the draft plan are to widen U.S. 29 to six lanes north of the South Fork of the Rivanna River, as well as to build parallel roads to remove local traffic from U.S. 29.

Supervisor Rooker said he questioned the wisdom of developing corridor-wide plans.

“If you’re trying to make decisions on what to do in the corridor, at some point you have to get down into the weeds instead of looking at it from the top up,” Rooker said. He added that the changes made to the plan were made to reflect reality.

The full Commonwealth Transportation Board will vote Dec. 8 on whether to pursue the meetings-based strategy.

James Utterback, the administrator of VDOT’s Culpeper District, said it was possible the full CTB board could take another approach.

“What comes out of this meeting will dictate how this goes forward,” Utterback said.

The CTB’s contract with Parsons has now expired, and so any additional work to prepare the facilitator will be done by CTB staff with assistance from MPOs in the participating communities.

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