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July 24, 2011

MPO may defer bypass vote if local projects are not funded

DailyProgressBy Sean Tubbs
Charlottesville Tomorrow
Sunday, July 24, 2011

The chairman of the Charlottesville-Albemarle Metropolitan Planning Organization said he may postpone a key vote on the Western Bypass if a list of other local transportation priorities is not guaranteed funding by state officials.

“I’m on the edge right now,” Albemarle Supervisor Rodney S. Thomas, a supporter of the bypass, said.

On Wednesday, the MPO Policy Board is scheduled to hold the second of two public hearings on whether to amend its transportation improvement program to remove language that blocks funding for construction from being allocated to the bypass.

The city’s two representatives on the MPO have indicated they do not support the project, but Thomas said he wants to win over their votes.

“I do not want to defer the vote on this, but if we have to defer the vote, it would be until after City Council meets to see if we can get the city’s support for the bypass,” Thomas said.

Last week, the Commonwealth Transportation Board allocated $230 million for the bypass and a second project to widen U.S. 29 to six lanes between the South Fork Rivanna River and Hollymead Town Center.

At the end of a nearly three-hour public hearing on July 14 at which 60 people spoke, MPO board members discussed a list of projects they wanted to see funded before voting to amend the transportation improvement program.

A letter was sent to the CTB and state Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton describing the projects and their importance to the region.

Download Download letter from MPO to Secretary Connaughton

“We are willing to do our part to assist in meeting the commonwealth’s transportation needs and respectfully request that the CTB give consideration in helping us meet our local needs,” read the letter, which was signed by Thomas and City Councilor Kristin Szakos, one of two representatives for the city on the MPO.


The list included the completion of Hillsdale Drive Extended, a second lane on the on-ramp to the U.S. 250 Bypass at its interchange with U.S. 29, preliminary design for Berkmar Drive Extended and accelerated funding to replace the city’s Belmont Bridge in 2014. Currently, the bridge is not expected to be rebuilt until at least 2016.

While the letter came up during the CTB’s meeting last week, no promises were made to fund any of those priorities.

Szakos said negotiations would be at a standstill if there are no financial commitments from Richmond for the local priorities.

“If the CTB doesn’t include funding for those projects in a multi-year budget, then I don’t think we have anything to talk about,” Szakos said. “We need to stick to our guns and say this is not the process that we do.”

“As an MPO member, I think it’s irrelevant to even discuss how we’d vote right now because we’re not in a place where we’re ready to take a vote,” Szakos said.

“Those four things that we wanted … [they] haven’t addressed them yet,” Thomas said immediately after the CTB’s vote.

On Saturday, Thomas said he is still negotiating with Virginia Department of Transportation officials in Richmond, but has not yet received a written commitment.

“I’ll find out Monday and we’ll move on from there,” Thomas said. “We’re trying to make it happen and encourage it to make it happen.”

City Councilor Satyendra Huja, the city’s other MPO representative, said he could potentially support the bypass if he received a guarantee that Hillsdale Drive and the Belmont Bridge would be funded.

“I’m not going to make a decision yet but lean towards not supporting because we haven’t gotten anything out of it so far,” Huja said.

After the CTB meeting, Albemarle Supervisor Duane Snow said he had a verbal agreement with VDOT officials and that he was willing to move forward with a vote by the MPO provided the state honors its commitments.

“When we go forward from here and do our resolution of intent to vote for this, it will be based on the items that we put in that resolution,” said Snow, Thomas’ fellow Albemarle representative on the MPO board. “I’m going to vote for [the bypass] if these other items are met.”

Many groups are urging the MPO to defer its vote until firm guarantees are in place.

On Friday, the Southern Environmental Law Center sent a letter to the Board of Supervisors that pointed out the county’s conditions for approval had not been fully met.

“It is essential that the county have clear, firm and legally enforceable conditions in place as part of any vote to amend the MPO’s transportation plans,” wrote Morgan Butler, senior attorney for the SELC.

Download Download SELC's letter to the MPO and the BOS

The SELC letter pointed out that supervisors had said there would be no bypass without a guarantee that the other priorities would be funded.

“The board made clear that it was those other improvements, and not the bypass, that were the chief priority,” Butler wrote. “You promised the public that there would be no vote to approve the bypass unless those other projects were included.”

The Albemarle County School Board has also sent a letter to supervisors and the MPO expressing its concern about the impact on several schools, including Greer Elementary School.

Download Download Albemarle County School Board's letter to the MPO and BOS

“We believe that the children of Albemarle County must be protected from hazards and the ambient noise level should be appropriate for learning and recreation,” wrote School Board Chairman Steve Koleszar.

“The School Board and superintendent respectfully request that the Board of Supervisors and MPO include a requirement for the inclusion of a sound barrier for the U.S. 29 bypass that meets the standards of the Federal Highway Administration,” Koleszar wrote.

July 15, 2011

MPO takes public comment on western bypass

DailyProgressBy Sean Tubbs
Charlottesville Tomorrow
Thursday, July 14, 2011

The regional body that holds the  final local control on road projects in the area has held the first of two public hearings on whether funding should be allocated to the Western Bypass of U.S. 29.

Sixty people spoke at the hearing Thursday before the Metropolitan Planning Organization. Roughly two-thirds were opposed to the road.

