With Rio intersection done, attention turns to Hydraulic Road

Virginia’s secretary of transportation was in Charlottesville on Thursday to celebrate completion of one major project on U.S. 29 and to announce that planning soon will begin for a future one.

“At your request, we are kicking off a study of Hydraulic Road and the Route 29 intersection which I believe will be another key component of improving movement in and around the U.S. 29 area in Charlottesville,” said Aubrey Layne.

Layne appeared before an advisory panel that has been overseeing a suite of transportation projects known as Route 29 Solutions. These originated after the Federal Highway Administration indicated in February 2014 that it would not support the now-defunct Western Bypass.

The panel on Thursday also celebrated the completion of the grade-separated intersection at Rio Road and U.S. 29.

“Three years ago, at the beginning of the McAuliffe administration, this project really didn’t exist,” said Charles Kilpatrick, commissioner of the Virginia Department of Transportation. “In three years we’ve gone from no project to it being completed and open to traffic.”

The construction of the intersection required Rio Road to be closed to through-traffic for a period of time and VDOT gave the Lane-Corman joint venture 103 days between Memorial Day and Labor Day to get it done. If they finished sooner, they would be eligible for a bonus as an incentive.

“They did it in 57 days and that truly is something,” Kilpatrick said.

Kilpatrick presented a check for $7.3 million to Lane-Corman officials to make good on the incentive.

Kilpatrick said the achievement ranks among the most technically complex VDOT projects because of the geographical constraints, the need to keep traffic flowing and the requirement that local businesses remain open during the daytime.

Layne said VDOT will continue to use incentives in the future for accelerated work because that reduces inconveniences for commuters.

A similar incentive has been put in place for a roundabout being built as part of the Hillsdale Drive extension.

Layne said similar panels will be convened for other projects across the commonwealth. He credited the Route 29 panel for holding the contractor to high standards.

“What this panel has accomplished in the last three years and what got built is more than what has happened in the past 30 years,” Layne said. “I appreciate the debate and the difficult discussions that went on in here.”

Now attention will turn to planning for the Hydraulic Road intersection.

The Route 29 Solutions package includes $10 million for preliminary engineering at Hydraulic Road, as well as $10 million for a small connector road that would extend from Hillsdale Drive to Holiday Drive.

That funding originally had not been expected to be available until fiscal year 2018, but the Charlottesville-Albemarle Metropolitan Planning Organization requested that some of that funding move ahead sooner. That request has been granted.

The Hydraulic Road study will be conducted in two phases, with the first taking a look at land-use planning.

“That’s to be sure that we are offering transportation improvements with the consideration and support of the city and [Albemarle County] so that we identify desirable land uses in the Hydraulic Road area,” Layne said.

The second phase of the study will focus on coming up with the transportation solutions themselves.

A consultant will be hired to work with VDOT and the MPO on the project.

“We think the best results come from the local levels up,” Layne said. “You guys know what you need more. Our job is to take those ideas and meld them into reasonable solutions.”

Layne said there are no preconceived outcomes for what transportation solutions might result from the two phases of the study. He said the panel will be formed in February and will first meet in March.

“I have also suggested that the land use [phase] be completed within six months,” Layne said.

After the meeting, City Councilor Kathy Galvin called the Rio Road project a “dramatically impressive project.”

“My hope is that the same commitment to accountability, transparency and the same success with efficiency continues,” she said.

Henry Weinschenk, a longtime opponent of grade-separated interchanges on U.S. 29, credited VDOT and Lane-Corman for the speed in which the U.S. 29 projects have been implemented.

However, he still wants VDOT to plan for an interstate-class highway between Interstates 81 and 95.

“If you take a map of the United States and put a straight-edge to it between New York and Atlanta, it goes through Charlottesville,” Weinschenk said, suggesting that Interstate 83 could be extended south from Baltimore.

Layne said he would not be opposed, but the project would be very expensive.

“Our country needs to come to grips with how we’re going to fund these,” Layne said, adding that he has reviewed President-elect Donald Trump’s plan for transportation.

“A lot of it is built around public-private investment,” Layne said. “I’m not against that but I don’t think the world wants everything tolled.”