By Sean Tubbs
Tuesday, June 12, 2012
By Sean Tubbs
Tuesday, June 12, 2012
By Sean Tubbs
Thursday, May 23, 2012
“We went through the process of an Eastern Connector study committee and came to the conclusion that there was no practical way [to build] an Eastern Connector,” said Supervisor Kenneth C. Boyd.
Listen using player above or download the podcast: Download 20110511-BOS-Secondary-Roads
In 2006, the city and county paid $250,000 each to study an alignment for a road that would connect northern U.S. 29 with Pantops in order to relieve traffic congestion. A task force recommended with some hesitation that an alignment through Charlottesville’s Pen Park be further studied. Other alternatives included relocating Proffit Road and widening Polo Grounds Road.
Both the Charlottesville City Council and the Board of Supervisors put a moratorium on further study of the road in the fall of 2008 after determining that no viable route could be agreed to by both communities.
The topic came up during the board’s annual discussion of priorities for secondary road funding. The list is submitted to the Virginia Department of Transportation to coordinate planning between state and local governments.
“The priorities of the VDOT six-year secondary road plan, which is the state’s budget for allocating state funds, is based on the list the county establishes,” said David Benish, the county’s chief of planning.
For the upcoming fiscal year, the county will receive $366,000 in secondary road funding for new construction and paving. In fiscal year 2005, the county received $5.5 million in funding.
“This is a 94 percent reduction in funding over the last six years,” said Supervisor Dennis S. Rooker.
The Eastern Connector project was 20th on the county’s priority list.
“I think we should take it off [the list] because the cost, compared with allocations, makes it impossible to ever build,” Rooker said. “The least expensive option was something like $80 million, and it would have to come out of secondary road funds.”
To accomplish the goals of the Eastern Connector, Boyd said he would prefer to extend State Farm Boulevard across the Rivanna River into the city.
In March 2008, the Charlottesville City Council indicated they would not support such an option.
During Wednesday’s public hearing on Albemarle’s secondary road funding, one county resident asked the county to consider using an existing road to better connect Route 20 with Route 22/231 in northern Albemarle County.
“With the increased shopping and increased jobs at the Hollymead Town Center, and increasing jobs at the [National Ground Intelligence Center] … this concept of east-west travel becomes more important every day,” said Phillip Nelson. “Traffic that moves east and west in the Cismont/Keswick area just means less traffic through Charlottesville and less traffic on U.S. Route 29.”
Boyd was receptive to the idea.
“People living in Cismont or Keswick could come across Turkey Sag Road or come across Stony Point Pass as a route without having to go through town,” Boyd said. “Maybe that’s something our traffic planners ought to give some thought to.”
Several Crozet residents spoke out against the construction of Eastern Avenue, a project to connect U.S. 250 with downtown Crozet. It is called for in the Crozet Master Plan, though it is a low priority.
“I realize the need for some sort of inter-neighborhood connector,” said John Savage. “[But] if that road is built, make it a neighborhood road [with] two lanes, 25 mph speed limit and no truck traffic.”
“This concept is not appropriate at its current location,” said Lori Schweller. She said the Cory Farms neighborhood would be negatively impacted if the road were built.
The top three projects on the secondary road priority list are all either under construction or soon will be. The county’s portion of the Meadow Creek Parkway is more or less complete, and improvements to Jarmans Gap Road and Georgetown Road will go to construction later this year.
The next three priorities are the construction of Hillsdale Drive in the city, a $38 million extension of Berkmar Drive to Hollymead Town Center and the addition of bike lanes and sidewalks to a portion of Proffit Road.
TIMELINE FOR PODCAST:
By Sean Tubbs
Charlottesville’s City Council has reaffirmed its interest in two stalled road projects.
At a work session Thursday, the council directed staff to continue listing the Sunset-Fontaine Connector and the Eastern Connector as local priorities for the Virginia Department of Transportation.
Even with limited funding for road construction, VDOT asks all localities in the state to prioritize potential construction projects. These are coordinated with the agency’s six-year improvement program.
Staff had argued that removing the two roads from the priority list might be more realistic given that the Eastern Connector is on hold and there is disagreement over whether a road to connect Sunset Avenue with Fontaine Avenue should even be built.
Both the city and Albemarle County opted to put further study of an eastern connection between U.S. 29 and U.S 250 east on hold in the fall of 2008. In the summer of that year, a task force selected a route through Pen Park as its choice for an alignment, but elected officials opted to wait until more is known about future traffic patterns before committing funds toward preliminary design.
The Sunset-Fontaine Connector was called for in a 2004 joint study between the city, the county and the University of Virginia. However, cost estimates of the road are high because of a need to cross steep terrain and a railroad line.