“This is not a bypass,” said Albemarle County resident Bob Button. “It starts in a heavily developed area near the University of Virginia and it ends in an even more heavily developed area at Forest Lakes.”

20110714-MPO
The MPO met in Albemarle County's Lane Auditorium to accomodate the large number of public speakers

The hearing was the first of two required before the MPO can amend its transportation improvement program (TIP) to remove language that blocks construction funding from being allocated to the project.

The MPO must also alter its long-range transportation plan to include the project, which is estimated to cost between $250 million and $300 million.

So far, Virginia Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton has not released details on the source of the funding, but the item is on the agenda of next week’s meeting of the Commonwealth Transportation Board.

In June, the CTB adopted a six-year plan that did not include additional funding the bypass.
Last month, Connaughton sent a letter to Del. David Toscano, D-Charlottesville, indicating he would ask for $196 million for the bypass and $34 million for widening of U.S. 29.

“We are required to have full funding assurance before those amendments and that requires CTB action,” said Stephen Williams, the executive director of the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission.

Tulane Patterson, the chair of the Lynchburg Regional Chamber of Commerce, pleaded with the MPO to support the road.

“U.S. 29 is a major highway that serves all the major communities on the corridor,” Patterson said. “For Danville, Lynchburg and Altavista, this is our interstate highway.”

City resident Beth Ike suggested that the bypass was only being considered for political reasons.
“It’s an election year, and the normally slow cogs of government are moving alarmingly fast,” Ike said.

She added she was concerned money spent on the bypass would take away from projects needed in congested areas like Hampton Roads.

Following the public hearing, Supervisor Duane E. Snow said he would no longer refer to the project as a bypass, but instead would begin calling it a connector road.

“For all those people who come down 29 to UVa on a road that comes right to a parking garage, it’s going to be major,” Snow said.

After the public hearing, the MPO agreed to send a letter to the CTB explaining the conditions under which it will support a bypass. The projects include funding of ramp improvements at the interchange of U.S. 29 and U.S. 250, funding for the extension of Hillsdale Drive and design of a bridge for the extension of Berkmar Drive, as well as funding to replace the aging Belmont Bridge in 2014.

“We don’t know how much money there is or where it will be coming from,” Snow said. “This is just a letter to say what we want and what we expect.”

A second public hearing will be held on July 27 to consider amending the long-range plan and the TIP.

City Councilor Kristin Szakos said in an interview after the meeting she would vote against the bypass because the public process had been evaded.

“It should be what we set as priorities with our public process and the whole process of regional planning,” Szakos said. “We can horse trade all we want for the things we should have had in the first place.”

Huja agreed with the decision to send the letter.

“All of these projects would be good if we could get the funding, but this does not imply that I will support a bypass,” Huja said.

George Larie, a member of the Charlottesville Albemarle Transportation Coalition, directed his comments towards James Utterback, the administrator of VDOT’s Culpeper District and a votingmember of the MPO.

“I strongly suggest you are under pressure to resolve the tie,” Larie said referring to the 2-2 split in the city-county MPO votes. “An issue this contested should not be decided by a state agency employee.”

Williams said there is a chance the CTB will not be able to reach agreement at its meeting next week as to how  to reallocate money from other projects. That would mean the MPO could not vote to amend the TIP at the July 27 public hearing.

June 16, 2011

No state funding for Western Bypass yet

DailyProgressBy Sean Tubbs
Charlottesville Tomorrow
Thursday, June 16, 2011

RICHMOND — The Commonwealth Transportation Board adopted an $8.3 billion six-year improvement program for highway construction Wednesday, but no additional funding was allocated for the proposed Western Bypass of U.S. 29.

20110615-connaughton
Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton

“It is not in the [state] six year plan because it has not been included for construction in the region’s transportation improvement plan,” said Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton.

The Metropolitan Planning Organization will vote in early summer on a TIP amendment to remove language that blocks the state from moving forward with the Western Bypass.

Earlier this month, the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors voted 4-2 to support that policy change.

“Once they do that, we will bring it back to the CTB and request that they amend the plan,” Connaughton added.  He said funding for the project would come from reallocating money from other projects, but did not specify which ones.

James Rich, the area’s representative on the CTB, said he wants to know where the funding for the project would come from. He estimated it would cost between $250 million and $300 million, a large sum that would require large transfers from other projects.

“We allocated everything today [for] six years out,” Rich said. “It’s a zero-sum game and it’s going to have to come from somewhere. We don’t have the power of the federal government of printing money.”

The CTB also accepted a report on the U.S. 29 corridor that has been delayed for several months.

20110615-koelemay
J. Douglas Koelemay

The study prioritized intersections along the way that could be replaced with grade-separated interchanges as traffic increases. It also recommends that meetings be held between Albemarle County and Charlottesville elected officials to create a master plan for the corridor.

“It’s really to start back at a beginning in which people and jurisdictions can state their interests in what’s going to happen,” said J. Douglas Koelemay, Northern Virginia’s representative on the CTB and chair of a subcommittee that produced the report.

Koelemay said U.S. 29 is a corridor of statewide significance that the commonwealth depends upon as a north-south arterial highway. He said the development of a corridor master plan would help protect U.S. 29 as a transportation resource.

