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Local officials will tout Places29 projects to address congestion
by Sean Tubbs | Wednesday, March 26, 2014 at 9:24 p.m.

A member of the Metropolitan Planning Organization has asked local representatives to advocate for projects in the Places29 master plan when they join a 10-member panel charged with developing non-bypass solutions to congestion on U.S. 29 in Albemarle County and Charlottesville.

“I am very proud of the projects which have been developed over the last decade by the city and the county,” said county Supervisor Ann H. Mallek. “We want to just hammer in on those.”

The Route 29 Bypass Solutions panel was announced last week by Virginia Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne in the wake of a February letter from the Federal Highway Administration that stated the existing configuration of a 6.2-mile, four-lane Western Bypass likely would not receive its approval.

“They’ve brought in former VDOT Commissioner Philip Shucet to facilitate the meetings, and hopefully we’ll see things that we can get some resolution on and move forward,” said John Lynch, the administrator of VDOT’s Culpeper District, at Wednesday’s meeting of the MPO Policy Board.

City Mayor Satyendra Huja and Councilor Kristin Szakos will join Albemarle Supervisor Jane Dittmar at a two-hour meeting today. The meeting will begin at 1 p.m. at the Virginia Department of Transportation’s Center for Transportation Research at the University of Virginia.

A representative from the Charlottesville-based Southern Environmental Law Center, presidents of Chambers of Commerce along the route and elected officials from Culpeper, Lynchburg and Danville make up the rest of the panel.

Video of the meeting will be livestreamed on the Internet, as well as at VDOT offices in Culpeper and Lynchburg.

“We are providing as much access to the meeting as we can,” Lynch said.

Follow-up meetings are scheduled for April 10 and April 24.

Lynch said the study will be similar to one presented to the Commonwealth Transportation Board in December that evaluated conceptual alternatives to relieving congestion in Fredericksburg.

“It will be a developing process, and how that looks will probably be determined at the first meeting,” Lynch said.

During a public comment period, Morgan Butler of the Southern Environmental Law Center asked the three area representatives on the panel to present a united front in pushing projects called for in the Places29 plan.

“The [plan] has a number of key proposals that have the full support of the MPO — the Best Buy ramp, the widening project on U.S. 29 between the river and Hollymead Town Center and Berkmar Drive Extended,” Butler said.

Butler also told the three representatives to make sure the panel knows about the upcoming adaptive traffic signal system on U.S. 29, as well as other transit options. He also asked them to push for study of a grade-separated interchange at Rio Road.

Neil Williamson, president of the Free Enterprise Forum, said he wants to make sure the full City Council and Board of Supervisors have the opportunity to weigh in on the panel’s options before they are presented to the CTB in May.

“Over the next 37 days there will be three meetings and the MPO will not have an opportunity to weigh in on the options,” Williamson said. The MPO does not meet again until late May, after the panel makes its report.

Mallek said she hopes the group can convince other stakeholders that Places29 will speed up through-traffic on U.S. 29. The plan also calls for extension of Hillsdale Drive, as well as a northern extension of Berkmar Drive.

“The philosophy with the parallel road network is to get [local drivers] off of U.S. 29,” Mallek said.

The manager of Charlottesville Area Transit told the MPO that he has sent materials to VDOT about a conceptual proposal to develop an express bus service for the U.S. 29 corridor.

“It’s basic, but it’s doable and it’s relatively inexpensive, and the only constraint would be the acquisition of capital, so we could probably do it within three years,” said John Jones.

Jones estimated this service would cost about $25 million to build a park-and-ride facility somewhere north on U.S. 29 and between $2 million and $3 million a year to operate.

In other news, the MPO held the first public hearing on its long-range transportation plan, a document that lists all of the projects that will receive federal funding over the next few decades.

“It’s a federally mandated document,” said Sarah Rhodes, transportation manager for the MPO.

The MPO must adopt the plan by late May in order to meet a deadline imposed by the Federal Highway Administration.

“If we don’t get a plan in, we’ll get nothing,” said Russell “Mac” Lafferty, An Albemarle planning commissioner who sits on the MPO as a non-voting member.

The plan includes the Western Bypass of U.S. 29, even though that project will not be built as modeled. If the project is officially canceled, the plan will be amended to reflect its absence.

“It’s not going to be a standard amendment process,” Rhodes said. “This board intends to revisit this plan when things are a little clearer about its transportation future.”

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