As the Virginia Department of Transportation waits for direction on how to improve the flow of through-traffic through U.S. 29, two Albemarle supervisors whose districts straddle the highway hope to educate their constituents on how a decision might be made.
“I think people don’t really understand the transportation planning process,” said Supervisor Brad Sheffield, who represents the county’s Rio magisterial district.
To try to remedy that situation, Sheffield and Jack Jouett Supervisor Diantha McKeel are holding town hall meetings to explain how transportation projects make their way through several layers of government.
Both McKeel and Sheffield are in the early months of their first terms in office. Their tenure so far has coincided with a sudden reversal of fortune for the Western Bypass.
The Federal Highway Administration sent a letter to VDOT in mid-February that indicated the bypass project was unlikely to gain environmental approval without a reexamination of its purpose and need.
A day later, a new Board of Supervisors voted 5-1 to withdraw the county’s support for the road.
Virginia Secretary of Transportation Aubrey Layne, who himself is in the early months of his tenure, convened a ten-member Route29 Advisory Panel to suggest alternate uses of $200 million that has been allocated to the bypass project.
The panel is to meet one more time on May 8 before making its recommendations to the Commonwealth Transportation Board, a state body that approves funding for projects by adopting a six-year improvement program each June.
Any alternative will likely need a majority vote on the federally-mandated Metropolitan Planning Organization Policy Board, which consists of two city councilors, two supervisors, and an unelected VDOT administrator.
One of the MPO’s primary responsibilities it to adopt a long-range transportation plan, something the group is expected to do at their next meeting in May.
“There are several different plans and projects and entities doing different transportation-related things,” Sheffield told a group of about 30 people who attended the first transportation town hall meeting Monday night at the Charlottesville-Albemarle Technical Education Center.
“There is so much information that is circulating that it’s best to try to consolidate it and bring into one place for people to look at,” he added.
Attendees were able to look at maps in various documents, including the four scenarios developed by a technical team working with the Route 29 Advisory Panel.
One attendee noted that many of the projects under consideration are actually in Charlottesville. For instance, the “parallel road” scenario includes the extension of Hillsdale Drive in the city, whereas the “median throughway” scenario would include a grade-separated intersection at Hydraulic Road and U.S. 29. Three corners of that intersection are within city limits.
“I would have liked to have seen the city of Charlottesville participating in this meeting because they play a signature role in whatever direction we take,” said Denny King, who ran for the Board of Supervisors in 2007.
The “median throughway” calls for limiting left-hand turns at several interchanges.
Tracy Mounts, a realtor and resident of the Woodbrook subdivision, attended her first ever meeting on transportation to find out how that possibility would affect her both personally and professionally.
“Being a real estate agent, I’m concerned about the market about how these plans will impact neighborhoods,” Mounts said in an interview. “As a mother, how will this impact our regular routine of getting our children to and from school?”
Mounts said she learned a lot about how transportation projects are planned, but added she has to do a lot of homework.
“I want a voice for people who are residents on the corridor who live there and are not commuting through,” she said.
Sheffield encouraged attendees to make their views known to the panel by submitting a comment in advance of the May 8 meeting.
“The ideas are not completely concrete and they’re still trying to figure out the logistics and I think it’s still worth giving them input,” Sheffield said.
One attendee said in an interview that he was out of town for the winter.
“When I left in December, the bypass was all approved and the contract had been awarded and I thought it was a done deal,” said Frank Stone, a retired aerospace engineer who moved to Forest Lakes South in 2007.
“When I got back in the middle of March, the bypass had been terminated,” Stone added.
Stone had never heard of the MPO Policy Board before attending the meeting. Now he is hoping that decision-makers at all levels of government are paying attention to a bigger picture.
“Solving the 29 issue is going to cause other issues, and [we] have to take a broader view of the whole traffic pattern before [we] solve one little piece of it,” he said.
McKeel and Sheffield will hold a second town hall meeting on transportation at Jack Jouett Middle School on May 5 beginning at 7:00 p.m.