FISHERSVILLE - The two groups that make transportation decisions in the Staunton and Charlottesville regions gathered Wednesday in Fishersville to hear more about how they can collaborate to help improve commuting within the greater area.
“Our two [metropolitan planning organization] regions are only seven miles apart and we share many common transportation infrastructure issues, challenges and amenities,” said Bonnie Riedesel, executive director of the Central Shenandoah Planning District Commission.
“We also have thousands of people who make that trek across that mountain every morning to go to work in the Charlottesville and Albemarle area,” she added.
Interstate 64 is the main connector of the two areas, and members of the Staunton-Augusta-Waynesboro and Charlottesville-Albemarle MPOs were briefed on two studies that may suggest better ways to use the road in the future.
“As planners, our staff [members] spend a lot of time looking at current conditions and what’s happened in the past, what’s important for this corridor in the future,” said Chip Boyles, executive director of the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission. “Each region brings its own opportunities to the table will draw people coming and going between them.”
The Staunton-area MPO is working on a study of a possible bidirectional regional transit service that would travel between Harrisonburg and Charlottesville.
“This need to look at the feasibility of transit from Harrisonburg to Staunton to Waynesboro to Charlottesville has been kicked around [for many years],” said Nancy Gourley, transit program coordinator for the CSPDC.
Their work is based on an online survey that had more than 600 responses.
“What we heard is that there really is a demand for bidirectional service,” said Lib Rood of the KFH Group, a consultant hired to conduct the work. “Afton Mountain is a significant travel barrier, and a lot of people don’t really like driving over it, especially in adverse weather conditions.”
Rood said the bus service also could be used by people seeking appointments at the University of Virginia Medical Center. She also said students and faculty at James Madison University would benefit from regional bus service to the Charlottesville Albemarle Airport.
After the survey, Rood and her team investigated how people currently commute. Using multiple sources, they estimate that more than 1,000 people a day commute from the Shenandoah Valley to either UVa or downtown Charlottesville. An additional 237 people commute from the Valley to the area around Sentara Martha Jefferson Hospital.
“When we were thinking about where to bring the bus, we looked at the primary employment nodes in the area,” Rood said.
Rood predicts that there would be an average daily ridership of 155 trips a day, requiring three buses to complete three round-trips.
“[A] steering committee decided that they want to see bidirectional service in the full corridor,” Rood said.
Alternatives are still being refined and a draft plan will be finalized by the end of the year.
“As we think collectively about this sort of project and talking to economic development people, as well, if you have this backbone of commuting possibilities, you can really change the way you do transit-oriented development along that spine to people commuting to jobs,” said Charlottesville City Councilor Kristin Szakos.
Earlier this month, the TJPDC began work on a study of I-64 and U.S. 250, from Staunton to Charlottesville, funded through a $100,000 federal grant.
Boyles said the work will be a good companion to the transit study.
“In a one-year timeframe, there have been over 600 accidents in the corridor,” Boyles said. “If I’m going to be stuck on I-64 behind one of those accidents, I’d sure rather have my laptop and be able to do work.”
Wood Hudson, a planner with the TJPDC, said they will collect data on how many use the corridor and will conduct an assessment of what improvements might be needed.
“It’s all well and good for us to produce a lovely plan that’s just going to sit on the shelf, but we want to integrate that work into our long-range transportation plans,” Hudson said.
There have been five fatal crashes in the last year, according to Hudson. He noted crashes have closed the road twice in the past three weeks.
The ultimate goal would be to find ways to limit the number of accidents on the road.
“If we look at things that will mitigate accidents like roadway geometry and speed limits, there are a lot of ways we can work towards zero-accident tolerance. That is a goal of VDOT and the federal government,” Hudson said.
Hudson said accidents and slowdowns are more prevalent in the morning and afternoons during commutes and that much of the congestion is caused by sunlight.
“There’s a spot on the road outside of Charlottesville called ‘Sun Hill,’” Hudson said referring to the hill east of the Ivy exit. “You come up over the hill and in the morning commute, you get the sun right in the eyes and frequently you can see a cluster of accidents originating there.”
Demographic information will play into the study as well.
“The supply of low-cost housing in Charlottesville is very small,” said Luke Juday, a planner with the TJPDC. “Cost-differentials are going to drive the eastward commuting patterns into the future.”
The study will be completed by next October. There will be two public open houses as the research is conducted.
Boyles said the goal of the project is two-fold.
“Fifty percent of it will be looking at the corridor itself,” Boyles said. “The other 50 percent is just building a partnership and a permanent means to work together with our sister MPO within that corri-dor.”