Albemarle officials had been hoping UVa would contribute to the cost to complete the road as part of a rezoning for Fontaine Research Park. In May 2009, UVa executive vice president and chief operating officer, Leonard W. Sandridge, told county officials that UVa would not pay for any portion of the road off UVa Foundation property.
This summer, the UVa Foundation reduced the size of its planned expansion of Fontaine Research Park in order to eliminate the need for a second entrance. The Albemarle Board of Supervisors will consider the rezoning on Sept. 8, following a recommendation for approval from the Planning Commission last month.
Jim Tolbert, the city’s director of neighborhood development services, said it might be against the city’s best interest for UVa to build a smaller research park.
“We tend to think that maybe the density in the research park and the jobs that close to the city where you can serve them with transit is a good thing,” Tolbert said.
Mayor Dave Norris said he would like to keep Sunset-Fontaine as a priority because UVa is at least planning to build a section of the road through the new park.
“I worry if we take it off of our list, UVa will feel less of an obligation to factor in that portion of the connector as they’re fleshing out their plans,” Norris said.
Norris was not as convinced that an Eastern Connector would ever happen and said he agreed with staff’s recommendation to remove it. One of his colleagues disagreed.
“I’ve not given up on it yet,” said Councilor Holly Edwards. “We have to do something about that whole area.”
No votes were taken Thursday but council members reached consensus to have the projects stay on the table for future discussion.
Councilor Kristin Szakos said the city needs to consider improvements to Free Bridge to help improve traffic flow on U.S. 250.
“If [the Eastern Connector] is not happening, then we need to figure out something else,” Szakos said.
Other current road priorities on the city’s list include the replacement of a railroad bridge on Jefferson Park Avenue Extended, the Belmont Bridge replacement, Hillsdale Drive and the city’s portion of the Meadowcreek Parkway.
The council requested that city, county and UVa planning staff discuss the future of both of the connector roads. That meeting is expected to occur in October.
|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
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.
The Charlottesville City Council has agreed with the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors that further study of the proposed Eastern Connector be put on hold until more is known about traffic patterns and possible ways to pay for the road. Their decision came despite a recommendation from staff that the County be asked to conduct a more detailed location study of two potential routes. Council made their decision after viewing a report at their meeting on November 17, 2008.
Listen using player above or download the podcast: Download 20081117-CC-Eastern-Connector
Engineer Jeanette Janiczek presented a summary of the alternatives recommended by the steering committee. Janiczek said that one of the challenges of the study was to establish a clear purpose and need. She said the City’s expectations were that “a new eastern connection needed to be developed north of the City on 29 and east of the City on 250 and that it should be a new alignment.” However, Janiczek said City staff grew concerned when the steering committee expanded the scope of the study to include land inside of Charlottesville. She said PBS&J’s Lewis Grimm was able to demonstrate a need for the road to be built in the County, citing projected growth and employment figures.
“Unfortunately the committee was unable to form a consensus as to where exactly this traffic was coming from, where it was going, and exactly in what jurisdiction this alignment would best serve the traffic,” Janiczek said.
The staff report, authored by Janiczek and Neighborhood Development Services Director Jim Tolbert, goes further by asserting: “The County staff and those on the committee remain
unconvinced that there needs to be an additional east-north connection created -
believing most of the traffic is coming into the City and not bypassing it.”
In fact, the Committee eventually recommended that an alignment for a four-lane road connecting Rio Road with Route 250 via Pen Park be further studied. They based their conclusion on traffic models that showed it would have the most effect on relieving congestion on Route 250. In making their recommendation, committee members acknowledged there would be public opposition as well as regulatory obstacles to putting another road through another City-owned park. The Committee also recommended that two other alignments, a relocation of Proffit Road and Polo Grounds Road, be set aside for the long-term future. They decided these two routes would not provide enough traffic capacity to be worth the large costs.
The Board of Supervisors decided on October 1, 2008 to put the study on hold given they were not satisfied that the project’s need was adequately backed up with traffic data. The Board suggested waiting until additional data could be collected on the area’s driving patterns, including an origin and destination study. Given the cost of the road, the Board also wanted to wait to see if a Regional Transit Authority might provide a dedicated source of local revenue for new transportation projects. Board Chairman Ken Boyd (Rivanna) served on the committee, but there has not been a sitting Councilor on the panel since Kevin Lynch’s term on Council expired.
Janiczek said City staff’s recommendation to Council is to follow some of the short-term intermediate solutions suggested by PBS&J. These would include improving traffic signal synchronization on Route 250, as well as additional bus service to Pantops on Route 250. However, Janiczek said the County would have to pay for the additional service. The City is also requesting the Pen Park alignment be removed from any further consideration, and to request that the County further study the Polo Grounds and Proffit Road alignments. Janiczek said these location studies could help preserve the land for future use. Staff suggested this be communicated to the County through a letter of support for further location study.
