Lewis Grimm of PBS&J (standing) leads the steering committee through eleven alternatives for the Eastern Connector

The group of local officials responsible for shepherding the Eastern Connector Corridor Study has until next spring to present possible options to the public. But, if the latest meeting of the steering committee is any indication, there’s still a lot of work to be done.

Committee members were shown eleven concepts of how traffic flow might be improved between the Route 29 North Corridor and the Pantops area. These consisted of six independent alternatives, as well as five that combined elements of the other six.  None of the alternatives considered a potential route from Rio Road through Pen Park to Route 20 as the site for a future Eastern Connector.

Lewis Grimm of the engineering firm PBS&J stressed that these are still conceptual alternatives. “This is the difficult phase on projects like this, trying to get people to agree on what to even look at,” he said.

The Committee spent the first portion of their meeting getting an explanation of the traffic modeling that PSB&J is using to determine the parameters of the project. Grimm said they are using a technique called Select Link Analysis, which takes a look at 32 random points throughout the regional transportation network to forecast how traffic numbers will increase between 2005 and 2025.

PBS&J is using Select Link Analysis as part of their traffic modeling

According to PBS&J’s numbers, traffic volume on Route 250 across Free Bridge will increase by 41.8% to 68,340 cars per day. Traffic on Route 20 will increase 76.8% with 23,040 cars per day, according to the Select Link Analysis.

“It’s a good planning tool, representing the state of the practice for travel demand forecasting for urban areas of this size,” he said. He acknowledged it is just a model. “You’ll never get it exactly perfect.”

Albemarle County Supervisor Ken Boyd said it was important to County residents to make sure there is a need for the Eastern Connector.

“One of the precursors for anything here was that we determined that the amount of traffic that’s going to be pulled off of 250 and the impact of that before we go further with any location study,” he said. “I’m not sure if I’ve heard in layman’s language what we think that will be.”

Committee members also heard the results of two public information meetings that were held in May. Over 125 people attended the two Eastern Connector public information meetings. The majority of participants expressed concerns over potential impacts on natural environment, public parkland, and existing residential neighborhoods. Comments left by participants ranged from “Don’t use the city as a major intersection for county traffic”, “Where can we put the road and avoid neighborhoods?” and “Create small connections to disperse traffic.”  Feedback from these meetings was incorporated into the “universe of alternatives” depicted in the various concepts.

One of 11 alternatives presented to the steering committee

The first alternative would relocate and straighten Proffit Road east of Laurel Cove Road, carrying the Eastern Connector to the east of the Proffit Historic District. The roadway would then travel south  before picking up Route 20. There would be no entrances or exits along this limited access roadway. However, Albemarle County’s Director of Community Development, Mark Graham, pointed out that much of this land is currently held in conservation easement.

The second alternative would upgrade Polo Grounds Road, widening the single-lane underpass to two lanes, as well as extending Polo Grounds Road southeast , at the spot where it currently makes a sharp turn north. This roadway would then connect with Route 20 just north of Redbud Lane.  “It would get a new connection and a new crossing of the river while trying to minimize the impacts on the community as much as possible,” said Grimm.

The third alternative consists entirely of making serious upgrades to the Route 250 Bypass and Route 20, instead of building a new Eastern Connector. That would consist of turning the highway east of Free Bridge into a six-lane arterial, and Route 20 would be converted to four-lanes for a considerable stretch north.  Under this proposal, all of the ramps that currently feed the 250 Bypass would be converted to one-way. “It’s a more urban solution than what Charlottesville may have seen in the past, but we feel it should be given some consideration.”

Both the fourth and fifth concepts shown would build a new roadway along the power lines, on the right of way owned by Dominion Power through the center of the area’s urban core.  This idea was suggested by members of the public during the May information sessions. One of these versions would include a new crossing of the Rivanna north of Free Bridge, through Darden Towe Park. This new street would parallel Route 250 and would connect with the Meadowcreek Parkway.  Grimm acknowledged that this would likely impact several City neighborhoods, and it would a fairly expensive option. “It’s an existing disruption in the community,” said Grimm.  Of these two options, one would stretch from the Fontana Neighborhood to the Meadowcreek Parkway, and the second would run from Darden Towe to the MCP.

The final option was the most controversial, and the steering committee asked Grimm to not consider it as an actual alternative. This option involves building several additional bridges over the Rivanna River, including at least one south of Free Bridge, instead of building a single Eastern Connector.

The remaining five alternatives combine elements of the above. “This to us seems like a reasonable range of alternatives,” said Grimm. He added these combinations represents a “systems approach” to addressing traffic growth.

Grimm did not provide any cost estimates for each alternative, but any funding for these projects will likely have to come from secondary road funds. However, any upgrades made to Route 20 would possibly come out of the state’s primary road funds.

When asked by committee member John Pfaltz asked why none of the alternatives considered the use of Pen Park, Grimm responded that it would be hard to convince the federal government that the use of parkland would be justified. Section 4(f) of the National Environmental Policy Act requires planners to show that all other alternatives have been considered before parkland can be used.  Committee member Cal Morris asked if Section 4(f) would apply to the use of Darden Towe. County staffer Jack Kelsey responded that he thought the easement for the power line predates the foundation of the park, and thus would theoretically allow the use of that space.

City Traffic Engineer Jeannie Alexander told the Committee she felt the need and purpose for the project had not yet been adequately defined, especially given some of the concepts presented would heavily impact City streets. John Pfaltz picked up that argument.

“The City is participating in this on the condition that we not consider crossing south of Free Bridge,” he said. “This is a political reality that should be mentioned.” City Councilor Kevin Lynch is a member of the Steering Committee, but did not attend the meeting. Mark Graham said that the conditions of the study allow for modeling to show what kind of an effect southern bridges would have on traffic congestion.

Alexander also asked why there were no alternatives that showed north-south connections east of Route 20. Grimm said terrain issues prevented his team from taking a serious look.

Alexander wanted to know when comparisons between the various alternatives would be made in terms of their effectiveness in reducing traffic congestion.  Grimm said that would be forthcoming, but that he first wanted to make sure that all of the possible alternatives were on the table.

Supervisor Boyd said he wanted the public to have a list of impacts that each alternative would have on cultural and natural resources, as well as cost figures.

The steering committee will meet again in early October to see revised concepts in advance of the next public information meetings, a pair of which are scheduled for the third week in November. Given that many of the alternatives contain suggested improvements in the City, one of the two meetings will be held within Charlottesville city limits.