City Council follows Supervisors’ example and puts Eastern Connector on hold

The Charlottesville City Council has agreed with the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors that further study of the proposed Eastern Connector be put on hold until more is known about traffic patterns and possible ways to pay for the road. Their decision came despite a recommendation from staff that the County be asked to conduct a more detailed location study of two potential routes. Council made their decision after viewing a report at their meeting on November 17, 2008.

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The parameters of the Eastern Connector location study, according to a document on the Albemarle County website

Engineer Jeanette Janiczek presented a summary of the alternatives recommended by the steering committee . Janiczek said that one of the challenges of the study was to establish a clear purpose and need. She said the City’s expectations were that “a new eastern connection needed to be developed north of the City on 29 and east of the City on 250 and that it should be a new alignment.” However, Janiczek said City staff grew concerned when the steering committee expanded the scope of the study to include land inside of Charlottesville. She said PBS&J’s Lewis Grimm was able to demonstrate a need for the road to be built in the County, citing projected growth and employment figures.

“Unfortunately the committee was unable to form a consensus as to where exactly this traffic was coming from, where it was going, and exactly in what jurisdiction this alignment would best serve the traffic,” Janiczek said.

The staff report, authored by Janiczek and Neighborhood Development Services Director Jim Tolbert, goes further by asserting: “The County staff and those on the committee remain
unconvinced that there needs to be an additional east-north connection created –
believing most of the traffic is coming into the City and not bypassing it.”

In fact, the Committee eventually recommended that an alignment for a four-lane road connecting Rio Road with Route 250 via Pen Park be further studied. They based their conclusion on traffic models that showed it would have the most effect on relieving congestion on Route 250. In making their recommendation, committee members acknowledged there would be public opposition as well as regulatory obstacles to putting another road through another City-owned park. The Committee also recommended that two other alignments, a relocation of Proffit Road and Polo Grounds Road, be set aside for the long-term future. They decided these two routes would not provide enough traffic capacity to be worth the large costs.

The Board of Supervisors decided on October 1, 2008 to put the study on hold given they were not satisfied that the project’s need was adequately backed up with traffic data. The Board suggested waiting until additional data could be collected on the area’s driving patterns, including an origin and destination study. Given the cost of the road, the Board also wanted to wait to see if a Regional Transit Authority might provide a dedicated source of local revenue for new transportation projects. Board Chairman Ken Boyd (Rivanna) served on the committee, but there has not been a sitting Councilor on the panel since Kevin Lynch’s term on Council expired.

A conceptual drawing for the Pen Park alignment, as developed by PBS&J

Janiczek said City staff’s recommendation to Council is to follow some of the short-term intermediate solutions suggested by PBS&J. These would include improving traffic signal synchronization on Route 250, as well as additional bus service to Pantops on Route 250. However, Janiczek said the County would have to pay for the additional service. The City is also requesting the Pen Park alignment be removed from any further consideration, and to request that the County further study the Polo Grounds and Proffit Road alignments. Janiczek said these location studies could help preserve the land for future use. Staff suggested this be communicated to the County through a letter of support for further location study.

Mayor Dave Norris wanted to clarify that the City is requesting a further location study, even though the Board of Supervisors have opted not to do so at this time. Janiczek said the letter of support would acknowledge the County’s justifications, but would also indicate the City’s desire to see the Eastern Connector move forward if located outside City limits. Janiczek said staff does not recommend spending any further City money on the project.

The last origin and destination study was conducted in 1999, and Janiczek said the County would like to commission another one. She said that the studies are good ways to test the accuracy of traffic models, but do not necessarily provide clear answers. New data will also come from the National Household Transportation Study that will be conducted next year in advance of the 2010 Census. The City and County are pursuing two pieces of legislation that would create a Regional Transit Authority and authorize the City and County to pursue a local sales tax or other revenue options.

Mayor Norris said the study was useful, and did show that the Pen Park alignment is the only one that would make sense. But, he said he was not willing to sacrifice the park, and was not sure any further study of the Eastern Connector should go forward at this time because of the lack of County interest.

Councilor Satyendra Huja said he thought the City should wait for more data before taking further action. He also said he was worried that Route 250 will be “totally jammed” if improvements are not made.

“I’m not looking for a City alternative. The traffic is coming from the County. They ought to take care of their traffic to some degree,” Huja said. He added that the northern alternatives would look more attractive in the light of further data, but that the City should not spend any more money on a location study.

Norris suggested that the City follow the Board’s decision to keep the project dormant until more information and funding options are available. Councilor David Brown made a motion to that effect, which passed 5-0.

Sean Tubbs