“It doesn’t mean that we tell the localities what to do, it just means that once we as a group determine what the plan is, we incorporate it into our decisions and localities incorporate it into theirs,” Koelemay said.

Cord Sterling, representative from the Fredericksburg District, questioned this approach.

“It sounds good philosophically and on paper, but that means one locality can hold others hostage [if] they won’t incorporate [a project] unless it is exactly how the way they want it,” Sterling said.

Dawn Best, legislative affairs committee chair for the Lynchburg Regional Chamber of Commerce, urged the CTB to support the bypass when and if it comes before them.

WESTERN BYPASS map
Source:  Daily Progress/Ross Bradley

“The U.S. 29 route in Virginia is a regional lifeline for several cities and an essential north-south artery for the commonwealth,” Best said.

“There are powerful special interests in Charlottesville that have scuttled this important project for many, many years.”

Trip Pollard, director of the Southern Environmental Law Center’s land and community program, objected to being described as a “special interest.”

“Obviously it’s a very controversial project,” Pollard said. “We have opposed it for a number of years because we think it is a wasteful and destructive project, and not because we’re a special interest. We think there are cheaper and better solutions.”

Rich said he thinks the vision for the corridor through Charlottesville and Albemarle County was to fund and build projects identified in the Places29 Master Plan such as the construction of Hillsdale Drive extended, a new ramp at the U.S. 29/250 interchange and Berkmar Drive Extended.

The Western Bypass was not part of the plan.

“I thought we were making such great progress on the projects that are doable,” Rich said.

Connaughton said work would soon get under way to resume purchase of right of way for the route and to continue the design.

He said he hopes to get the project advertised for construction before the end of the year because right-of-way purchase and preliminary design are underway.

 

June 09, 2011

Dorrier makes late-night switch to revive Western Bypass

DailyProgressBy Sean Tubbs
Charlottesville Tomorrow
Thursday, June 9, 2011

A new chapter has begun for the proposed Western Bypass of U.S. 29 after the intervention from Virginia’s top transportation official.

“It may not be the perfect fix to transportation challenges in the corridor,” said Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton. “However, it is a major step forward.”

Listen using player above or download the podcast: Download 20110608-Western-Bypass

 The Albemarle County Board of Supervisors voted 4-2 late Wednesday to direct its representatives on the Metropolitan Planning Organization to remove language blocking the state from allocating money for the construction of the 6.1-mile bypass.

The vote came one week after a vote on the same motion ended in a 3-3 tie. It required the board to suspend a new rule of order, which said action items not on the agenda as approved at the beginning of a meeting should not be added by members at the end of a meeting for a vote.

20110608-Dorrier1
Supervisor Lindsay Dorrier explains his change of mind

Supervisor Lindsay G. Dorrier Jr. asked to rescind that vote after being promised by Connaughton during a phone call earlier in the day that the bypass would be fully funded.

“He stated to me that the county could receive the full cost of the [bypass],” Dorrier said. “He didn’t have an exact figure but he said it was in the range of $260 million to $270 million.”

Connaughton confirmed the conversation in an interview with Charlottesville Tomorrow.

“I assured him that if the MPO did move forward and include construction in its transportation improvement plan that the state would end up altering or revising the six-year program to provide full funding for the project,” Connaughton said.

Since 2002, the entry for the Western Bypass on the MPO’s transportation improvement program has included a long paragraph that outlines the MPO’s preference for other alternatives to alleviate congestion on U.S. 29.

The Virginia Department of Transportation lists the Western Bypass as a project on its six-year improvement program because $47.2 million has been spent on preliminary engineering and to buy right of way for the route. VDOT does not own the entire right of way for the bypass, though the agency does own 62 parcels along the route.

Connaughton said his assurance was based on the existing alignment and design, and not some other alternative.

 

WESTERN BYPASS map
Source:  Daily Progress/Ross Bradley

Estimates for construction of the four-lane, limited-access highway range from $161 million to nearly $300 million.

Connaughton said the project would also be connected to a widening of U.S. 29 from the South Fork of the Rivanna River north to the Hollymead Town Center. He said a new estimate needed to be calculated for both projects.

Mark Peake, the Lynchburg District’s representative on the transportation board, welcomed the vote.

“It’s a vital next step for the Route 29 corridor from the North Carolina border all the way to [Interstate] 66, and it’s especially good for business on the southern side,” Peake said. “I’m happy to see the logjam break.”
 
Unannounced vote
 
The vote to make it the county’s new official position came shortly before midnight after a lengthy public hearing on the county’s participation in a regional sustainability planning grant.

The board had to suspend rules adopted earlier in the month in order to take the action. One of them was for the board to begin adopting an agenda at the beginning of each meeting to ensure the public is notified of matters the board will vote on.

Supervisor Dennis S. Rooker was opposed to the rule change and the vote.

“It’s 11:35 at night, and we’re willing to take an item which we know is a huge public interest item, and suspend our own rules … so that we can deal with that item without the public knowing about it,” Rooker questioned.

20110608-Boyd1
Supervisor Ken Boyd

Rooker asked for the item to be placed on the agenda for the July meeting, but Supervisor Ken Boyd made a motion to suspend the rules and that vote carried 4-2 with Supervisor Ann H. Mallek joining Rooker in voting against. Two separate and identical votes rescinded last week’s stalemate on the bypass and established the new policy position.

