The “listening tour” that is being conducted as part of the Virginia Department of Transportation’s
state-wide study of U.S. 29
stopped in Charlottesville on February 9, 2009. About fifty people were on hand for an introduction to the study, and to make comments about the highway’s future. The event in Charlottesville was part of a series of events taking place across the state. Meetings had previously been held in Danville, Lynchburg and Nelson County.
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The study will have a significant land use component, according to Joe Springer, Project Manager for Parsons Transportation Group. He said that land use policies by communities govern access to US 29 as well as possible tie-ins for public transit and rail. The study will not involve the collection of new data, but will combine previous studies that have been done throughout the past decade. Portions of Albemarle County’s
Places29 Master Plan
process will be included in the corridor study.
The US 29 corridor through Virginia connects three Metropolitan Planning Organizations (Danville, Lynchburg and Charlottesville) in Central and Southern Virginia, with long stretches of rural areas in between. In addition to providing a corridor for long distance travel, US 29 also serves a local function in each urbanized area.
“Obviously there are issues related to the conflict of how you best serve both the through-traffic and the local traffic,” said Springer. He added that the study is meant to foster dialogue between the different urban areas “to identify overall common goals and common desires for the corridor.”
Charlie Rasnick with VDOT said that one goal of the study will be to find a way to either encourage or mandate jurisdictions along US 29 to alter their comprehensive plans in order to restrict access management, basically the connection of new roads and driveways.
“We want to try to see what we can do to fix some of those locations where [VDOT and counties] have allowed numerous access points to occur,” Rasnick said in response to a questioner who pointed out that 29 is congested in Albemarle County due to a large number of entrances. “What we’d like to do is be instead of just an advisor, maybe show technically serve [commercial] properties by having a local street rather than one access point after another.”
Butch Davies, the Culpeper District’s Representative on the Commonwealth Transportation Board, said there would likely be no money available to begin any new projects in VDOT’s Six-Year Plan. In response, a questioner asked about the purpose of conducting a study that might recommend new roads that cannot be funded. Springer answered that the study would recommend a lot of potential access management solutions that would not require funding.
“The roadway is a resource, and every time you put a new [access] point, you’re exploiting that resource until it’s gone,” Springer said. “So what we want to do is make sure we do planning to manage that resource better and if we work with localities it’s not a matter of spending money, it’s a matter of adjusting [comprehensive] plans.”
One of the tensions between Charlottesville and the two MPO areas to the south is the controversy over the proposed “Western Bypass” of US 29. Many of the questions asked during the public comment period dealt with the possibility of further study of the right of way purchased in the mid-1990’s by VDOT to build the highway.
(Rivanna) pointed out that the bypass has been excluded from consideration during the Places29, and wanted to know if it would be included in the statewide corridor study. Springer responded that the “existing right-of-way is a fact and there may be some way to use that.”
Boyd’s question was followed by another that asked what Springer and others have learned from the sessions held in the South. Springer said Charlottesville’s lack of a bypass was a concern for Lynchburg and Danville.
“You cannot have a conversation south of Charlottesville without people being very, very frustrated about traveling through Charlottesville and Albemarle County,” Springer said.
Morgan Butler of the Southern Environmental Law Center asked if the land purchased by VDOT to build the bypass could be sold with the proceeds going to fund other road improvement projects on US 29. Rasnick responded that VDOT doesn’t want to eliminate the option of using the right of way to build a road, but that he is trying to be realistic.
“The bypass would not function today as it was envisioned when it was first planned back in the 1970’s,” Rasnick said. “We don’t anticipate building that bypass. Now, we are going to look at it and see if there is right of way that we can use… We don’t know that yet.”
In response to Butler’s question about other potential uses of funding, Rasnick said VDOT could likely not recoup the $41 million he said the agency spent to purchase land.
“That included things like damages, moving costs, which we cannot recoup,” Rasnick said. He said VDOT is required by law to offer each parcel of land to the original owner at the original cost paid.
Rasnick said that whatever happens, VDOT does not envision US 29 becoming an Interstate highway.
One man followed up and asked if there was any possibility of eventually having a third north-south Interstate highway in Virginia, pointing out that New Hampshire has three such roads despite having a smaller population than Virginia. (I-89, I-91, I-93). Springer said the study will look at potential alignments off of US 29, but that any new interstate would be a long-term project that would not be built for decades.
“Between now and 30 years, we’ve got to do things to make sure the existing road continues to do its job as well as it can,” Springer said.
The next opportunity for public input will come in May or June when one public meeting will be held in which representatives from all jurisdictions will be encouraged to attend. Another round of listening tours will be held in the fall, and a presentation will be made to the Commonwealth Transportation Board in November.
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