The Eastern Connector Steering Committee met on March 28, 2008 for a discussion of whether any of the three remaining route alternatives would be effective in relieving traffic congestion on Route 250, the region’s main road for east-west local traffic. This was the first time the Committee has met since the
Charlottesville City Council expressed their concern
over the direction of the study .
At the last Steering Committee meeting in February
, Lewis Grimm of the engineering firm PBS&J was directed to further study the possibility of making improvements on Route 250 to see if they would have any effect on congestion. According to County Transportation Planner Juandiego Wade, the committee did not direct PBS&J to develop these into full alternatives, but simply wanted more information.
However, City staff grew concerned when they read Grimm’s 21-page letter detailing how certain concepts would affect the traffic model. The concepts include widening Free Bridge to 6 lanes, widening High Street in the City to four lanes as it approaches Route 250, and building a new bridge south of Route 250. These concepts have already been dismissed by the Committee.
No sitting Councilor sits on the Committee, though former Councilor Kevin Lynch’s
appointment remains valid. However, Council voted in early March to send a message to the consultant, PBS&J, that any alternative that went through the City would not be considered by them to be a viable alternative. The March 4, 2008 letter reads:
“Some of these alternatives may be worth exploring as part of other studies, but we do not feel that they address the goals of this particular study or problem…The City entered into a partnership with Albemarle County to study a way to move traffic from Route 29 North to Pantops and back that did not go through the City road system. Studies have shown this to be an ever increasing travel movement in the County that has never been adequately addressed…”
Council’s letter was the starting point for the Steering Committee’s March meeting. Grimm asked the committee if they needed any further clarification on what he had submitted, and if they had any questions about the City’s letter.
Mark Graham, Albemarle County’s Director of Community Development, said he never expected the Route 250 improvements to stand-alone as the only alternative, but a recognition that none of the alternatives that were
taken to the public last fall
(Route 20 to Rio Road via Pen Park, Polo Grounds, and Proffit Road Relocated) would be effective in relieving traffic congestion on Free Bridge.
“One of the County’s main objectives with this whole exercise is to bring 250 to an acceptable level of service,” Graham said. “I really saw what was being proposed with the Route 250 improvements as supplemental or part of a package of improvements.”
Graham said it was important for the community to identify a short-term, mid-term and long-term answer to address congestion at Free Bridge, given that the current funding picture would prevent any of the roadway alignments from being built for several years if not decades.
He suggested spot improvements to Route 250 as short-term solutions, and an Eastern Connector could be a mid-term approach.
(Rivanna) of the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors said he did not understand why City leaders were concerned. “Our traffic [data] indicate that there’s more traffic to alleviate by somehow providing for those people who are going to and from the City,” Boyd said.
Grimm went on to explain how the Pen Park option would attract approximately 14,000 vehicles per day from Route 250, most of which would be diverted from Free Bridge. Graham pointed out that Grimm’s traffic model shows that the Pen Park route would also attract an additional 6,000 vehicles a day to Free Bridge, possibly making the situation there worse.
Former City Councilor Kevin Lynch pointed out that the diversion is constrained because the road called for in the Eastern Connector study would be restricted to two lanes. So far, Grimm’s traffic forecast model has not calculated the effect of a 4-lane Eastern Connector.
“If we said a four-lane facility, then we would see a lot more cars that would be taking that location. What the model shows is that there is more than enough vehicles making that movement to saturate whatever facility we build there,” Lynch said. In fact, City Traffic Engineer Jeannie Alexander said her numbers projected a 2-lane Eastern Connector would open with a failing level of service.
After some discussion, the Committee agreed to direct Grimm to perform additional analysis of traffic model based on four-lanes, not just for the Pen Park Route, but also for Polo Grounds Road and Proffit Road Relocated. These “sensitivity tests” will not be considered as full alternatives, but the modeling will provide more information.
Graham pointed again at the numbers which show Free Bridge’s traffic volume increasing, no matter which option is selected. “My question is, is that a function of the limitation of the connector or not?”
Grimm reminded Graham that the Eastern Connector should be viewed as one piece of a large complex puzzle. “There is no silver bullet that one road is going to solve all the problems over the next 20, 30, 40 50 years. There will be multiple improvements that will need to be made,” Grimm said. The total vehicle miles travelled in the whole jurisdictional area of the MPO are projected to increase by 52% between 2005 and 2025, according to the traffic model.
Albemarle County Planning Commission Chairman and Key West resident Cal Morris said that of the three solutions taken to the public in the fall, the Pen Park solution was the most viable solution, because of the three, it would be connected to the most mature infrastructure in the area. Boyd said he agreed, but that the community has a history of spending a long time planning roads that don’t get built for decades. Morris said that’s why it was important for the steering committee to reach consensus on depicting three alternatives.
Boyd said he did not want to discourage further study, but that it was almost time for the Committee to report back to the City Council and Board of Supervisors with three alternatives. Morris said he thought the Committee was almost ready to select three, and he was ready to recommend one as a top choice. City Planning Commissioner Mike Farruggio said he wanted more information on a four lane Pen Park route, despite concerns by Kevin Lynch that it would be politically impossible to build that road.
“How in the world do you govern effectively if you do the math, and it says what needs to be done is a four-lane road to connect to Rio Road to [reduce] traffic and plan for the next 20 years, but we’re not going to do it because it’s unpalatable to some folks,” Farruggio asked. He pointed out the purpose of the Committee was to recommend the road based on the data at hand, and that a decision would be up to Council and the Board.
Graham also asked for modeling of the High Street bridge connection, which would intersect with an extended South Pantops Road that will eventually connect to Peter Jefferson Place. He said he knew that the City would not support this route, but that he needed to show the Board of Supervisors how effective the corridor might be. “It’s not an alternative, but when we set this up, we did call for a modeling [of a High Street bridge],” Graham said.
The City letter also requested that transit options be studied. The Committee agreed with Grimm that the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Council would be better equipped to evaluate that possibility in connection with the Regional Transit Authority study.
The next meeting of the steering committee will be on April 25. The Committee will decide at that time whether to hold one more public information session before passing their recommendations on to the Council and Board.