The Charlottesville City Council informally has endorsed a $203 million package of transportation projects to address traffic congestion on U.S. 29, including $10 million to begin plans for a grade-separated interchange at Hydraulic Road.
“It is a major connecting piece for the whole network and I think we don’t want to make it seem like it’s not a high priority even though it is further down in the pipeline,” said Councilor Kathy Galvin.
Though no vote was taken, the four councilors present at Monday’s meeting signaled support for the recommendations made by Philip Shucet, the former Virginia Department of Transportation commissioner hired to suggest ways to alleviate congestion on U.S. 29.
Mayor Satyendra Huja was absent from the meeting on a scheduled trip.
In addition to interchanges at Hydraulic and Rio roads, the Shucet plan envisions a parallel road network, including extensions of Berkmar and Hillsdale drives.
“We want those parallel roads done before anything else,” Galvin said. “We need to have traffic modeling done at every step of the way so that we know what impact each [project] is making.”
A previous council voted against a grade-separated interchange at Hydraulic in January 1995, but Councilor Kristin Szakos said her peers might support the idea this time around.
“When we look at the accident reports, that’s where the most are in this area and we have to do something,” Szakos said.
Szakos said the intersection concepts shown by Shucet were not the large cloverleaf designs developed in the 1990s. Still, she also acknowledged the idea is opposed by the Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce.
Although councilors are scheduled to hold a public hearing June 16 on the topic of the Belmont Bridge and are expected eventually to decide between a replacement bridge or an underpass, they spent some time talking about it during a briefing Monday night.
The Commonwealth Transportation Board has allocated $14.46 million for the project and Tolbert said VDOT expects the bridge to be advertised for construction next year.
“We’re working to try to understand from VDOT exactly what it would mean if we weren’t ready to go soon,” said Jim Tolbert, the city’s director of neighborhood development services. “What are the implications if council chose an underpass versus a bridge? We do know we would have to go to the CTB for an authorization.”
Fenwick wanted to know why Norfolk-based MMM Design has been paid $400,000 for preliminary engineering on a discarded replacement design, as well as two newer concepts.
The Belmont Bridge, when it started, you have to remember that it was a bridge replacement,” Tolbert said. He added that the design for that structure was about a third done when the decision was made in February 2013 to expand the scope.
Galvin said some people are concerned about the contingencies that Detroit-based Barton Malow built into the preliminary $27 million cost estimate for the underpass. The two new concepts developed by MMM Design are estimated to cost $16.3 million and $18 million.
Tolbert said Barton Malow put a higher contingency on the underpass cost estimate because of the potential unknowns associated with going underground.
“The borings that have been done for the bridge might not be deep enough because of the different type of construction for the underpass,” Tolbert said. “There is a higher design contingency for the underpass because we know what the design figure is for the bridge.”
Tolbert said the biggest unknown is what CSX and the Buckingham Branch railroads would want to ensure that its operations are not stopped during construction.
Councilor Dede Smith asked if the railroad would allow an at-grade pedestrian crossing. Tolbert said no.
“They just have a real concern of anyone accessing their tracks, anywhere at any time, because of the number of times that they have deaths and injuries,” Tolbert said. “It’s ultimately their call.”