Mayor Dave Norris wanted to clarify that the City is requesting a further location study, even though the Board of Supervisors have opted not to do so at this time. Janiczek said the letter of support would acknowledge the County’s justifications, but would also indicate the City’s desire to see the Eastern Connector move forward if located outside City limits. Janiczek said staff does not recommend spending any further City money on the project.
The last origin and destination study was conducted in 1999, and Janiczek said the County would like to commission another one. She said that the studies are good ways to test the accuracy of traffic models, but do not necessarily provide clear answers. New data will also come from the National Household Transportation Study that will be conducted next year in advance of the 2010 Census. The City and County are pursuing two pieces of legislation that would create a Regional Transit Authority and authorize the City and County to pursue a local sales tax or other revenue options.
Mayor Norris said the study was useful, and did show that the Pen Park alignment is the only one that would make sense. But, he said he was not willing to sacrifice the park, and was not sure any further study of the Eastern Connector should go forward at this time because of the lack of County interest.
Councilor Satyendra Huja said he thought the City should wait for more data before taking further action. He also said he was worried that Route 250 will be “totally jammed” if improvements are not made.
“I’m not looking for a City alternative. The traffic is coming from the County. They ought to take care of their traffic to some degree,” Huja said. He added that the northern alternatives would look more attractive in the light of further data, but that the City should not spend any more money on a location study.
Norris suggested that the City follow the Board’s decision to keep the project dormant until more information and funding options are available. Councilor David Brown made a motion to that effect, which passed 5-0.
The Albemarle County Board of Supervisors has put the study of the Eastern Connector on hold for a few years until more data can be collected about how County residents move around. They made their decision after viewing a presentation on the final recommendations of the Eastern Connector Corridor Location Study. The matter has been referred to the Metropolitan Planning Organization for further negotiations between the City and the County.
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The Eastern Connector originated as a transportation project when it was included on the UNJAM 2025 plan as a potential roadway, according to Lewis Grimm. Grimm is the Project Manager for PBS&J, the consulting firm hired by the City of Charlottesville and Albemarle County to conduct the study at a cost of $500,000. After nearly two years, Grimm and the study’s steering committee recommended an alignment to connect Route 20 with Rio Road via Pen Park because it would provide the most relief for traffic congestion. Polo Grounds Road and Proffit Road were suggested as two alternatives for future corridors.
During his presentation on October 1, 2008, Grimm showed multiple slides that he said justified the project’s need. They depicted estimates for population, employment and traffic growth. Grimm also showed a snapshot of how traffic patterns currently move through the region, and the Board held a discussion about whether or not the figures were accurate. Supervisor David Slutzky (Rio) said that he was concerned that the information was flawed because it did not fully represent the origin and destination of each trip.
“It sounds like we’re challenged in our ability to gather good data because these are hypothetical trips that we can’t measure today other than through the graphic that looks at the density of future development,” Slutzky said.
Grimm defended the use of traffic forecasting models and said billions and billions of dollars are spent around the nation each year based on similar models. Supervisor Dennis Rooker (Jack Jouett) said it is prohibitively expensive to conduct origin and destination studies. Slutzky said the County and the City would soon have access to some of that information because of the National Household Transportation Study that will be conducted next year in advance of the 2010 Census.
That’s going to give us some potentially really useful information in informing the decision about whether we want an Eastern Connector,” Slutzky said. Rooker said the County would still need to overlay that information on the total number of trips, something he said could be expensive.
Turning to the subject of where a new two-lane connector road might go, Grimm said the location study was somewhat challenged. “There aren’t a whole lot of empty spaces in the study area we’re dealing with,” he said. “There’s a lot of existing development there, whether its residential, commercial. There’s a lot of wetland areas, a lot of historic areas, and a lot of constraints to try to work around.”
The steering committee recommended three alternatives, but said only one of them would begin to alleviate congestion on Route 250 – the Pen Park Route. “It’s only the [Pen Park] corridor improvements, either as a 2-lane or as a 4-lane, that begin to make a more significant, more noticeable change in how badly congested the 250 bridge would be,” Grimm said.
Grimm said the steering committee and his team also modeled the effects of a second vehicular bridge over the Rivanna River, south of Free Bridge, that would be built in addition to the Eastern Connector. This item could not be included as a recommended alternative due to a directive from Charlottesville City Council. Council is concerned about routing County traffic through the City. Supervisor Dennis Rooker said it was all City-related traffic. Supervisor Ann Mallek (White Hall) pointed out many people work in the City. Grimm said it depends on how you define “city traffic.”
