With the Commonwealth Transportation Board expected to vote this week on a $203 million package of road improvements to speed the flow of traffic on U.S. 29, some in the business community want two of the recommended projects to be left out.
“Our chamber again reaffirms our decades-long-standing grave concerns regarding proposed grade-separated interchanges at Hydraulic and Rio roads,” wrote Timothy Hulbert, president of the Charlottesville Regional Chamber Commerce, in a letter to Gov. Terry McAuliffe and state Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne.
However, the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors and the Metropolitan Planning Organization both have endorsed a plan to allocate $81 million toward design and construction of the Rio Road interchange and $10 million toward preliminary engineering for one at Hydraulic Road.
The interchanges are part of a suite of recommendations suggested by Philip Shucet, a former commissioner of the Virginia Department of Transportation hired to suggest alternate ways to spend $200 million that had been allocated for the now-defunct Western Bypass of U.S. 29.
In both interchanges, the middle lanes of U.S. 29 would be lowered beneath the cross-streets to allow through-traffic to pass through the intersections without stopping.
However, Shucet’s technical team only produced conceptual sketches and did not specify how construction would be phased or how long it would take.
Shucet’s other recommendations include $54 million to extend Berkmar Drive north of the South Fork Rivanna River, widen U.S. 29 between Polo Grounds Road and Hollymead Town Center, and increased funding for a system of adaptive traffic signals that adjust to accommodate real-time traffic conditions.
"In no instance is there any sugarcoating
of the fact that this is a tough thing for
businesses to go through." Lee Catlin
The chamber supports all of the projects, except for the interchanges.
“We would like to see them go with all the plans immediately except we want them to hold off on the Rio Road intersection because we need more time to know the impact,” said Chuck Lebo, a developer who said he manages half a million square feet of commercial space within a half-mile of the Rio intersection.
If the CTB votes to add the two interchange projects to VDOT’s six-year improvement program, the concepts will go through a design process that will shed more light on how long construction will take and how businesses in the vicinity will be affected.
Until then, there are many unknowns, but Albemarle officials are preparing ways to support the business community.
“A number of the projects that are part of that package are going to involve disruption to businesses during construction,” said county spokeswoman Lee Catlin. “It’s our desire to work proactively with VDOT, the business community and the public at large to minimize negative impacts as much as possible.”
Catlin told the Board of Supervisors at its meeting last week that county staff has researched how other communities have dealt with construction, including a manual written by the city government in Madison, Wisconsin.
That document, called the Road Construction Survival Guide, is designed to prepare businesses for the inevitability of change.
“Road construction is necessary every few decades,” reads the guide, which was created in 2009. “And remember, once reconstruction is complete, the corridor is likely to be construction-free for years, and your business will benefit from the project’s improvements.”
“In no instance is there any sugarcoating of the fact that this is a tough thing for businesses to go through,” Catlin said to the board.
Catlin added that staff also will create a method for residents and businesses to receive frequent and “real-time” construction updates. They also want to help businesses in the path of construction.
“[The guide suggests we] not only encourage people to keep shopping and patronizing those businesses, they also look at what parts of the construction project they can funnel into those businesses,” Catlin said.
During a discussion of the program, supervisors said they wanted the awareness program to be expanded to include more than just businesses.
“There are commuter interests and all sort of other folks who are not engaged in bricks and mortar right there,” said Supervisor Ann H. Mallek.
“I’d like our commuters, and separately our business community, to be on an equal footing with VDOT,” said Supervisor Jane Dittmar.
Lebo said he supports the idea of having an open dialogue, but he would still prefer the CTB to wait before moving forward with the interchanges.
“When you start changing traffic patterns on an already busy road, businesses suffer,” Lebo said.
Mallek suggested that county staff begin meeting with business owners in each section of the Rio Road interchange.
“The quadrants are different from one another and have different needs, and people need some chance to have some conversations about what the impact might be,” Mallek said.
Dennis Dikmen opened a Turkish restaurant, Sultan Kebab, in 2012 in a small shopping center in the northwest quadrant of the Rio Road intersection. He said he is already in a tough location.
“We are a little bit away from the road and a little bit away from downtown, but the food is good so people come in,” Dikmen said. “But people are already having a hard time finding us here.”
Dikmen said he was unfamiliar with the details of what has been proposed for the interchange. He said regardless of what happens, he would like officials to relax rules to allow for larger signs to attract more customers.
A neighbor of Dikmen’s also said he is concerned.
“We are a retail business, and getting into this building if the road is disturbed could be a really big deal,” said Reid Young, a commercial lender with Pioneer Bank, which moved from downtown Charlottesville to the Rio Road area in 2011.
“This is a much more visible location for the bank,” Young said. He added that the bank likely would not have moved there if its board of directors had known a grade-separated interchange would be built at Rio Road.
Young said he would like the business assistance program to include signage to let customers know that shops in his center are still open.
“The obvious [solution] is signage to point them how to get there during construction, but I’m not sure there’s a whole lot more you can do when you consider the number of businesses in this quarter-mile vicinity,” Young said.
Supervisors will have another discussion on the business assistance program and other communication issues on July 2.