An advisory group created to oversee implementation of the Places29 Master Plan has opted not to weigh in on a letter from a federal agency that called the future of the proposed Western Bypass of U.S. 29 into question. One member of the Places29 Advisory Council suggested at a Thursday meeting that they do so.
“If the bypass is not built, then what?” asked Henry Weinschenk, owner of the Express Car Wash.
On Feb. 18, the Federal Highway Administration released a letter that suggested the “purpose and need” for the 6.2-mile four-lane highway had not been justified by the Virginia Department of Transportation.
The next day, the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors voted 5-1 to request the Commonwealth Transportation Board reallocate around $200 million set aside for the bypass to projects covered in the Places29 master plan.
“After the meeting last [month], things have kind of totally changed,” said Heather Stokes, chairwoman of the Places29 advisory council.
A meeting of the chairs of the elected bodies in all jurisdictions along U.S. 29, as well as presidents of the various chambers of commerce, had been scheduled for late this week. However, that event has been postponed until after the CTB next meets March 19.
Weinschenk said officials in Lynchburg and Danville are also stakeholders in what happens on U.S. 29.
“To them, it’s extremely important to be able to get to Northern Virginia on a 55 mph road with no traffic lights and no driveways,” he said. “They are very interested as a community in what we are going to do.”
However, bypass opponents have argued that the Places29 plan is a more reasonable and cost-effective solution that would satisfy the needs of both local and through traffic.
The Board of Supervisors in February 2011 approved the Places29 plan unanimously, and called for nine transportation-projects to be worked on within the first five years of adoption.
“What the plan did was essentially prioritize [transportation projects] because of limited funds,” said David Benish, the county’s chief of planning. “The Board of Supervisors wanted to make sure this plan was focused on what was realistic and doable.”
Five “doable” projects were envisioned when the plan was adopted. They included a new ramp from the south lanes of U.S. 29 onto the U.S. 250 Bypass heading west, construction of Hillsdale Drive Extended parallel to U.S. 29, and the widening of U.S. 29 to six lanes from Polo Grounds Road to Hollymead Town Center.
The fourth project was to expand the area’s transit system and the fifth is a planning study for an eventual northward extension of Berkmar Drive to Hollymead Town Center.
“The obvious thing is that we have a plan that’s been approved with these five things by the Board of Supervisors that will improve the traffic,” said George Larie, a member of the Places29 council who also is the president of the anti-bypass Charlottesville Albemarle Transportation Coalition.
A network of adaptive traffic signals powered by Rhythm Engineering’s InSynch system also is set to go online later this year between Ivy Road and Polo Grounds Road. The exact cost of this project is not yet known.
VDOT officials have stated that a similar system on U.S. 250 on Pantops has saved as much as 4½ minutes of travel time during peak hours.
Places29 also calls for grade-separated interchanges to be built at Hydraulic Road and Rio Road, but not for several years into the future.
“This plan doesn’t foreclose or say you don’t build the Rio interchange,” Benish said. The project is included in the Metropolitan Planning Organization’s long-range transportation plan, which means it is eligible to receive federal funding.
An interchange at Hydraulic Road, which has three corners within the city of Charlottesville, also is in the plan, but is not envisioned to be built until between 2023 and 2032. However, it is not on the list of projects eligible to receive federal funding.
These priorities will be revisited when the master plan is updated in the near future.
Weinschenk urged his fellow council members to answer the questions raised in the highway administration letter at least.
“The question [in the highway administration letter] was ‘what is the purpose and need of the bypass?’" Weinschenk asked.
“If it is determined that the main purpose of the bypass is not to alleviate local traffic, but to provide a highway for through traffic, what are our alternatives? Building a bypass further to the west through Farmington? Further to the east through Keswick?” Weinschenk continued.
Other members said those questions are not germane to the Places29 council.
“Places29 focused on the Places29 corridor,” said Albemarle Supervisor Brad Sheffield. “While you could argue the bypass should be part of that, that’s another discussion. When we talk about pushing out a bypass farther west, that’s outside of the Places29 scope.”
Weinschenk said the interchanges, which he has opposed for many years, would not be enough.
“If you put in those two overpasses and you eliminate two traffic lights out of 16, if I’m the guy from Lynchburg, I’m not happy,” Weinschenk said.
However, other members of the group said they are not concerned about the interests of other parts of Virginia.
“I don’t think … I’m sitting here to worry about people from Lynchburg getting to Washington, D.C.,” said Places29 council member Cynthia Neff. “I’m worried about the growth area of the Albemarle community and how we move traffic through most effectively.”
“It’s obvious Virginia needs a third north-south interstate, but it ain’t U.S. 29,” Larie said. “There are too many driveways.”
Future options for the bypass will be discussed on Thursday at a 2 p.m. meeting of the Metropolitan Planning Organization.