Critics have said the planned roadway is already obsolete because its northern terminus is located south of the Hollymead Town Center and other commercial developments that were not present when it was designed.

Members of the Forest Lakes Community Association sent a letter to Boyd on Thursday requesting to know why he supported a project over their opposition.

“We oppose this idea, as poorly conceptualized, ineffective, undesirable, high cost and dilutive of efforts to make useful and long overdue improvements to transportation in our area,” said Scott Elliff, a member of the FLCA’s Board of Directors.

Morgan Butler, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said in a statement that thousands of people have made written and public comments opposing the road.

“The board forced this vote through and changed the county’s position without the public’s knowledge or input,” Butler said. “Regardless of one’s position on the bypass, this is not the board’s most shining hour. The public deserves a chance to be heard.”
 
Next steps
 
The MPO Policy Board will have to take several steps in order to officially remove the language from its transportation improvement plan.

“The bypass is not in either our long-range transportation plan or our transportation improvement program,” said Steven Williams, executive director of the MPO and the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission.

Williams said federal funding cannot be used in the project unless federal public participation rules are followed. Two public hearings are required to amend both the long-range transportation plan, and another two public hearings are required to amend the TIP.

Such hearings require an advertisement two weeks before a meeting. Williams said the MPO is considering delaying its June meeting by one week in order to follow that rule.

Additionally, Williams said a new environmental assessment would have to be performed before any federal funds could be used because the last study was conducted in 2003.

“The shelf-life [for an environmental assessment] is normally identified as five years, “Williams said. “We’re well past the end of that.”

Williams said the MPO cannot suspend its rules as the Board of Supervisors did.

Bypass supporters Supervisors Duane Snow and Rodney S. Thomas now sit on the MPO Policy Board. At least one of the Charlottesville City Council’s representatives will have to vote to also change the language.

“This council hasn’t taken a position on the Western Bypass,” said Councilor Satyendra Huja. “Former councils were supporters of the bypass. I will consult with this council to see what their position is.”

“We have also discussed the Eastern Connector as a way to alleviate traffic congestion, and the Western Bypass would also help local traffic,” Huja added.

 

June 02, 2011

Effort to restore Western Bypass for debate, funding fails

DailyProgressBy Sean Tubbs
Charlottesville Tomorrow
Thursday, June 2, 2011

For the immediate future, Albemarle County’s official policy remains in opposition to the U.S. 29 Western Bypass. Three Albemarle supervisors were unsuccessful Wednesday in their latest attempt to place the road project back on the transportation priority list for debate and possible funding.

Rodney S. Thomas asked his fellow Board of Supervisors members if they would support a request he made to the Metropolitan Planning Organization policy board last month to remove language that prevents the Virginia Department of Transportation from allocating money for the road.

“Constituents and fellow city business partners in the U.S. 29 corridor continually have asked for a bypass, not necessarily the actual western bypass,” Thomas said.

Bypass-on-tip
The Western Bypass is a primary road project on the MPO's Transportation Improvement Program. (Click to enlarge)

Since 2002, the entry for the Western Bypass on the MPO’s transportation improvement program has included a long paragraph that outlines the MPO’s preference for other alternatives to alleviate congestion on U.S. 29.

“The MPO … believes improvements at intersections on existing U.S. 29 could greatly improve regional through-capacity,” reads the text.

However, the composition of the MPO policy board has changed since then, and Thomas is now its chairman.

“By removing the opposition language … this will offer up the possibilities of discussion and getting the funds in order to construct the bypass and widen U.S. 29 north of South Fork of the Rivanna to Hollymead Town Center,” Thomas said.

The idea prompted many members of the public to appear before the board to ask that Thomas be removed from his position on the MPO.

20110601-Larie
George Larie, president of the
Charlottesville-Albemarle Transportation Coalition 

George Larie, president of the Charlottesville-Albemarle Transportation Coalition, said he was shocked at Thomas’ request.

“This bypass has had massive citizen opposition during public hearings and has consistently been opposed by the Board of Supervisors for over 20 years,” Larie said. “It does not solve the traffic problem on Route 29, which is a local traffic problem, not a through-traffic problem.”

Morgan Butler of the Southern Environmental Law Center said reopening the bypass as an active transportation project would take away funding from transportation elements called for in the Places29 Master Plan approved earlier this year.

“Ultimately, you decided on a set of consensus projects for the U.S. 29 corridor that would be the county’s priorities for the next five years,” Butler said. “A bypass was not included despite being brought up several times.”

During the debate, Supervisor Dennis S. Rooker said the board has repeatedly expressed its opposition to the Western Bypass.

“It’s already been brought up three or four times in the past year,” Rooker said. “The votes have never been there do it, so you keep coming back with it. I guess at some point you’ll catch the public unaware.”

However, Supervisor Kenneth C. Boyd said his interpretation of Thomas’ motion was simply to allow the bypass to be discussed as an option.

“All we’re being asked here to do is not approve any road at all but simply to direct our representatives on the MPO to put this back onto the agenda,” Boyd said. “I’ve always contended we ought to keep the Western Bypass on the table and that’s where I’d like it to be.”

Rooker said the MPO’s line item for the bypass is related to a specific project for which preliminary engineering has been conducted and right of way was been purchased. The project is still listed in the TIP because over $47 million has been spent to date.

