A yearlong exercise to evaluate projects that would reduce traffic congestion on Free Bridge is nearing an end, and the results are set to be displayed this evening at an open house in downtown Charlottesville.
“We have been taking the approach of a very open and inclusive dialog and having a community-based discussion about traffic at Free Bridge,” said Wood Hudson, a senior environmental planner at the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission.
Last year, the Federal Highway Administration awarded the TJPDC a $250,000 grant to test out a new planning method called “Eco-logical.”
This process dates to an executive order signed in 2002 by former President George W. Bush to streamline the environmental permitting process.
“Many times, a project like Free Bridge will have the major hurdles out of the way, and look ready for implementation, only to run afoul of the National Environmental Policy Act process and get stalled or, at times, even killed,” said John Jones, the manager of Charlottesville Area Transit.
“This process gets those concerns out of the way before major time and money is spent,” Jones added.
While the goal of the grant was to pilot a new planning tool, the exercise gave community members another chance to talk about a major transportation challenge. Free Bridge carries 58,000 vehicles a day across the Rivanna River according to the Virginia Department of Transportation.
Transportation planners at the TJPDC estimate that will increase to 70,000 vehicles a day by 2040.
The Eco-logical process began in November 2013, several years after a previous group concluded that there were no feasible or cost-effective alternatives to provide a so-called “Eastern Connector” between Rio Road and Route 20.
The process initially drew skepticism from elected officials who felt it would too closely echo a two-year discussion of the Eastern Connector. However, some stakeholders eventually came around.
“I must admit it turned out to be far more collaborative and positive than I had initially anticipated,” said Jeff Werner with the Piedmont Environmental Council. “I can’t say that we proved one way or another the merits of the Eco-Logical tool, though it was useful when considered as but one in a larger kit of parts.”
Elaine Echols, a principal planner with Albemarle County, said the exercise was “good because it involved a diverse group of residents and property owners in both the city and the county who worked together to develop the options to model.”
There is not an active push to build new infrastructure to relieve Free Bridge, but the committee of community leaders, business representatives, transportation officials and environmental leaders were tasked with evaluating alternatives.
The alternatives were developed and ranked according to how they would affect ecological resources and how they would address congestion.
One option would create a two-lane overpass to carry traffic over the existing Free Bridge as well as the two closest intersections. Another would reconfigure an intersection of Route 20 and U.S. 250 that would eliminate left turns in favor of a “jughandle” turning movement.
A proposed two-lane road known as the Rivanna River Parkway could provide a new alternative route between Route 20 and Rio Road with a new river crossing. Hudson said this was not well received by the group and would have the highest cost and environmental impact.
An option named Alternative F would add more lanes to Free Bridge by eliminating sidewalks. This would involve building a new bridge for pedestrians and cyclists near the existing bridge.
“Alternative F is one of the highest favored projects,” Hudson said. “According to the engineering evaluation matrix, it has a relatively moderate price tag of $20.5 million and it is mostly confined to an existing right of way so the environmental impacts would be low.”
Werner said he favored an option to build a second vehicular bridge south of Free Bridge that would allow South Pantops Drive to be extended into Charlottesville.
“It would connect to a road through the Pantops Shopping Center, providing much-coveted road frontage,” Werner said. “People coming into the city from [U.S] 250 could use this bridge, hopefully eliminating the need for the left-hand turn light on the west side of Free Bridge.”
All of the alternatives will be on display at an open house from 6 to 8 p.m. at the TJPDC’s offices at 407 E. Water St.
The stakeholder group will make a final recommendation at its meeting in November. There will be nothing binding about their selection.
“I think the group would agree that the past several months of discourse produced some very good ideas that we hope are taken up by the city and the county and VDOT,” Werner said.