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December 18, 2007

Eastern Connector Committee wants more data

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20071214ecmap_2
The area in blue is the area being studied for an Eastern Connector. Some committee members felt the solution to congestion on Route 250 would be found in a larger area

The Eastern Connector Steering Committee has directed the consultant overseeing the corridor location study to provide more justification for why the proposed new road is needed. Their request came after members of the public who attended two citizens information meeting in late November overwhelmingly rejected all of the options presented for the road.

At their meeting on December 14, 2007, several members of the Steering Committee said that the public was shown misleading information that failed to demonstrate the need for why the proposed road is necessary. The Committee referenced one slide presented to the public in November which listed a times-saving of only two minutes between Hollymead Town Center and Pantops.

“I didn't hear really any support for the three alternatives that we presented,” said County Transportation Planner Juandiego Wade. “It just showed that no matter what we did, it didn't save a lot of time,” Wade said. He said he thought the public needed more information on why the road is needed.

City Representative John Pfaltz said he thought the consultant did not do a good job of selling the idea of an Eastern Connector as serving as just one link in an expanded road network, one that will take years to fully build.

The newest member of the committee, Charlottesville Planning Commissioner Mike Farruggio, says he's not sure that the Eastern Connector would solve the real problem In many ways, the Eastern Connector study is about more than just the immediate area being studied.

“Is the problem people from Route 20 or Pantops getting to UVA? Or is it people from Lake Monticello trying to get to NGIC?” Farruggio asked.

“I don't see convincing evidence, especially with the new information that was put out at the meeting, where [the Pen Park route] is only going to save a minute and a half to get from 29 and Seminole Square Shopping Center to Pantops, I don't see convincing evidence that this Eastern Connector is going to solve a problem.”

The Committee spent much of their two-hour meeting questioning the data, with questions about whether traffic models can be presented to the public.

20071214ecgrimm
Lewis Grimm of PBS&J explains how the  traffic model predicts more congestion by 2025 under Option Zero

“It is difficult to go through Transportation Planning 451 to people who haven't had 101 yet,” said Lewis Grimm, the lead consultant with PBS&J.

“The model that we're using is a state of the practice regional forecasting model that the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission maintains, as a Metropolitan Planning Organization, working with VDOT. VDOT and the MPO realize that these models need to be enhanced, upgraded and improved over time. They're not static. What we're using right now is the best available for the Charlottesville area in terms of the overall level of detail it contains.”

Grimm said there is no forecasting model in the country that's 100 percent. The U.S. Census helps provide information on where people live, but Grimm says it is not very useful in determining where people shop. This makes it difficult to determine exactly when and where people are using the roads

Albemarle County Supervisor Ken Boyd (Rivanna) thought the way the data was presented did not got enough information to describe the realities of traffic congestion.

“I think these numbers would be very different if we just isolated the hours of 7 in the morning until 9 in the morning, and 4 to 6 in the evening. We've really got to concentrate on what's happening during those rush hours.”

“I assume that that there is a considerable amount of traffic wanting to go between the high development area on 29 North and the areas to the east of the City,” said Pfaltz in agreement. “And now people are saying, we don't have hard evidence.”

20071214ecslide_2Grimm said presenting complex information such as this to the public can be difficult 

Pfaltz said he only had to point to the traffic on 29 North at night to point out the faulty assumptions of the traffic model.

“These times are based on all day. Most of the time, there's no delay,” Pfaltz said. “It's rush hour, where you'd buy ten, fifteen minutes [in time savings], but averaged over the day, you'd average only two. And that point was never made.”

Grimm said most traffic models in Virginia are based on an “average weekday” and can't give traffic engineers an hourly breakdown. Boyd said this showed a fallacy in the model, and said something had to be done to improve the model. Grimm said it would be expensive to get better numbers to capture driver behavior in the existing network, because markers would have to be laid at each individual intersection, each of which would have to be coordinated.

City Councilor Kevin Lynch suggested spending money to conduct a survey by tracking the license plates of cars as they travel through the area. Such surveys have been conducted in the area before, but they are costly.

County Representative George Emmitt suggested building a model around tracking drivers by their GPS devices, joking that it's going to be one of the holiday's top sellers. But he was serious about finding a way to demonstrate what he considers a real problem.

“A lot of the skepticism comes from the hand-waving on the models, and everybody's perception doesn't fit. To me, that's what we owe [the community] if we're going to start talking about trying to justify any of these routes that are going through and near established communities,” Emmitt said.

The Committee agreed to keep all of the alternatives on the table for the time being, including the route through Pen Park to connect Route 20 with Rio Road. However, Mark Graham, Director of Community Development for Albemarle County, reminded the committee that the Meadowcreek Parkway has been in the planning stages for over forty years, and that the same can be expected if the route goes through Pen Park.

County Planning Commissioner Cal Morris (Rivanna) said he thought the public needed to know what would happen if Option Zero really were selected. Option Zero anticipates that all of the projects in the MPO's UnJam 2025 plan are constructed, including a widening of Route 250 to six lanes.

“You still have Free Bridge. It's the end of the funnel that you're concerned with,” Morris said.

20071214ecboydlunch Members of the Committee
listen to Grimm's report

Ken Boyd suggested that other alternatives besides a full-blown Eastern Connector could be made. Boyd said that as a Supervisor, he has many other road projects waiting for money, and that if he had $50 million to build a brand new road, he would want to put it towards a “western connector.” He said he the data presented by the consultant showed that it would make more sense to spend less money to make major improvements at the intersections of Route 20 and 250.

John Pfaltz disagreed. He said area leaders have always taken the politically cheapest route when trying to solve the area's transportation problems.

“We haven't built any more roads,” he said. “We put one past Monticello High School. We built Berkmar to serve Sam's Club. But there have been no new roads built. We keep trying to fix the same old roads and we sort of shift the bottleneck from here to here. And you know, I think we have to bite the bullet and built some roads.”

No specific date was set for the next meeting of the steering committee.

Sean Tubbs

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