The City of Charlottesville has extended the deadline for public comment on two options to replace the Belmont Bridge until March 31. The comment period was originally to close last week.
Proponents of an option to replace the bridge with an underpass have cheered the decision. City staff have also agreed to recalculate a $30 million cost estimate and timeline for the underpass scenario, projections some felt stacked the deck in favor of a traditional bridge.
“I applaud the City for addressing the community concerns around project leadership and communication on this significant civic infrastructure project,” said Heather Higgins, spokeswoman for the advocacy group Bike Charlottesville.
The city has been working on a plan to replace the existing bridge for several years. The existing structure was built in 1961 and has a sufficiency rating of 47.6 out of 100 according to the Virginia Department of Transportation.
The city hired MMM Design to develop plans for a replacement, but some members of the Belmont neighborhood felt the plan could have better connected their community with downtown.
Following a Feb. 2012 design contest held by the University of Virginia and filmmaker Brian Wimer, the city hired architects Pete O’Shea and Jim Rounsevell to sift through entries to come up with innovative approaches.
They unveiled two scenarios in December, both of which would feature a separate bridge to carry pedestrians over the railroad. One scenario would replace the existing bridge with a new structure, and the other would place Avon Street beneath the railroad tracks.
People interested in seeing the two options packed into a room at the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library’s Central Branch on Feb. 13. They were handed a fact-sheet produced by the city that listed the pros and cons of both options.
In addition to the $30 million for the underpass, the document listed a cost estimate of $12.4 million for the bridge. That’s the same amount allocated to the project by the Commonwealth Transportation Board.
No cost estimate has been developed for the pedestrian bridge.
The hand-out also stated it would take seven years to design and build the underpass, compared to 3 years for the bridge.
Supporters of the underpass option questioned the higher estimate for the underpass and were not satisfied with answers given at the meeting.
Higgins said members of her group were concerned that city planning staff were not working effectively with O’Shea and Rounsevell.
“This project is too important to be undermined by a lack of transparency and lack of fully engaged dialog within the team and with the community,” Higgins said.
The city made their announcement in a memo published on the Bike Charlottesville website.
“In order to make a comprehensive comparison, staff and consultants are working to verify the cost of construction, engineering and other associated expenses,” reads the memo written by staff in the department of Neighborhood Development Services.
The memo stated that several questions need to be answered before the underpass can move forward.
“[What is the] actual cost of the underpass and the bridge? Will the railroad allow an underpass and if so, with what conditions? Are there any negative impacts to property owners and what is the potential for positive economic development?”
Jim Tolbert, the city’s director of neighborhood development services, said the deadline was extended because comments may be different once a new cost estimate for the underpass is made available. He said he does not know when the new figures will be available.
City Council is expected to make a decision on what scenario to pursue later this year.