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The Commonwealth Transportation Board approved $230 million in funding for the Route 29 Solutions projects nearly three years ago, and members returned to Charlottesville on Tuesday to see the results up close.
“It has been a great success,” said Virginia Secretary of Transportation Aubrey Layne. “I remember people telling me this was going to be my Waterloo.”
The CTB met at the Boar’s Head Inn for a two-day meeting and the first in Charlottesville since May 2014. The second day will include a public comment session.
“I’m not sure there’s a prettier place in springtime than the Culpeper District in Virginia,” said Allison DeTuncq, the district’s representative on the CTB.
The CTB toured the Rio Road grade-separated intersection and drove along the unfinished extension of Berkmar Drive, but the beginning of the meeting centered on the construction projects that they approved in 2014.
“The Route 29 Solutions have been a great investment in the corridor,” said Albemarle Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Diantha McKeel, giving special thanks to the bike and pedestrian trails that will be part of Berkmar Drive Extended and the widening of U.S. 29 between Polo Grounds Road and Hollymead Town Center.
McKeel also credited VDOT for building trust with business owners in the area by implementing a “smooth, well-delivered” series of projects.
The Route 29 Solutions projects was one of the first transportation initiatives of Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s administration and came about after the Western Bypass of U.S. 29 lost the support of the Federal Highway Administration.
“The project was canceled after the purpose and need was outdated,” said John Lynch, the administrator of VDOT’s Culpeper District. “The secretary in conjunction with the commissioner set up a panel to determine what projects could reduce congestion on U.S. 29.”
Layne acknowledged that many in the Charlottesville area were opposed to the project.
“There were a whole lot of fears that turned out to be unfounded,” Layne said, including a concern that businesses around the Rio Road grade-separated intersection would fail as a result of construction. He added that the county’s tax receipts in the area actually increased during that time.
“There was a fear VDOT was not going to meet the schedule,” Layne said. “They were right. We beat it by over 30 days. All of that helped prove to the public that we can deliver.”
Several members of the Route 29 Advisory Panel even resigned in protest before construction began.
“We made clear that we knew everyone wasn’t going to agree,” Layne said, adding that some of the design changes came from critics of the project; those include an accelerated completion of the Best Buy Ramp at the intersection of U.S. 29 and U.S. 250.
Lynch said Berkmar Drive Extended and the widening of U.S. 29 will be finished this summer, four months ahead of schedule. He said the projects were able to be accelerated because the design-build team in the Lane Corman Joint Venture was able to work alongside VDOT program managers at a temporary headquarters off of Woodburn Road.
Under typical VDOT contracts, requests to change plans usually have a 21-day turnaround time. But because the staffs were in the same building, the contract for the Route 29 Solutions projects was able to be much shorter.
“We said nine days, but it got whittled down to about five in practice,” Lynch said. “That buys a lot of time for the designers and the contractors to make the projects work.”
The Route 29 Solutions also includes installation of equipment that allows for traffic signals to be synchronized and controlled from VDOT’s operation center in Staunton, Lynch said. While they have been used during the construction, their full impact won’t be known until after all of the projects are complete.
“Our ultimate goal is that 80 percent of traffic approaching the signal gets a green light,” Lynch said. “If they don’t meet those standards, an alarm goes off and they have to look at it and make an adjustment.”
Lynchburg’s representative on the CTB wanted to know how VDOT is monitoring results.
“Are we tracking the flow of traffic and the speed by which cars are moving through Charlottesville?” asked Shannon Valentine. “It would be useful to have metrics of before and after.”
Lynch said metrics will be better known once all of the projects are completed.
“We will have that data and there can definitely be a comparison,” he said.
Layne said the real results will come after the extensions of Berkmar Drive and Hillsdale Drive are completed.
“Those feeder roads will take more traffic off of U.S. 29,” he said.
Another CTB member said he traveled to the meeting from north of Charlottesville and took U.S. 29.
“I hit one light at the airport, and then I did not stop once,” said William Fralin, of the Salem District. “I don’t know if that was luck.”
At the beginning of the meeting, Charlottesville Mayor Mike Signer took the opportunity to address the CTB to ask members to visit West Main Street. The city has spent several years planning a $30 million streetscape project to bury utility lines, add sidewalks and plant new street trees.
“That could transform this city the same way the Downtown Mall did,” Signer said, adding that the goal is to make West Main Street a destination.
Charlottesville’s Smart Scale application for $18.3 million to help pay for the project did not make the cut this year. The next application process will be in 2018.