“If you want to talk about an eastern bypass or some other bypass, there’s nothing that prevents the MPO from studying that and looking at routes,” Rooker said.

Rooker said he would consider some other bypass route, but that amending the language would pave the way toward funding for construction.

“Going back to pre-2002 and acting like there was no reason why all this was done is imply going to drive a wedge in this community and resurface a debate for a project for which there is no money,” Rooker said.

During the debate, both sides tried to win the vote of Supervisor Lindsay G. Dorrier Jr.

However, Dorrier said the existing alignment is too close to the county’s urban ring and would damage many neighborhoods and schools.

“There’s going to have to be some road put somewhere someday,” Dorrier said. “I think that we can have that debate, but to debate [the Western Bypass] is going to go back with all the problems we’ve got with this road.”

Thomas’ motion to remove the language from the TIP entry failed in a 3-3 tie. Supervisor Duane Snow joined Boyd and Thomas in voting to remove the language, but Supervisors Dorrier, Rooker and Ann H. Mallek voted no.

May 26, 2011

Supervisor Thomas calls for MPO to change western bypass policy

DailyProgressBy Sean Tubbs
Charlottesville Tomorrow
Thursday, May 26, 2011

Albemarle County Supervisor Rodney S. Thomas has called for the Metropolitan Policy Organization to reconsider a 2002 resolution that prevents funding from being allocated for construction of the proposed Western Bypass of U.S. 29.

“I’ve been trying to get the U.S. 29 [bypass] back on the burner for a long time,” said Thomas at an MPO meeting Wednesday. “I thought it should have been part of Places29. I think it needs to part of our overall discussion of the U.S. 29 corridor.”

Listen using player above or download the podcast: Download 20110525-MPO

Bypass-on-tip
The Western Bypass is a primary road project on the MPO's Transportation Improvement Program. (Click to enlarge)

Thomas’ request was made during a discussion of the transportation improvement program (TIP), a document through which the MPO communicates priorities and coordinates funding with federal and state officials.

Since 2002, the TIP entry for the Western Bypass has contained a lengthy paragraph that explains the MPO’s opposition to the project’s current design.  

“The project as designed does not meet community or regional needs, and has been determined too costly for the transportation benefits to be gained,” reads the text.

Estimates for construction of the four-lane, limited-access highway range from $161 million to nearly $300 million.  Critics have said the planned roadway is already obsolete because its northern terminus is located south of the Hollymead Town Center and other commercial developments that were not present when it was designed.

In November 2002, the MPO policy board passed a resolution limiting the project’s funding to preliminary engineering and right of way purchase. Members at the time were concerned the project would have an adverse impact on schools, neighborhoods and the South Fork Rivanna Reservoir.

“[The text] is there because it expresses the policy that this board adopted in 2002 by resolution after a fairly lengthy process about the bypass,” said Stephen Williams, the executive director of the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission. “That still essentially is the MPO policy board’s position.”

“It’s old information,” Thomas said. “To remove [the text] is to say we do not oppose it.”

Julia Monteith, a non-voting member of the MPO who represents the University of Virginia, said she felt the policy board needed input from more stakeholders before changing its policy.

“It would seem to me that if we were going to be discussing changing this, that this is something the city and county would have to get involved in,” Monteith said. “I think it would be well beyond the MPO.”

20110525--MPO(thomas2)
Supervisor and MPO Chair Rodney Thomas

Thomas disagreed with that view.

“I think it’s up to us to get it on the burner as an MPO,” Thomas said. “That’s our duty, to get it back on there.”

The Virginia Department of Transportation still lists the Western Bypass as a project on its six-year improvement program because $47.2 million has been spent on preliminary engineering and to buy right of way for the 6.1-mile route.

Thomas stopped short of making a formal motion to rescind the 2002 resolution, but said he would bring it forward at the MPO’s meeting in June.

Williams said if the MPO rescinds the resolution, the project will also have to be included in the MPO’s long-range transportation plan. The MPO is currently beginning an update of that plan, which will require multiple public hearings and is part of the TJPDC’s Livable Communities Planning Project.

 City Councilor Kristin Szakos said after the meeting she would need to study the matter further. City Councilor Satyendra Huja said he believed the Council had supported the project in the past.

Supervisor Duane Snow said his top transportation priority is to widen U.S. 29 to six lanes between the South Fork of the Rivanna River and Hollymead Town Center. However, he also suggested he would be open to selling the right of way in order to free up money for other projects.

State law requires land obtained for “advance acquisition” of highway projects to be sold back to the original owner twenty years after the original sale if the project has not gone to construction.

“If they decide they don’t want to purchase it, then we can put it out on the open market and get fair market value for it,” said VDOT policy chief Rick Walton at the Commonwealth Transportation Board’s March meeting.

The first parcel of land for the project was purchased on October 28, 1991, according to Albemarle County’s geographical information system. VDOT bought a total of 62 parcels for a total cost of $33.7 million between then and April 20, 2001.

Environmental groups opposed to the road have actively sought the sale of the land to pay for other transportation projects in the area.

“The Southern Environmental Law Center believes the best outcome would be to remove the project from the [six year improvement plan] and sell the right-of-way so that the money can be put toward more cost-effective and less damaging solutions along the U.S. 29 corridor such as the Hillsdale Drive Extension,“ said SELC attorney Morgan Butler.

