Planning for an Eastern Connector to link Albemarle County’s northern and eastern growth areas has stalled for years, but the Charlottesville-Albemarle Metropolitan Planning Organization wants to restart the conversation.
Officials first want consultants to evaluate potential obstacles that could undermine public support.
“There are particular environmental issues with this project that are so important to elected officials and members of the public that they would be show-stoppers,” said Stephen Williams, the executive director of the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission.
The organization’s policy board on Wednesday authorized Williams to pursue a $250,000 federal grant from the Strategic Highway Research Program to study the ecological impacts of the road.
“An existing deficiency in the Charlottesville-Albemarle road network has been the lack of sufficient connection between the two main corridors in the area – the north corridor along U.S. 29 north of Charlottesville and the U.S. 250 corridor east of Charlottesville in an area known as Pantops,” reads a portion of the grant application.
In 2008, a steering committee recommended an alignment that would connect Route 20 and Rio Road with a road that would cross the Rivanna River on a new bridge and travel near or through Pen Park.
However, the city and county both put the project on hold in part because of a lack of data on expected usage.
The project’s future is under consideration once again because the planning organization is updating its long-range transportation plan. Federal law requires the plans to list road projects that meet future traffic needs.
If the grant application is successful, the Institute for Environmental Negotiation at the University of Virginia would facilitate a consensus-building exercise.
“We would bring together all the folks that would have concerns specifically about the impacts of the Eastern Connector and the crossing of the Rivanna River,” Williams said. The study also would look at the effect of the road on Pen and Darden Towe parks.
The project also would consider other alternatives to the current alignment. The previous steering committee also evaluated upgrades to Polo Grounds and Proffit roads.
Williams said the intent of the process is to find an Eastern Connector that works and could get federal approval.
However, the project might not have support from local officials as it stands.
Albemarle County Supervisor Rodney S. Thomas called the Eastern Connector “tricky” and suggested that a different alignment be found.
“You don’t want to put traffic back on U.S. 250,” Thomas said. “You want to get it off of Pantops.”
“I don’t see this working at all,” said Supervisor Duane E. Snow. “It’s got to bypass the whole Pantops area in order to be anything of value.”
A representative from the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation suggested that the grant application establish a purpose and need for the connector.
“I would be concerned about trying to find alternatives to fix a problem we have not articulated well,” said Kim Pryor.
Also, the University Transit Service has launched a new bus-finding system for its fleet to replace the one currently in place.
“It’s a little bit more intuitive to read, so when you look at it on your [smartphone], you can actually see the bus moving around on the screen,” said Julia Monteith, UVa’s senior land use officer. “When the buses are stuck in traffic, people can see what’s going on rather that get frustrated.”
Charlottesville Area Transit will continue to use its present system for tracking bus locations.
“We don’t have the funding for [a new one],” said John Jones, CAT’s manager.