The latest attempt to address a regional transportation bottleneck began Monday when representatives from a wide range of groups met to discuss potential solutions to take pressure off Free Bridge.
“We’re approaching this with a clean slate,” said Sarah Rhodes, a transportation planner with the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission.
Earlier this year, the TJPDC received a $250,000 grant from the Federal Highway Administration to evaluate the ecological impact of potential projects to build additional vehicular lanes across the Rivanna River.
In 2006, the city of Charlottesville and Albemarle County each paid $250,000 to hire the firm PBS&J to study potential options for an “eastern connector” to connect the Pantops area with northern Albemarle.
After the stakeholder group for the connector study selected an alignment in 2008 that would travel through or along the border of Charlottesville’s Pen Park, the project went dormant due to a lack of support from city and the county. That alignment likely would have been subjected to a stringent environmental review.
The existing bridge, which has a total of seven lanes, was built in 1993. The structure carried an average daily traffic volume of 52,253 vehicles in 2010 but Rhodes projected that will grow to 68,569 by 2040.
Rhodes said the bridge is sized for a capacity of about 45,000 vehicles a day.
The Institute of Environmental Negotiation at the University of Virginia has been hired to facilitate the project.
“This is more of a step back so we can all take a look together at what the needs are here and what it is we can do by bringing together a bunch of creative folks without the need to reject or propose something,” said the institute’s Frank Dukes.
The group came in to find that TJPDC staff members already have begun modeling alternatives, ranging from eliminating interchanges on the U.S. 250 Bypass in the city, adding a bridge either north or south of the existing bridge and widening Interstate 64.
Rhodes said the modeling data is meant to be a launching point for the conversation based on what has been said before.
“We have a bridge that’s in tough shape now but is going to get exponentially worse,” Rhodes said.
Many members of the group were initially skeptical about why they were present.
“The city and county spent half a million dollars looking at this project and who knows how much staff time and citizen time was used,” said Clara Belle Wheeler, who has land on Route 20 north of Free Bridge. “We’ve sort of ridden that horse.”
“Is it fair to say that something must be done?” asked David Mitchell, an engineer who represents the Pantops Shopping Center.
“Why did you all come today?” Rhodes asked in return. “Because something needs to be done.”
“That may not apply to everyone in this room,” Mitchell observed.
One member of the group was concerned the meetings would be an exercise in futility.
“To what extent is this actually going to have an impact?” asked Mary Roberts of the Locust Grove neighborhood.
“If we don’t talk about it, nothing will happen,” Rhodes said. “We do have a goal of making something happen but I can’t make any promises.”
Jeff Werner of the Piedmont Environmental Council pointed out that the numbers are increasing in part because more people are moving to Fluvanna and Louisa counties.
“We’re just playing catch-up now with transportation solutions for projects that are in the pipeline,” Werner said.
Dukes urged participants to vocalize their concerns and disagreements with each other during the process. He asked the group to embrace the cooperative goal of identifying the least environmentally damaging alternatives.
“We are asking you to try to meet the needs of everyone who is interested at the table,” said Dukes.
Wheeler suggested modeling what will happen when the John Warner Parkway is completely finished and vehicles will be able to travel from I-64 to northern Albemarle without getting on U.S. 250.
Rhodes said that modeling had not been done but could be.
“That will make the city howl,” Werner said.
“This is an opportunity to howl,” said Rhodes.
At the end of the meeting, members were asked what their goals for participating are.
“There are people who would like to be able to cross 250 without being run over. There aren’t even crosswalks,” said Kirk Bowers, a Key West resident who was representing the Sierra Club.
Werner, speaking as a city resident, said he hoped the project could help bring the city and county together on building new infrastructure that would benefit both communities.
“For too long, the city and county have been at loggerheads about transportation across the river,” Werner said. “Why we’re terrified to connect the city and county is sometimes beyond me.”
Bowers said he was concerned that solutions had to be palatable to city officials and an option such as the extension of State Farm Boulevard to connect into the Woolen Mills would not be acceptable.
“If you try to put 15,000 more cars on East Market Street that would be a disaster,” Bowers said.
Rhodes welcomed the debate.
“We have to think outside the box and be open-minded,” Rhodes said.
The group will next meet during a field trip to Darden-Towe Park and Free Bridge in mid-December. The next meeting after that is scheduled for Jan. 15.