Thomas’s request prompted outrage from two fellow members of the Board of Supervisors.

“This issue has been brought up a number of times at Board of Supervisors meetings and the Board has not changed its long standing opposition to this project,” said Supervisor Dennis Rooker in an e-mail to Thomas obtained by Charlottesville Tomorrow.

“Moreover, during the Board’s numerous Places 29 and transportation discussions, we all agreed to the priority projects in the Rt. 29 corridor,” Rooker said.

Supervisor Ann Mallek said reopening the bypass discussion would distract the community from more pressing issues.

“Let's truly focus on economic vitality, on water, [and] on the projects we do support,” Mallek said.

TIMELINE FOR PODCAST:

 

  • 01:00 - Meeting begins with public comment from Crozet resident Paul Grady regarding U.S. 29/250 improvements
  • 07:00 - Responses to Grady's public comment
  • 09:00 - Approval of minutes from last meeting
  • 09:30 - Discussion of the MPO's annual work plan
  • 22:99 - Discussion of amendments to Transportation Improvement Program
  • 48:10 - Supervisor Rodney Thomas calls for reconsideration of Western Bypass
  • 1:09:30 - Discussion of letter to Secretary Connaughton

 

May 22, 2011

Transportation official calls on Charlottesville-Albemarle to work together

DailyProgressBy Brian Wheeler
Charlottesville Tomorrow
Sunday, May 22, 2011

James Rich is serving for the second time as a member of the Commonwealth Transportation Board. Appointed in the 1990s by Gov. George Allen, then in 2010 by Gov. Bob McDonnell, Rich told local officials last week that if the Charlottesville-Albemarle community is willing to work together, he is willing to fight for transportation funding.

20110519-Rich-PACC
James Rich, Culpeper District representative,
Commonwealth Transportation Board

At a meeting of the Planning and Coordination Council — a joint body with representation from the city of Charlottesville, Albemarle County and the University of Virginia — Rich said he was happy to be serving the community as the CTB’s Culpeper District representative.

“My parents live in Albemarle County, my sister lives in Albemarle County and I have been a lifelong disciple of Thomas Jefferson,” Rich said. “It’s kind of like coming on to hallowed ground here.”

Rich painted what he described as a “challenging picture” of the transportation funding available from both state and federal sources.

“The recent figures show that about 52 percent of all funds are going into Northern Virginia, and, of course, Tidewater has significant needs with tunnels being built,” Rich said. “We smaller districts have to fight for virtually every dime, and we kind of are given the leftovers.”

Rich was peppered with questions about whether Charlottesville-Albemarle is being punished with low doses of transportation funding and about how projects with unanimous approval could get done more quickly.

“In order for us to fight for these dollars, we all need to work together in the Culpeper district,” Rich said. “We need the county working with the city and the stakeholders and the businesses. We really have to come together, because if we don’t someone else is going to get the money.”

Albemarle Supervisor Dennis S. Rooker said he had just reviewed the proposed six-year funding plan and asked Rich if other localities were already getting more than their fair share.

“What’s really concerning to me … if you look at it on a per capita basis, our [Metropolitan Planning Organization] is getting about $41 per capita over the next six years,” Rooker said. “The state average is $548 per capita and the next lowest MPO in the area is over $200 per capita.”

“It doesn’t look like we are getting a reasonable share of the dollars,” Rooker said. “We have lost 94 percent of our secondary road funds over the last six years.”

According to the data shared by Rooker, of the 14 MPOs in Virginia, the Charlottesville-Albemarle area ranks dead last in per capita funding in the six-year improvement program for FY2012-17. The Blacksburg MPO receives the largest per capita allocation at $910, or 22.2 times as much as Charlottesville.

Charlottesville Mayor Dave Norris asked Rich if he thought the community was being penalized for not supporting the proposed western bypass of U.S. 29.

“I haven’t sensed that,” Rich said. “I have sensed that in some quarters there was a concern that there wasn’t communication between the various entities and therefore, until that happens, there was a concern [road projects] wouldn’t be done in a seamless way.”

“If you work with me, I view part of my job as to fight for additional money,” Rich said. “Obviously, you need some more money.”

Officials shared with Rich the consensus list of priority road projects that they hoped would receive funding more quickly to alleviate traffic congestion. The list included the Best Buy ramp at U.S. 29 and the U.S. 250 Bypass, the Hillsdale Drive extension and the elimination of the “hourglass” on U.S. 29 near Hollymead where the highway shrinks to four total lanes.

Rich suggested a local delegation meet directly with McDonnell and the state’s secretary of transportation.

“I met with [the business community] recently, and I think they have a very good attitude about working together to do the things that are doable,” Rich said. “Let’s go down and show everybody we are on the same page.”

March 24, 2011

Commuting data unveiled for Albemarle, Charlottesville

DailyProgressBy Sean Tubbs
Charlottesville Tomorrow
Thursday, March 24, 2011

A majority of Charlottesville and Albemarle County residents drive by themselves to work, according to new data released by the U.S. Census Bureau.

The American Community Survey, conducted from 2005 to 2009, shows that 59 percent of Charlottesville residents drive by themselves to work, as well as 77 percent of Albemarle workers.

