The Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission received a $250,000 federal grant to study the ecological effects of the proposed Eastern Connector and establish alternatives.
The road has only tenuous support among local elected officials who questioned the grant application earlier this year and pointed out that more $500,000 had been spent studying the road before it was tabled in 2008.
“We’ve spent the last couple of days working with folks at the Federal Highway Administration to develop the scope of work for the project,” said Stephen Williams, the executive director of the TJPDC.
The money will come from the Federal Highway Administration’s Strategic Highway Research Program. The project will take a year and a half to complete, according to Williams.
The TJPDC will work with the University of Virginia’s Institute for Environmental Negotiations to convene a stakeholder’s group to determine what issues would need to be addressed before the proposed four-lane roadway could receive federal approval.
One outcome is a list of environmental effects that would need to be mitigated.
“The IEN will work with stakeholders to evaluate the resources within the area and prioritize the protection needs of the resources,” Williams said.
Williams said the process will begin in July when stakeholders are identified. Potential members would come from area environmental groups such as the Sierra Club and Streamwatch, as well as recreational groups that use the Rivanna River.
This will not be the first time the proposed roadway has been the subject of study.
In 2008, the steering committee for a city-county task force recommended an alignment of the Eastern Connector that would connect Route 20 and Rio Road on a new bridge over the Rivanna River and thence near or through Pen Park.
Other options considered included a relocated Proffit Road as well as a widening of Polo Ground Roads.
The project’s future is under consideration once again as the Metropolitan Planning Organization is updating its long-range transportation plan. Federal law requires the plans to list road projects that meet future traffic needs.
Currently, U.S. 250, Interstate 64 and Proffit Road are the only ways to cross the Rivanna River in a vehicle. Free Bridge had an average annual daily traffic count of 38,000 in 2011.
A MPO traffic study from May 2012 suggested that a two-lane version of the connector would draw 18,000 vehicles a day, and a four-lane version would see nearly 30,000 vehicles a day.
However, one member of the Albemarle Board of Supervisors said there is too much opposition to the current alignment.
“We don’t want it in that area,” said Supervisor Duane E. Snow.
Williams said the entire area around the Rivanna River would be studied to see where a second bridge crossing could receive federal environmental approval.
In other news, Albemarle County Planning Commissioner Russell “Mac” Lafferty got the go-ahead to rewrite the by-laws for a federally mandated MPO subcommittee that deals with public participation.
“[The Charlottesville–Albemarle Regional Transportation Committee] is necessary to get federal funding but right now I don’t think we’re as effective as we should be,” Lafferty said. “I’d like to see us reach out to the community more than we’re doing now.”
Lafferty said the committee currently has many vacancies and that is affecting the group’s ability to oversee the creation of the long-range transportation plan.
The MPO also approved a resolution of support for Jim Utterback, the former administrator of VDOT’s Culpeper District. He was recently transferred to the Hampton Roads District.
The administrator provides the fifth vote for the MPO, in addition to the four elected officials who serve on the body.
City Councilor Kristin Szakos said she would support the resolution, but said she was displeased with Utterback’s vote in favor of the Western Bypass in July 2011 altering the MPO’s long-standing opposition to the road.