If sound barriers are built along a portion of the U.S. 250 bypass as part of the so-called Best Buy ramp, a Charlottesville design committee wants the Virginia Department of Transportation to keep them as simple as possible.
“[They] need to be as plain as possible and include vegetation to the extent possible,” said Rachel Lloyd, chair of the city’s PLACE Design Task Force. The group was created in 2012 to advise City Council on the aesthetics of public infrastructure.
The $17.2 million project was first conceived more than a decade ago as part of a larger study to reduce traffic congestion at the interchange of U.S. 29 and U.S. 250. VDOT officials hope to advertise the project for construction in November.
“It will end up being a dual-right going up the ramp at the Best Buy property,” said Dave Cubbage, an urban program manager with VDOT. “There will be two lanes up the ramp and once you get to the top of the ramp, one lane will merge or you can stick to the outside lane and take the exit for Barracks Road.”
The plan also includes an additional south lane on U.S. 29 between Hydraulic Road and the interchange, but Thursday’s discussion at the PLACE group’s meeting was restricted to the sound walls that will line both sides of U.S. 250.
“Federal Highway Administration regulations require there be a sound wall installed along the 250 bypass as part of this project,” said Jim Tolbert, the city’s director of neighborhood development services.
The walls would vary in height depending on the location, but would be as high as 25 feet in some places.
“The only way it would not be installed is if enough of the property owners opt out and don’t want sound walls,” Tolbert added.
VDOT has not yet formally asked affected residents whether they want to have the walls built, and more than half need to support the project, Tolbert said.
“We’re proceeding with the presumption that we’re going to install the sound walls as presented,” Cubbage said.
With the project soon to go to bid, Tolbert wanted the PLACE committee to weigh in on the aesthetics. They were shown a number of different visual treatments that could be applied to the walls.
“Each of them offers a different pattern that we could include in the contract or we can leave it as a standard brushed finish,” Cubbage said.
However, PLACE members were not satisfied by the various treatments.
“This is decoration and frankly I think all of it is bad,” said Beth Myer, a landscape architect and Dean of the University of Virginia School of Architecture. “I would have a simple wall and I would have a clearer idea of whether you could spend money that would be wasted on decoration on some vines that might help to mitigate the impact of a 20-foot high wall in someone’s backyard.”
However, VDOT’s noise abatement program manager said they are cautious when installing vegetation on sound walls.
“They do become a maintenance issue and they do sometimes get sprayed,” said Paul Kohler, noise abatement manager at VDOT. “The reason why we don’t like ivies… is that those roots can get into the absorptive material and they can reduce the efficiency.”
PLACE committee members were more concerned that homeowners and renters know how they will be affected.
“They should be made aware of the shading effects and the lack of air movement that’s going to occur,” Mark Watson said.
“I feel like the questions people are asking about how best to communicate the design and engineering information to neighbors is probably more critical to us at this point than picking between [designs],” Lloyd said.
A design public hearing for the project was held in November 2012. PLACE members also asked if another public meeting could be held, though there is nothing in state or federal law that would compel VDOT to do so.
The Best Buy project is now included in a funded and approved package of transportation projects currently being planned for the U.S. 29 corridor.
Philip Shucet, a former VDOT commissioner who is overseeing implementation of the projects, told an advisory panel that he wants the Best Buy project to be completed no later than July 31, 2016.