Steve Williams addressing the Albemarle Board of Supervisors

Albemarle County supervisors want the director of the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission to reconsider using a $250,000 federal grant to study the proposed Eastern Connector.

Last week, Stephen Williams told the Metropolitan Planning Organization that, if approved, the Federal Highway Administration grant would pay for a “consensus-building approach” to gauge support for the road. Supervisors questioned why a federal grant had been sought for a road plan tabled in 2008.
“I’d hate to drag this community back through that whole process again,” said Supervisor Kenneth C. Boyd.
The city and county spent $500,000 over the last decade to study the connector, Boyd said. 
He served on the steering committee for that study, which recommended connecting Route 20 and Rio Road with a road crossing the Rivanna River on a new bridge and running near or through Pen Park.
The discussion came up during a briefing on the planning organization’s long-range transportation plan. Federal law requires communities to adopt a list of planned projects. 
Several new projects are being considered as part of the update.
“[These] will be the projects that we can afford to pay for over the course of the next 30 years,” Williams said.
The Eastern Connector “would probably have the highest transportation benefit of the projects that we’re looking at,” Williams said. “It has huge positive benefits for traffic [for] the 250 bypass in Charlottesville and Free Bridge.”
Still, Boyd said he wants the planning organization to review the possibility of extending South Pantops Drive across the Rivanna River to Woolen Mills to relieve congestion on the Free Bridge. He said city officials did not agree to review that option during the previous Eastern Connector study.
“It would take a huge amount of traffic off of Free Bridge that is turning left on two lanes to go onto High Street into the city,” Boyd said.
Supervisor Duane E. Snow said he supported Boyd’s idea, and Supervisor Dennis S. Rooker pointed out that South Pantops Drive is already mostly built.
“I would think that the cost of the South Pantops extension would be hugely less than this $144-million number that is included in this scenario study for the Eastern Connector,” Rooker said.
Williams said the grant application already has been submitted and he suggested the money could be used to study other projects.
“If the grant gets funded, we’ll just need to have a meeting of the minds on the MPO Policy Board with regard to what the alternatives are that are going to be considered,” Williams said.
Another proposed project would turn U.S. 29 into an “urban boulevard” by reducing the speed limit and reserving two lanes for buses. U.S. 29 was widened to eight lanes in some areas in the 1990s.
Rooker said he was concerned about the possible abandonment of other ideas, such as creating a network of parallel roads and building grade-separated interchanges at U.S. 29’s intersections with Hydraulic and Rio roads.
“To me it’s astounding that we’re talking about, in effect, undoing $100 million of traffic improvements and spending $50 million to do that,” Rooker said. 
Rooker said other projects, such as a new interchange for U.S 29 and Interstate 64, should take higher priority.
The planning organization is scheduled to adopt a long-range transportation plan in May 2014.