The city has a goal in its comprehensive plan to reduce single occupancy to 50 percent of all vehicle trips by 2015. The county’s plan does not have a specific target, but contains many references to using transit and car-pooling to achieve reductions.

“It should be a priority for everyone to start working on those numbers to the best of our ability,” said County Supervisor Duane Snow. “I think that with the price of gasoline, it becomes even more important.”

The data, which was shown to members of the Metropolitan Planning Organization Wednesday, also breaks down how many people use alternative forms of transportation.

Ten percent of Charlottesville residents regularly car-pool, 7 percent take public transportation, 2 percent ride a bike and 15 percent walk. Another 5 percent work from home and 1 percent use “other means.”

In Albemarle, 11 percent car-pooled, 2 percent took the bus and 2 percent walk. The survey indicated that a statistically insignificant number of Albemarle residents bike to their place of employment work and 7 percent telecommute or work from home.

20110323-Williams
Stephen Williams, executive director of the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission

“I think people make their choices about how they get to work based on cost and what’s convenient to them,” said Stephen Williams, the executive director of the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission. “These statistics are really a reflection of what works well for people from a cost point of view and what’s convenient for them.”

Williams said local governments have to work together to provide adequate alternatives in order to meet their goals. 

“People aren’t going to ride their bike to work if they don’t feel safe on the road,” Williams said.

“They’re not going to walk if they don’t feel safe. They’re not going to ride transit if the bus doesn’t go where they need to go.”

Bill Watterson, director of Charlottesville Area Transit, said he felt his service would play a role in helping the city further meet its goal.

“We want to see the number of people using transit grow, and I’m confident that number is growing because our ridership is growing,” Watterson said. He added that CAT is projected to increase its ridership by more than 4 percent in the current fiscal year.

Heather Higgins of the advocacy group Bike Charlottesville said there are a lot of ways to increase the number of people who cycle to work.

“We can have more bike corridors that are clearly marked with either bike lanes or ‘sharrows,’” Higgins said.  The latter term describes the use of shared-lane street markings to create bicycle paths on existing roads.

“We can have better connections between the city and the county so folks who don’t live in the city can actually get to [work in] the city more easily and more safely,” Higgins added.

One project on the MPO’s long-range transportation plan is a bike trail to connect the Hollymead area with downtown Charlottesville. The Northtown Commuter Trail would rely on a patchwork of other projects being completed, including the Meadowcreek Parkway.

Bike-76
Source: TJPDC (Click to enlarge)

In other business, the MPO policy board endorsed a route change for Bike Route 76, a national cycling corridor route that passes through Charlottesville and Albemarle County.

The route, also known as the Trans America Bike Trail, was created in the mid-seventies to celebrate the nation’s bicentennial.

“Route 76 was drawn from Williamsburg to Oregon to follow the original path of Lewis and Clark,” said city trail planner Chris Gensic.

Visiting cyclists recently complained that signage was missing in downtown Charlottesville. Gensic said that gave the city the opportunity to update the route.
 
The route currently crosses the Belmont Bridge and follows High Street to Ridge-McIntire before connecting to Water Street. Now the route will turn at Garrett Street before connecting to Water Street.

“People figured out it would be better to turn on Garrett and bring bicyclists to the downtown mall,” Gensic said. The route is laid out the way it currently is because Water Street was a one-way street when the route was created.

January 27, 2011

MPO begins rewriting long-range transportation plan

DailyProgressBy Sean Tubbs
Charlottesville Tomorrow
Thursday, January 27, 2011

The organization that coordinates transportation policy for the region has begun the process of developing a new long-range plan. But members of the group’s Policy Board seemed more concerned Wednesday with finding ways to fund projects that have been in the planning stage for decades.

“We’ve got five or six projects that are really pressing and at the top of our agendas,” said Duane Snow, the newest member of the Metropolitan Planning Organization.

Snow, an Albemarle County supervisor, wanted to know the status of plans to widen U.S. 29 near Forest Lakes and to extend Berkmar Drive to Airport Road. Both are called for in Albemarle’s Places29 Master Plan.

However, Snow was told none of those projects is even close to construction because all are in the conceptual stage.

“To be ready to go, you have to have gotten through all of the steps in the development process, which is arduous,” said Stephen Williams, the executive director of the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission, which oversees the MPO.

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(left to right)City Councilor Kristin Szakos, Supervisor Rodney Thomas, James Utterback of VDOT

“We’ve got a number of projects in the design phase,” said James Utterback, the administrator of the Virginia Department of Transportation’s Culpeper District. “But typically we don’t move projects forward if we don’t have a funding stream.”

For instance, the widening of U.S. 29 is not on VDOT’s six-year plan for primary road projects because there is no money to pay for it. The current draft of the Places29 plan only calls for design work to be performed in the first five years of the plan, which is slated to be adopted later this year.

Design work for Hillsdale Drive Extended, another of the projects called for in the Places29 plan, is about two-thirds complete, according to Jeanette Janiczek, Charlottesville transportation planner.

However, its construction will depend on right-of-way being donated by property owners.

A project to build a second on-ramp for the U.S. 250 Bypass from U.S. 29 received a setback when a Congressional earmark to fund final design of the project was not included in the federal budget.

As for Berkmar, there is no clear source of funding for Albemarle’s secondary road projects. The state has drastically reduced allocations from $5.15 million in 2004 to $325,000 this fiscal year.