“Some people would say a city trip is one where the origin is in the City, and the destination is in the City,” Grimm said. “If the origin is in the City, and the destination is in the County, is that a city trip, or a county trip, or half of each?”
“That would make it a joint project then,” Rooker quipped.
Supervisor Slutzky asked if PBS&J had also modeled a scenario with increased transit. Grimm said they had not because the traffic demand forecast for this region does not yet include a transit option. That will also change in the near future as the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission is working on a plan to gather that information.
Slutzky said he could not support any of the alternatives. “I’m not the least bit comfortable with these options as the three options, and I’m certainly not comfortable… with having us go forward with a recommendation that is very strongly opposed by my constituents,” he said. “I think there are other opportunities for us to get the notion of an Eastern Connector right that might require us to wait until… we have better origin and destination data… and we see where we are or are not going with our transit system in the next couple of years.”
Supervisor Rooker said he was concerned that the Pen Park route would overload the intersection of Route 20 and Route 250, which he said is already a difficult intersection. Grimm acknowledged the concern, but pointed out that the Pantops Master Plan calls for a multimodal transportation system which is in part intended to spread traffic flows around. He said the Eastern Connector has never been conceived of as a by-pass, but as one part of an integrated network that will evolve over time.
Slutzky said that Grimm had clearly shown that neither Proffit Road or Polo Grounds Road could serve as the Eastern Connector, but also highlighted the importance of solving the congestion on Free Bridge.
“The level of service failure that we’re confronting imminently is going to prove to be really problematic,” Slutzky said.
Boyd agreed, and said the issue is one of what the County wants versus what the City wants. “I thought that what we wanted was to alleviate the congestion on Route 250, and that might be best served by a bridge on the other side of 250, at the High Street Route. We really didn’t look at that because the City said the purpose of the study was to figure out how to lessen the number of cars that are driving through [Charlottesville].”
Slutzky said that was the view of Kevin Lynch, and not necessarily City Council. Boyd said Lynch was a member of City Council, and continued to represent Council on the steering committee, even after leaving Council.
Rooker said the County can’t force the City to build a bridge, but could point out the effects of not building the bridge. Slutzky suggested the conversation continue at the MPO. Slutzky and Rooker serve on that body along with City Councilors Satyendra Huja and Julian Taliaferro. Rooker said there was little chance there would be enough funding for a full Eastern Connector “in our lifetime” given the current cutbacks in state transportation funding.
“And the question is, how much more do we spend on this project when we have many many other needs for projects that are already in the [UNJAM 2035] plan that we know we need?” Rooker asked.
Slutzky said he agreed, but also did not want to send the signal to the City that the County is abandoning the Eastern Connector. Rooker said he did not disagree, but did not want to spend any additional money specifically on studying the Eastern Connector at this time. He agreed with Slutzky’s approach, and said that the County would need to come up with a creative solution in the future.
The Charlottesville City Council will view the report in November, according to a comment made by Jim Tolbert at the end of their meeting on October 6, 2008.
TIMELINE FOR PODCAST:
After nearly two years of work, the final report of the Eastern Connector Corridor Location study will be presented to the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors. Lewis Grimm of the engineering firm PBS&J will make the full presentation this afternoon. It remains to be seen if the Charlottesville City Council will see the report. Both jurisdictions have contributed $250,000 to pay PBS&J for their work.
The Easter Connector Study was initiated in December of 2006 to investigate a possible transportation link between the Pantops area on Route 250 and the Route 29 corridor of Albemarle county. The Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) had identified “failure grade” traffic congestion along key roads in their UNJAM 2025 report, and PBS&J was hired to further investigate the traffic models in order to gauge the effectiveness of possible alignments.
A steering committee consisting of stakeholders from both Albemarle County and the City of Charlottesville was formed to guide PBS&J’s work. Ken Boyd (Rivanna) represents the County Board of Supervisors, and Kevin Lynch was appointed while serving as a Councilor. Lynch continues to represent the City of Charlottesville on the steering committee, but there is currently no elected official from the city involved in the study. The task force was instructed to recommend a two-lane road with multi-modal elements, specifically bike paths and sidewalks.
Several public meetings were held, in which over 125 residents expressed their concerns over going forward with the Eastern Connector. They cited potential environmental impacts, decreased access to public parks, and disturbance of residential neighborhoods. PBS&J agreed to incorporate this input into the process of devising alternatives for consideration by the steering committee.
