Several dozen area residents turned out to a meeting Thursday to review plans to extend Berkmar Drive north from Sam’s Club to Hollymead Town Center. The Virginia Department of Transportation shared three proposed alignments with the public at the DoubleTree Hotel.
The $54 million Berkmar Drive Extension is part of the so called “Route 29 Solutions Package” which VDOT describes as an effort to reduce congestion and improve mobility in the U.S. 29 corridor through Albemarle County.
“I think the idea of extending Berkmar is very important,” said Elizabeth Gaines who lives in Earlysville. “I take Rio Mills Road as a shortcut all the time, so I would love to have something that is paved. I really think there need to be more parallel roads.”
VDOT held the meeting to collect public feedback on the three proposed alignments for the road. All options require a new bridge over the Rivanna River immediately downstream of the South Fork Rivanna Reservoir dam.
The 2.3-mile extension of Berkmar Drive will have two travel lanes and include bicycle lanes and a multiuse path.
“I came to find out what I could on where the road starts,” said George Duden, who lives off Rio Mills Road.
He said he prefers Alternative A, an alignment that avoids some areas on the map marked as “environmentally sensitive.”
Duden said he supported the extension of Berkmar, but he would like it to go further north to Dickerson Road.
“I would take it all the way to Frays Mill Road,” Duden said.
Rick Crofford, an environmental manager in VDOT’s Culpeper District, said the original concept for Berkmar Drive, shown on the map as Alternative C, traversed on or near several environmentally sensitive areas, many of which are underground.
“Alternative C was a planning alignment, there was very little engineering behind it,” Crofford said.
Subsequent investigations identified “deeply buried deposits” that were from prehistoric human activity.
“We said, ‘Let’s avoid them and then we don’t have to worry about them,’” Crofford said of the two new alignment proposals. “We’ve done such good field work, and recent field work, that the chances are pretty small we will find anything else.”
One site not shown on the map has just recently been identified as significant. Excavations near the river, where the road’s bridge abutments are planned to be placed, showed signs of human activity that could date back 15,000 years.
“They uncovered some other stuff that looks interesting,” Crofford said. “They dug down 3 feet or so and came to an area that was hard — not disturbed — and they found some charcoal, and they are getting that all dated.”
Crofford said the road contractor will have to conduct “archeological data recovery investigations” to document any sites being disturbed. He said the project will also impact 1,300 feet to 2,600 feet of streams and less than one-half acre of wetlands.
VDOT anticipates the construction contract to be awarded in February with completion by October 2017.
While other projects in the transportation plan, such as the Rio Road interchange, have generated opposition from some local businesses and the Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce, the extension of Berkmar Drive has had broad support.
Design of the road was identified as an “essential” transportation project in the Places29 Master Plan approved unanimously by the Albemarle Board of Supervisors in 2011.
Lou Hatter, spokesman for VDOT’s Culpeper District, said the public’s feedback would inform the design concepts. The final design will be done by the engineering and construction firms who are awarded the contract in what is known as a design-build project.
“VDOT will take the comments that are gathered from the meeting tonight then we will look at all three of the alternatives and recommend one of the three alignments to the Commonwealth Transportation Board,” Hatter said.
Hatter said the next opportunity for formal public input is a design public hearing for Berkmar, the widening of U.S. 29 and the Rio Road interchange set for Oct. 14 at the DoubleTree Hotel. The final designs will not be determined until after the Commonwealth Transportation Board awards a contract next February.
Hatter added that VDOT was testing new methods of public engagement while working on the Route 29 Solutions Package so that the public could be involved in a way that meets their schedules.
“We are using this project as a pilot, an example of how we would like to do public involvement in the future,” Hatter said. “It isn’t always convenient for people to come to a public hearing.”
A link to VDOT’s project website, and another site published by Albemarle County, can be found at http://www.cvilletomorrow.org/29solutions.