For many years, the county has applied its secondary road funding to three projects. Its portion of the Meadowcreek Parkway is to be completed next year, and improvements to Jarman’s Gap Road and Georgetown Road likely will be advertised for construction this year.  Jarman's Gap Road has already been advertised and bids are expected to be reviewed in February.

Federal policy requires each MPO to adopt a long-range plan to show that future transportation needs will be met. The last plan, known as the United Jefferson Area Mobility Plan, was adopted in May 2009 

The next one is required to be completed by May 2014.

The next plan will be put together with an increased awareness of building “sustainability” into the transportation network, meaning there will be an emphasis on finding ways to get people out of their cars. The Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission was recently awarded a $999,000 grant by the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department to help coordinate planning among localities.

“Both Charlottesville and Albemarle will be updating their comprehensive plans at the same time,” Williams said. The grant will pay for additional planning staff to coordinate efforts.

Albemarle Supervisor Rodney S. Thomas welcomed the possibility of joint planning.

“We need more interconnectivity to make the area more of one community,” said Thomas, who will become chairman of the MPO in March.

December 08, 2010

Two long-awaited road projects poised to move forward in Albemarle

By Sean Tubbs
Charlottesville Tomorrow
Wednesday, December 8, 2010

A pair of projects to improve two key Albemarle connector roads will move forward this winter after years of planning.

A $13.5 million project to widen a stretch of Jarman’s Gap Road in Crozet will be advertised for construction in January 2011. The right of way phase for this project first began in 1998.

“Given the amount of development that has taken place, the improvements are important for providing adequate access,” said chief planner David Benish in an interview. The project will also add sidewalks and a bike lane, which will make downtown Crozet more accessible.

Georgetown Road will also get pedestrian improvements as part of a $2.3 million dollar project that will be advertised in February. That project has been scaled back dramatically due to funding cutbacks and a lack of space. A sidewalk will be built on the western side of the road, but there is no room for a bike lane.

“Even with available funding it would be very expensive and cost-prohibitive because of the amount of existing development on the road,” Benish said.

For several years, the two projects have been among the county’s top transportation priorities. Another is Albemarle’s portion of the Meadowcreek Parkway, for which the county invested over $30 million.

Under VDOT regulations, localities must save up the entire amount of a project’s cost estimate before construction can be advertised. Accruing the money for all three projects has taken longer than expected because of state budget cuts.

In 2005, Albemarle received around $5.5 million in secondary road funds. That figure has dropped to around $325,000 for the current fiscal year. VDOT will release an estimate for how much Albemarle can expect in FY2012 later this month.

Even though funds are limited, supervisors will be asked early next year to indicate their priorities for what secondary roads will be funded next.

"It's always good to have a plan for when opportunities present themselves,” said Benish. One of those opportunities could be the release of several hundreds of millions of dollars uncovered an internal VDOT audit.

The next project to accrue funding will be a replacement of a wooden railroad bridge on Broomley Road off U.S. Route 250 West  that was damaged when a train hit it in August 2007. In April, chief planner David Benish told the board that it might not be until 2017 before enough money is accumulated  for the project.

Another opportunity for new funding could come as the Meadowcreek Parkway is completed.

“The bid came in less than we had originally estimated, and we put a lot of our secondary road funds in it over many, many years,” said Supervisor Dennis Rooker. 

Karen Kilby, investment manager for VDOT’s Culpeper District, said she would not know about any unspent balance until at least five months after the project is complete in late 2011.

The county is also facing a potential setback in an alternative effort to pave gravel roads while avoiding extensive widening. The state places a high priority on paving roads, but VDOT standards require at least a 40 foot right-of way. Concerned that such roads would attract more development in the rural area, supervisors opted instead to use VDOT’s rural rustic program which allows for more flexibility in design, less impact to the landscape, and results in a lower cost.

However, Supervisor Ann Mallek recently discovered that the rural rustic program will not be the cheaper alternative it was expected to be.

 “Our estimates that we’d been looking at for some of these roads are woefully undervalued, to the tune of two or three times,” Mallek said during the board’s December 1 meeting. “There has been a change in procedure that requires professional engineers’ signatures on all plans instead of just sending our paving company out there to grade them, put the ditches in and drop the asphalt.”

Two Supervisors fail in attempt to resurrect western bypass

The controversial 6.1 mile Western Bypass of U.S. 29 remains dead, despite an attempt by two supervisors to revive it last week.

“In the past, the majority of this board has been totally opposed to it,” said Supervisor Ken Boyd. “I’m not so sure that’s still the case.”

Boyd asked the board if they would consider bringing the Western Bypass back before the Metropolitan Policy Organization. The MPO has never authorized funding for construction of the road, thought it has accepted $47.2 million in state and federal funding for design and the purchase of right of way.

Supervisor Rodney Thomas supported the request, but no other supervisors voiced their support at the meeting.

Reached in an interview, Supervisor Duane Snow said he did not support bringing the idea back at this time.

Boyd said he wanted further study to determine whether the right of way could have some value as a parallel road or limited access parkway. However, that idea would also appear to be off the table. In October 2009, the board asked a consultant preparing a study of the U.S. 29 corridor to delete language that called the right of way to extend Leonard Sandridge Road north of the U.S. 250 bypass.