During the course of a year, 13 alternatives were studied, debated, and finally winnowed down to three: a relocation of Proffit Road, a Polo Grounds Road connector, and a Pen Park route, connecting Rio Road and Route 20, either through or around the park. These were presented at a public meeting in November 2007. The citizens who attended the meeting expressed disapproval with all of the options, especially upon hearing that any of the projects would only adjust travel time between the two urban areas by a few minutes. The lack of public support sent the committee back to the drawing board.
The hearing sparked a debate about whether the problem is local or regional in nature. Many citizens assumed that much of the traffic flow was due to long-distance travel between Interstate 64 and Route 29 north, but the consultant’s traffic analysis only attributed 5% to through trips. Most of the traffic was determined to be local, which lent credence to the idea that a local connector would be more effective than a full-scale bypass. Some legal concerns were also raised over whether the Federal government would approve of the alternative placing the route through Pen Park, but the committee felt confident that a good case for the road could persuade them to give clearance for the project. The possibility of improving Route 250 and widening Free Bridge was also considered.
In March of 2008, the Charlottesville City Council sent a memo to Grimm instructing him to take off the table any alternatives within the city limits, considering that the initial purpose of the connector was to relieve traffic through the city center. Council began to express doubt about whether the study would lead to any workable results. In a letter to the steering committee, they also suggested that transit options be taken into consideration. When the Meadowcreek Parkway was approved in August, the City Council made the approval contingent on further study of the Easter Connector.
The steering committee met a few times into the summer of 2008 to hear updates from PBS&J’s Project manager Lewis Grimm and set the course for future study. The Pen Park alignment slowly emerged as the favorite. The preliminary estimates of the cost ranged between $28 and $79 million, depending on which route would be taken through the park, but these figures were not precise enough for the committee to confidently present them to elected officials. If any costs are provided, said Kevin Lynch, a full report of the methodology ought to be provided. Questions were raised over how this project could best be sold to the public and ultimately where the funding would come from.
The steering committee met on September 4, 2008 to assemble the final recommendations for both the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors and the Charlottesville City Council. The analysis is broken into short/immediate and long term actions. The immediate goal is to optimize signal timing on Route 250, increase transit frequency to Pantops, and, most importantly, to add a 4-lane road between Rio Road and Route 20 into the long range transportation plan and designate the other two alternative s as “unfunded needs.” In the longer term, they would like to see the connector actually built and road corridors for the other alternatives designated in the County’s Comprehensive Plan.
The case will be made for the connector with use of data collected from PBS&J for population, employment, and traffic predictions for the next 20 years. Grimm stated that the bottom line is, “It will take you longer to get from point A to point B, regardless of what point A and B is,” even if these time differentials actually do vary considerably from place to place. Although the committee is clear that there were no easy routes available, they will suggest the Rio Road connection to Route 20 via Pen Park as the recommended alignment a future Eastern Connector.
City Manager Gary O'Connell and Neighborhood Development Services Director Jim Tolbert have decided to send Council a written report on the alignment study. Council can then decide whether they want to view the full presentation from Grimm.
The consultant overseeing the Eastern Connector location study has been given more time to prepare a final report to the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors and the Charlottesville City Council. The steering committee spent its meeting on July 25, 2008 debating what items should be in the presentation, but ended up requesting more information on the preliminary cost estimates.
The committee began their meeting as Lewis Grimm, project manager for PBS&J, reviewed the presentation he was expecting to give to the Board of Supervisors in August. Former City Councilor Kevin Lynch took issue with one item including in the meeting packet put together for Committee members. PBS&J created a spreadsheet which lists cost estimates for the various alternatives, and Lynch wanted to know how they were put together.
“Without knowing what assumptions are made, it’s hard to say that Alternative 3 could cost from $28 to $79 million dollars,” Lynch said.
Grimm said he could provide that information to the committee, but had not included the methodology in the packet because he had compiled data on right-of-way costs up until the day before the meeting. The spreadsheet broke cost estimates into construction and right of way costs.
Lynch was particularly concerned about the figure of $54 million Grimm used as the cost to acquire the land for a two-lane Eastern Connector alignment that travels straight through Pen Park. The land acquisition costs for Pen Park alignments that skirt the park’s edges were both estimated at $14.8 million. Lynch was concerned that the high price tags would push City Councilors and Albemarle Supervisors to drop the Eastern Connector from consideration.
“If all you have is this spreadsheet, it looks like an excuse to do nothing,” Lynch said. He questioned whether Grimm’s $54 million was accurate, given that the City donated land in McIntire Park to VDOT for the construction of its portion of the Meadowcreek Parkway.
The County’s transportation planner, Juandiego Wade, said the County’s real estate office had been involved in the calculations, and said the estimates were preliminary. Lynch urged Wade and Grimm to get more realistic cost estimates before showing them to the Board and Council.
