A panel convened to suggest an alternative to the Western Bypass has been given details of three potential scenarios, including an expressway concept that would dedicate center lanes solely to through-traffic moving entirely through the corridor.
This expressway, in effect a bypass within the existing roadway, could be built by restricting the number of left-hand turns and by building grade-separated interchanges.
“What’s included in the median high-build [scenario] are the addition of express lanes in the median that in some cases would be lower than the elevation of local roads, and local roads would be connected across the top,” said Philip Shucet, a former VDOT commissioner hired to help facilitate the Route 29 Advisory Council.
The group was created in the wake of a February letter from the Federal Highway Administration that indicated the agency would likely not grant an environmental clearance of the 6.2 mile bypass. The panel’s charge is to identify a plan to use $200 million earmarked to the bypass on alternative projects.
“To meet our charge, we’ve got to look at improving through traffic with doing little to no harm to local traffic and hopefully reducing congestion for local traffic,” Shucet said.
At the group’s first meeting in late March, panelists suggested twenty possible solutions. These were reviewed by a technical team made up of transportation experts
and scored according to success factors the panel had suggested at the first meeting.
“Does the solution improve local mobility on the Route 29 corridor? Does the solution improve through traffic mobility on the 29 corridor? And does the solution address the worst congestion areas on the 29 corridor?” asked Shucet.
Another factor was whether the project could get underway within the next four years and within the $200 million budget.
In terms of finding projects that solve local congestion, the technical team indicated that three solutions were viable.
In both the “median throughway low-build” and “media throughway high-build” scenarios, all left-turn movements would be eliminated between the Route 250 bypass and Proffit Road.
In the “low-build” scenario, left turns would be removed at several intersections except at Hydraulic, Greenbrier, Branchlands, Rio, Hilton Heights, and Airport Roads.
The “high-build” throughway scenario would also include grade-separated interchanges at Hydraulic and Rio Roads. One VDOT planner said these would simpler than previous designs.
“People envision a cloverleaf interchange but it’s basically taking advantage of the terrain and doing what we call cut and cover,” said Ben Mannell, assistant director of transportation planning at VDOT and the head of the technical team.
“You would have a four lane section for through-traffic and you’d [build a ] bridge over top of it,” Mannel added. “On the outside you would have two lanes for local traffic.”
The express lanes would exclusively serve through traffic, Shucet added.
“When you’re in the express lane, you’re in the express lane,” Shucet said. “You’re not getting out. People who are driving across drive over a road on top of the expressway.”
The “high-build parallel roads” option would also include grade-separated interchanges at Rio and Hydraulic Road, as well as overpasses at Greenbrier Drive, Hilton Heights Road, Ashwood Boulevard, and Timberwood Boulevard.
The solutions were not well received by two members of Charlottesville City Council who serve on the panel.
“I am concerned that the solutions you have thus far are mostly dealing with through traffic,” said Charlottesville Mayor Satyendra Huja. “My worry is that you’re going to affect our businesses and do more harm than good.”
City Councilor Kristin Szakos said she thought she had been clear at the first meeting that some of those solutions were unacceptable because they would negatively impact businesses on the corridor.
“That sort of happened outside this room without our participation,” Szakos said.
Shucet defended the process.
“There’s no effort here to make anybody happy and there’s certainly no effort here to upset anybody,” Shucet said. “This is an evaluation based on some objective metrics and some professional judgment.”
Lynchburg City Councilor Turner Perrow repeated his concerns that the money would go towards projects that would alleviate local traffic without addressing through traffic.
“We just need to be careful when we’re looking at this whether or not it is beneficial in the long-term for through traffic,” Perrow said.
Kristina Hoffman, a lawyer representing the Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce said she was concerned some of the solutions to address through traffic would make it harder for local traffic.
“I just don’t want to create problems while trying to fix problems,” Hoffman said.
Some panelists were concerned that a solution to increase passenger and freight rail was not considered to be viable by the technical team.
“Railway improvements would take greater than six years and depending on the passenger side and the freight side, the costs go from $200 million to $700 million,” Shucet said.
Trip Pollard of the Southern Environmental Law Center had a different opinion.
“I think passenger rail is well within the six year timeframe and would have a much lower cost to get at least a second train to Lynchburg.”
City Councilor Kristin Szakos also said it should be still considered.
“I think the reason for trying to deal with congestion on 29 is really a means to get to the solution of giving people south of Charlottesville a way to get through Charlottesville quickly and rail would do that,” Szakos said.
Shucet agreed to do more research into the costs of passenger rail.
An illustration will be created to give more details on each of the proposals. Shucet said the team may not be able to produce a traffic model to determine how much each one would serve local versus through traffic.
The panel’s final meeting will be held on April 24 at 1:00 pm at the Virginia Department of Transportation’s Center for Transportation Innovation and Research.
Hoffman asked if the next report could also include indications of where right of way might need to be acquired in order to accommodate the throughway. Shucet said that would be premature.
“It requires a level of judgment that we’re not prepared to make and it would be conservative, and therefore it would worry a whole lot of folks who would probably never need to be worried,” Shucet said.