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May 24, 2012

Traffic model projects heavy use for a future Eastern Connector

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DailyProgressBy Sean Tubbs
Charlottesville Tomorrow
Thursday, May 23, 2012

A traffic model conducted by the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission shows that an Eastern Connector linking U.S. 29 with Route 20 would carry high traffic volumes if its alignment went through a section of Charlottesville’s Pen Park
 
EC-map
This map depicts the traffic model generated by the MPO for a four-lane Eastern Connector that travels through or near Pen Park
However, at Wednesday’s meeting of the Metropolitan Planning Organization, local officials said they found challenges with all four different road alignments and expressed doubts it could be built.
 
“This project has some of the most substantial [traffic] rearrangements of any of the projects we’re looking at,” said Stephen Williams, the executive director of the TJPDC. 
 
The TJPDC is currently updating the MPO’s long-range transportation plan. That document lists all road projects that are both planned for the next 25 years and eligible for federal funding. 
 
In February, the MPO policy board directed staff to model hypothetical projects such as the Southern Parkway, an expansion of the Western Bypass of U.S. 29, as well as the Eastern Connector. 
 
MPO staff used a computer model to calculate how much traffic would be generated by each of the projects. The model is built on projected traffic conditions for the year 2040 and assumes that all projects on the current long-range transportation plan have been completed. 
 
The work involved four alternatives for the Eastern Connector, including two that would enhance Polo Grounds Road and Proffit Road. It also included two alternatives that would travel west of Route 20 north of Darden-Towe Park, cross the Rivanna River, travel along the southern and western edges of Pen Park, and connect to Rio Road. 
 
“Both of these alternatives draw an awful lot of traffic,” Williams said. 
 
A two-lane version would draw 18,000 vehicles a day, and a four-lane version would see nearly 30,000 vehicles a day. 
 
If the connector were built, traffic volumes would drop elsewhere in the community’s road network. However, Williams said a grade-separated interchange at Rio Road and U.S. 29 might need to be studied to handle the additional traffic volume.
 
MPO members expressed skepticism that the road is feasible because of the need to get federal approval to go through the park, as well as the possibility of a new 209-unit subdivision called Lochlyn Hill being built next to the park.
 
“I think it’s kind of past the point of no return,” said Charlottesville City Councilor Kristin Szakos, the chair of the policy board. “One of the values of the model is the ability it has to judge how traffic will move through all the different possible patterns within the network,” Williams said. 
 
The MPO also modeled changes to existing U.S. 29 to convert it into a “boulevard” once the western bypass is complete. That would involve removing lanes and slowing the speed limit to 35 miles per hour. 
 
“What ended up happening was that we reduced the traffic on [existing U.S. 29] by quite a bit,” Williams said. “But other roads would see increased traffic.” 
 
The model also found that Berkmar Drive Extended would reduce traffic volumes on existing U.S. 29. The Sunset-Fontaine Connector would carry about 6,000 trips a day and would result in small traffic decreases on both U.S. 29/250 and Old Lynchburg Road
 
Another project analyzed is a possible extension of the Western Bypass. Williams said staff modeled a four-lane extension, two lanes each direction, and concluded it would draw about 8,600 vehicle trips. 
 
The results of the model were reviewed by two subcommittees of the MPO. 
 
The CHART Citizen Advisory Committee recommended against widening Interstate 64 to six lanes, another modeled condition. 
 
The MPO technical committee agreed, but also suggested dropping further consideration of Eastern Connector alignments that would involve Profitt Road and Polo Grounds Road because they would not provide a significant benefit. 
 
The MPO tech panel also suggested removing the Southern Parkway and Sunset-Fontaine Connector from consideration in the long-range transportation update. 
 
“They don’t think these are bad projects,” Williams said. “They just said that they’re locally serving projects that are not going to be eligible for federal funding, so don’t need to be in long-range transportation plan.” 
 
The MPO technical committee also asked that the Western Bypass extension, as modeled, be dropped. 
 
Instead, they requested that MPO staff model another alignment that shows how improvements to Rio Mills Road and Dickerson Road could ease traffic congestion. 
 
“I think if we were to go that route, the second alternative would be better,” said Albemarle County Supervisor Duane Snow.
The MPO board voted to adopt the recommendations made by both committees. 
 
“This is the first time we’ve had some clear analytical data to make decisions and its very nice,” said Russell "Mac" Lafferty, an Albemarle Planning Commissioner and member of the CHART committee.
 
MPO staff will now conduct a cost-benefit analysis of the projects that remain on the list. The MPO policy board will review that information at a meeting later this year.
 

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