Mark Graham, the County’s Director of Community Development, said he was concerned the numbers provided the illusion of specificity. He also questioned whether detailed cost estimates were useful at this time.
“It’s a very big project that we have no identifiable means of funding, so whether [the spreadsheet] says its $30 million or $50 million, it’s being viewed the same way. We’ll have to go and identify an entirely new way of funding a project if this thing is ever going to have a hope of being built,” Graham said.
For a frame of reference, Graham pointed out that the County will spend $30.5 million to construct its portion of the Meadowcreek Parkway, a two-lane road with one bridge. That led him to assume the Pen Park route would cost somewhere in the $40 to $60 million range. The spreadsheet with preliminary cost figures listed a total cost estimate for the northern Pen Park route at $46.4 million, and the southern Pen Park route at $28.5 million.
Melissa Barlow, the Director of Transportation Programs for the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission, urged Grimm to include the costs associated with complying with environmental regulations into the estimates. Specifically, the project will need to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) as well as a process to prove to the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) that the project is the least environmentally damaging alternative. While not a voting member of the steering committee, Barlow said she understood Lynch’s concern, but felt the PBS&J numbers should be given to elected officials in the interest of full transparency. Lynch agreed, but said that’s why the methodology had to be open as well.
City Planning Commissioner Michael Farruggio suggested breaking down the right-of-way costs further in the spreadsheet by listing the cost of private and public land. Lynch said he did not think elected officials should be given the cost figures at this time, given that the Committee was not charged with coming up with them. Farruggio disagreed and said that would be the first piece of information he would want to know if he was a Councilor.
The Committee also discussed whether the spreadsheet should include a cost estimate for the widening of High Street, a suggestion made at an earlier meeting that Farruggio felt would alleviate congestion on Route 250, as an alternate to building a new bridge over the Rivanna. Lynch said including this would be distracting, though he could see the advantages of redeveloping High Street. Farruggio said he did not think it should be included unless the elected officials would be presented information on whether a second bridge south of Free Bridge would be considered. The City has rejected consideration of a new bridge from the Pantops Shopping Center area as part of the Eastern Connector project, but the Board of
Supervisors has requested modeling data to show its effect on traffic congestion. Wade suggested showing it to the County, but not the City. Barlow pointed out that there is no cost estimate for a second bridge, so the comparisons would not be complete. Ken Boyd, Chairman of the Albemarle County Supervisors (Rivanna), said he believed the second bridge was not an option because of City opposition.
While looking at a chart titled “Historical Traffic Growth 2001-2006”, the Committee discussed the destinations of motorists coming and going from Charlottesville across Free Bridge at the Rivanna River. In particular, the chart indicated a 73.3% growth in vehicles traveling on Route 250 across Free Bridge to Route 20.
“That’s the traffic we’re trying to hit with the Eastern Connector road, and that’s what we’re trying to narrow down and find out what traffic we’re possibly going to divert,” said Boyd.
Wade directed Grimm to provide information on how many vehicles turned left onto East High Street, turned right onto River Road, or continued on the Route 250 bypass. Grimm said he was not sure if he had that information, but said he could use the forecasting model to obtain the data, or could look at any traffic counts conducted by the City or VDOT between 2001 and now.
Lynch said the City has numbers of movements on the bridge, but did not have similar counts for Locust, Park and Hydraulic to find out where vehicles go when they continue into the City. Farruggio said it was important to get that data.
“You’ve got to determine where the traffic is going once it crosses that bridge. Is it ending up on Rio Road, is it ending on Hydraulic Road, is it ending up going straight, is it ending up going left onto McIntire or left on High Street? You need to be able to break that part into where they’re going,” Farruggio said. He asked how hard it would be to come up with that data. City Traffic Engineer Jeanette Janiczek said she was not sure if the City had enough counters, but they could look into getting the data on turning movements. Farruggio said the count would need to be done on a day when the University of Virginia is in session.
Farruggio is the most recently appointed member of the Committee. Wade reminded him that the topic of traffic destination has been a subject of debate since the beginning of the corridor location study.
“When we first started, we thought the major thrust [of the corridor location study] was traffic on 250 seeking to go to Route 29 North and vice versa, and I think what we found was that wasn’t necessarily the case,” Wade said.
The bridge again came up after Grimm went through the various alternatives, and explained how each was still supported by the Committee, he went on to describe how various improvements to Route 250 might relieve traffic congestion. He said purely looking at the data, two new bridges over the Rivanna would provide the most traffic relief.
