The Belmont Bridge Steering Committee votes on bridge design elements at their meeting on June 14th. Credit: Credit: Kayli Wren, Charlottesville Tomorrow

The Belmont Bridge Steering Committee weighed in on three key design elements for the bridge at their meeting Wednesday. They provided input on issues related to pedestrian circulation and access to Graves Street from the bridge.

In order to make their decisions, the ten-person Steering Committee reviewed the current Belmont Bridge design concepts by contractor Kimley-Horn Associates, as well as public input from an open house, an online survey with around 250 responses, and from community members at the meeting.

“We have to recognize that people do use that bridge quite a bit,” said committee member and Planning Commissioner John Santoski. “We want to make sure that it’s walkable and bikeable.”

The committee’s decisions will be incorporated into the latest design concept, which will advance to the next stages of development and approval as the “preferred concept.”

The committee voted 5-4 in favor of constructing a pedestrian underpass as well as maintaining an at-grade crosswalk like the one that exists today. The four dissenting members voted for only the underpass, arguing that the crosswalk is too dangerous to maintain.

“The pedestrian environment [issue] is the most critical one and the most sensitive one,” said Steering Committee member Tim Mohr in an interview before the meeting.

Brian McPeters, an engineer with Kimley-Horn, said they would not recommend the at-grade crossing from an engineering standpoint because the slope of the street encourages vehicles to go faster than is safe to include a crosswalk.

Committee member John Harrison worried that eliminating the at-grade crossing would not stop people from crossing at that spot anyway. Peter Krebs, a community member from Belmont, said that the alternatives to the crosswalk are unpalatable, and he will absolutely cross where the sidewalk used to be.

“As a pedestrian, 100 percent of the time I will jaywalk,” Krebs said. Several of the 15 other community members present nodded in agreement.

Committee member Lena Seville voiced her concern that the lack of visibility into the pedestrian tunnel would be dangerous, and that the at-grade crossing would place the least burden on pedestrians in terms of accessibility.

Santoski was concerned that the at-grade crossing would “throw a monkey-wrench into moving traffic.” A lot of the planning process comes down to being conscious of how traffic moves, Santoski said.

City Council has previously stipulated the bridge will be reduced in length and have two travel lanes, one in each direction. So traffic flow will be affected by any pedestrian crossings and turning patterns, specifically at the entrance to Graves Street at the site of the former Spudnuts.

The entire committee voted to allow left turns onto Graves Street and look into whether left-turns out of Graves Street could also be allowed under certain conditions. The other option, which received a slight majority from the survey, would have been to restrict left turns onto and from Graves Street with a concrete median.  

Elaine Bailey, a community member, advocated on Wednesday for allowing access to Graves Street through both right and left-hand turns off the bridge.

“That would be my biggest plea,” she said. “Let us turn left into our neighborhood.”

Santoski said in an interview that he previously supported restricting left-turns to keep traffic moving. He said he was willing to compromise on allowing a left-turn in during the meeting. However, the left-turn out, which the committee wanted to consider later, would be more problematic in holding up traffic, he added.

Also under consideration was the construction of a mezzanine under the bridge near the Sprint Pavilion, north of the railroad tracks. Without taking a formal vote, the committee decided to recommend the construction of the mezzanine with stairs on both the east and west sides of the bridge.

The committee also said they would like to see an ADA ramp built from Water Street up to the bridge, but would want the chance to vote again depending on how the ramp would affect other elements of the project.  

The ramp’s construction costs are outside the project’s budget of approximately $23 million, meaning decisions will have to be made further down the road on which preferred concepts can actually be constructed, McPeters said.

“If we pick the ramp, we might have to come back to let you know that we can’t fit everything in that we’ve shown you so far, and then you’ll make a tradeoff. But I think we can progress the design … and then come back,” said Jeanette Janiczek, the city’s Urban Construction Initiative Program Manager.

Santoski pointed out that someone unable to use stairs would not be able to use the mezzanine or pedestrian underpass, meaning they would have to go all the way to crosswalks on Levy Street or Market Street to access the Downtown Mall.

“So if I have a mobility issue … I’m really going to have to go out of my way,” Santoski said. Santoski called it “head-scratching” that some trade-offs could involve making the design less accessible.

The Steering Committee’s recommendations will be applied to the current designs and submitted to the Planning Commission and the Board of Architectural Review in August.

Additional Steering Committee meetings for further input are scheduled for the fall, before the designs go before City Council. Construction is expected to start in summer 2018.