The mention of a two-lane bridge crossing from Pantops into the City troubled Farruggio because unlike the other alternatives, there was no cost estimate for it on the spreadsheet. Lynch agreed there should be a cost estimate associated with the south bridge, but that the Committee has already decided it will not be presented as an option. Wade asked the Committee if it should be taken off. Farruggio suggested including information as a summary at the end separate from the Committee’s recommendations.
When Farruggio asked Janiczek’s opinion, she said she was concerned that the committee was focusing too much on fixing Free Bridge. “If we increased the function of the bridge, that is going to push the problem [of traffic congestion] further along,” Janiczek said. “I’m not quite sure if we have the infrastructure to accept all of these cars coming in so much faster.”
Lynch said he could understand why the County wants a southern bridge. “The City is in the middle of the County, and it’s always going to be more efficient to drive another road through the City, then to go around it,” Lynch said. Boyd began to object, and Farruggio called time out and said that Lynch’s comment was “kind of divisive.”
“If the traffic is going downtown, we have to build our infrastructure to accommodate it, or we have to build an alternative way for them to get into the City. If the case is what we originally thought, which is that they’re going up on 29, then we do need to find an alternate route around the City to get there,” Farruggio said.
Janiczek said East High Street cannot absorb any more traffic, and doesn’t know if the City has the resources to widen it. Lynch said the County’s urban ring has developed rapidly without the proper infrastructure being in place. “There’s no way to get around the urban ring other than going through the City,” Lynch said. He said Avon, Park and High Street all served as north-south corridors. Janiczek said she thought the Committee had not done a good job of addressing the purpose and need of the location study. Boyd said that in his mind, the ultimate purpose of the study is to find out what infrastructure improvement will provide the most relief to US 250, which is projected to worsen into a “disaster” over the next twenty years. “If an Eastern Connector on the north side of 250 is the solution to that congestion, then let’s build it,” Boyd said. But he added that it was not worth building if it did not provide a way to divert significant amounts of traffic. Boyd acknowledged that he was not pushing for the southern bridge as an Eastern Connector, but that the region might benefit more from concentrating on fixing Route 250 by expanding it to six lanes and by reducing the number of access points.
Graham suggested that the final report include a statement that the Committee acknowledges some of the challenges associated with Alternative 3 (Rio Road to Route 20 via Pen Park), not the least of which is the opposition from many City residents to using the park for a road. Second, he said it would be difficult to obtain federal environmental permits to go through the park. He also said both Alternatives 1 and 2 could potentially be obstructed by conservation easements as well as the Southwest Mountain Historic District.
Farruggio said he had no problem with adding such comments, but added that the hurdles associated with widening Route 250 and building a southern bridge be listed too. County Planning Commissioner Cal Morris (Rivanna) said he did not want the report to be too watered down.
“All of the information we’ve shown shows that we can’t just sit by and do nothing,” Morris said.
After reviewing the next steps, the committee decided that the consultant would need more time to prepare the next set of cost estimates. They decided to postpone the Board of Supervisors presentation to the first meeting in October, two weeks after the presentation to City Council. The committee will meet again to review the work before then.
The Albemarle County Board of Supervisors and the Charlottesville City Council will not be presented with the recommendations of the Eastern Connector Steering Committee until at least the fall of this year.
On May 30, 2008, the Steering Committee met to refine the recommendations made at its previous meeting. Consultant Lewis Grimm of the firm PBS&J sought feedback on an expanded version of a presentation he will present to the Board and Council at a later date, and the Committee further discussed whether it had met the goals established at the beginning of the evaluation process.
To recap, the Committee is recommending a four-lane route to connect Rio Road with Route 20 along an alignment that would go through Pen Park (Alternate 3). The Committee also suggests two other alternatives, Polo Grounds Road (Alternate 1) and Proffit Road Relocated (Alternate 2), be presented to elected officials.
Following up on the April meeting, Grimm also provided the Committee with a list of short, intermediate and long-term recommendations for other ways to relieve traffic on Route 250. Actions to be taken in the next five years would include traffic signal coordination between the High Street and Route 20 intersections, as well as greater headways on the existing Charlottesville Transit Service Route 10 to Pantops. Actions to take place before 2025 would include expanded public transportation to connect the Pantops area with Route 29 north in the County, as well as further planning efforts to identify other crossings of the Rivanna River in the future.
Grimm also said in the short-term, the Polo Grounds and Proffit Road alignments should be included in UNJAM 2035 long range plan as “unfunded needs,” and that detailed engineering work and environment studies should be conducted on Pen Park Alternate 3. In the long-term, construction would begin on Alternate 3 while detailed planning work would begin on Alternate 1 and Alternate 2. Grimm said he thought it was important to recognize the work that has already going into exploring those roads.
“At one time those were clearly identified as free-standing independent options, and I think now what we’ve seen through the analysis and the discussion is that they’re really elements of the larger ultimate system,” Grimm said. The County’s transportation planner, Juandiego Wade, also pointed out that the Committee had suggested recommending that the County take steps to preserve the right of way for those alignments for eventual construction. Mark Graham, the County’s Director of Community Development, said that would require a change to Albemarle’s Comprehensive Plan.
“If we don’t put it into our land use plan, if properties out there come in and apply for conservation easements, effectively blocking the ability to build that road in the future, we won’t have a basis for recommending against that,” Graham said.
Ken Boyd (Rivanna), Chairman of the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors, said he wanted to add a caveat to the recommendation for Alternate 3 to make sure that the eventual alignment chosen would be the one “least invasive” to Pen Park. “I just want to make sure that it gets to the public and the Board and the Council that they recognize that was a very important part of our discussion and public input,” Boyd said.
Because the Eastern Connector is still in the conceptual phase, it is not yet known if the road would be a primary or secondary road under the Virginia Department of Transportation. The designation would carry funding implications, as primary roads are more likely to be funded. Grimm suggested that whatever the designation, the more jurisdictions that can contribute funding to the project, the more likely the road can get funded. However, he said primary roads generally connect two communities
Former City Councilor Kevin Lynch, who continues to represent Charlottesville on the Committee, said he did not think that the Committee had met the goals set forth for it. The Request for Proposals for the study states:
“The successful project will result in the design of several alternative road alignments that will provide a connection between US 250 East of Route 20 and US 29 between Rio Road and Proffit Road. Study shall provide a thorough assessment of issues related to each alignment and a recommendation on preferred alignment based on analysis and direction provided during project.”
“And I don’t see that we’ve done that,” Lynch said. “I’m having difficulty figuring out what we can really say that we’ve accomplished in these last 18 months or however long it’s been. We knew going into this that we had some options and that it looked like the closer option would move more traffic, and that’s kind of what we’re saying now, that we have this alternative that could go through the park, it could go to the north, or it could go to the south, but we don’t really want to show you where because that would be politically difficult.”
Lynch went on to say that the Committee had done nothing more than reproduce how the UNJAM 2025 plan describes the potential Eastern Connector – “a big blob” that only vaguely shows where the road might go. Instead, he wanted to depict a specific route such as the one he advocated in November – a two-lane road that utilized an existing access road straight through the middle of Pen Park.
City Resident John Pfaltz disagreed, and said the Committee’s recommendation of a four-lane road across the Rivanna River was a step forward. The Committee made that determination in April after reviewing traffic data from PBS&J which showed a four-lane road would take more cars off of Route 250.
“I think we’re coming out with a pretty strong statement,” Pfaltz said. “I think this is a fairly large step forward in kind of a difficult political situation.”
But Lynch said the recommendation would provide political cover for elected officials to do nothing. He said a four-lane road through Pen Park would be controversial, and reminded the Committee that the Meadowcreek Parkway was originally a four-lane road but was only accepted by City Council after the plan was dropped to two lanes. Lynch said he wanted to be able to issue a minority opinion stating his opposition to a four-lane Eastern Connector.
“Having lived here for 27, 28 years I think I’ve got a pretty good handle on what’s feasible and what’s an excuse to do nothing,” Lynch said. He told Committee members that he wanted to recommend something that could get built.
Juandiego Wade, the County’s Transportation Planner reminded Lynch that the Committee had looked at over a dozen alternatives and narrowed it down to 3 that would be presented to the Board and Council. He said elected officials may well decide to go with a two-lane version.
“It’s kind of late in the game to say we’ve not done what we were asked to do,” Wade said. He said Alternate 3 was an alignment, not a detailed construction plan.
Lewis Grimm of PBS&J said that at one point, there were three conceptual options for the Pen Park alignment. Two skirted the edges of the park, and one went directly through the park. He said these concepts could potentially be resurrected if it were the will of the Board and City Council. Pfaltz suggested incorporating the three concepts into the recommendation, which seemed to satisfy Lynch.
“That advances the ball a little further,” Lynch said. He was also receptive to the suggestion of County Planning Commission Chairman Cal Morris that the Committee specifically recommend the Comprehensive Plan changes suggested by Graham.
Grimm and his team will make one more series of refinements based on input at the meeting. The Steering Committee will reconvene after Labor Day to go over those changes before the final recommendations are presented to the Board and City Council.
The project leader also the Committee that they were planning for a long-term project, or series of projects, and that they should keep in mind an adage he learned early in his career.
“No project worthy of implementation ever happens until it is old enough to vote,” Grimm said.