After nine steering committee meetings and one Planning Commission meeting, the Charlottesville City Council has made its first official decision regarding the design of the Meadowcreek Parkway Interchange.
On July 2, 2007, Councilors voted 4-1 that Alternatives C1 and G1 should be the “Recommended Preferred Alternatives” for engineering firm Rummel, Klepper and Kahl (RKK) to continue refining. Councilors also voted 4-1 on a separate resolution to state that the interchange project is consistent with the city’s 2001 Comprehensive Plan.
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There was no public hearing before the vote, but members of the public were able to make a comment before Council just after the meeting began.
Collette Hall, president of the North Downtown Residents Association, asked the Council to consider that so far, no data has been released to the public over the amount of noise that will be generated by any of the alternatives.
“Noise is a critical issue to the neighborhood since 250 as a road will be significantly raised in height,” she told the Council. Hall said the interchange will be the largest structure built in Charlottesville for a generation, and she does not want her neighborhood to suffer.
Echoing that point, Morgan Butler of the Southern Environmental Law Center asked Council if they would defer making a decision until a meeting in September, mostly because the public needed better 3-D visualizations of how the interchange would incorporate pedestrian trails and transit.
“The current designs are not yet at a stage where you can determine whether they meet all the purposes of the project, including the goal of safe pedestrian and bicycle access to McIntire Park,” Butler said. “We feel there really needs to be a model or computer simulation that shows how vehicles will navigate the roundabouts and ramps, and does a better job demonstrating the impact of the interchange on the surrounding topography.
Transportation activist and City Council Candidate Peter Kleeman told the Council that he does not feel any of the alternatives being recommended by the Project Team are complete, because full environmental assessments have not yet been done. “I suggest that it is only appropriate for Council to take action of this type after the consultants prepare an environmental assessment as required by the National Environmental Policy Act and the Section 4(f) analysis as required by the U.S. Department of Transportation Act of 1966.”
Neighborhood Community Development Services Director Jim Tolbert next introduced the plan to Council, and told them he thought the concept of the interchange was consistent with the 2001 Comprehensive Plan for several reasons.
“One is that the McIntire Road and the bypass intersection was identified in the plan as a problem intersection. The 2001 Plan also identified the Meadowcreek Parkway as a road and one would infer that it anticipated that there would be an intersection of some sort there,” Tolbert said. “There’s also a great deal of discussion in the Plan about the bike and pedestrian work and the need to integrate it into any planning.”
This topic dominated the last steering committee, where members got into detailed discussions of the locations of the trails. Many have the concern that the north-south pedestrian trail running alongside the McIntire and the Meadowcreek Parkway was too narrow, and that any pedestrian crossing must be grade separated.
During his presentation, Owen Peery of RKK showed two new images of Alternatives C1 and G1. These are the most advanced graphics to date of the interchanges, and show much more detail about how traffic would flow through the oval roundabout in C1, and the signalized diamond in G1. Peery also showed Council improvements his team has made to the project since it went up before the Planning Commission in mid-June.
Despite the changes, Peery said Alternative G1 still needs more work. “We do have some challenges. Getting the trails across our interchange, and some of the roadway separation.” He also said that the contextual design has not been implemented.
Peery also told Council the costs for the project have risen slightly, to a total of $37 million. He said one high cost item is the bridge that will span the interchange, which is being designed to serve as a “gateway feature” for Charlottesville.
Even though Council would later vote to selected C1 and G1 as the Recommended Preferred Alternatives, the other three options will still have to be submitted as part of the NEPA and Section 4(f) environmental assessments. But, Peery said the designation of Recommended Preferred Alternative would allow his team to continue the refining process. Council will designate a final alternative after the design public hearing is held later this fall or early in the winter, according to Peery.
When asked by Councilor Dave Norris about the timing of the federally required assessments, engineer Bill Hellman stated that his team is creating draft documents now, and they will be available to the public thirty days before the design public hearing.
Councilor Julian Taliaferro asked the project team how the noise data would be collected, and Owen Peery said his team is currently installing equipment with which to perform the tests.
Taliaferro also asked how the Dogwood Vietnam Memorial would be affected, and Peery responded that Alternatives C1 and G1 could preserve the Memorial, but his team plans a “Memorial summit” to identify its best possible future.
Councilor Kendra Hamilton wanted to know how much land that each interchange would take up. Peery showed a slide saying that Alternative C1 would take up 7.3 acres, and G1 would take up 5.9 acres. That’s compared to 12.5 acres for the U.S. 29/250 interchange at Emmet Street.
Mayor David Brown wondered if it might be safer to go with Alternative G1, because he said a signalized light would be safer for bikers that would use the same route underneath Route 250. But Peery said recent studies have shown that intersections that converted from traffic signals to a roundabout saw decreases in pedestrians.
“There is a standard method to allow pedestrians to cross at-grade, and because you’re traveling at a lower rate of speed, and because when you get a green light at a signalized intersection, people think you can go and they don’t look anymore. People are more observant going through a roundabout” But Peery acknowledged that the steering committee also wants to see a grade separated intersection as well.
Brown said he agreed with the SELC about the need for highly detailed drawings to see for himself how the trails would be oriented.
“What I can’t fathom from looking at the drawings with squiggly grade lines is what the topography is going to look like, how steep are the slopes going to be, what’s it going to feel like?” Brown asked.
Peery said the RKK team will design three-dimensional video that will let people “fly-through” the interchange.
Councilor Kevin Lynch said he thought the new images showed that the project team was making progress with the designs, and have taken steps to show him that the pedestrian trails will be worked out. Still, he said he wants to see the pedestrian trails made as wide as possible.
“In a $30 million dollar project, having to spend several million for pedestrian access is acceptable,” he said.
Shortly before being the lone vote against the two resolutions, Councilor Dave Norris expressed concern about the arbitrariness of being asked to vote on the interchange’s consistency with the Comprehensive Plan.
“It’s almost like looking in the bible to find justification because you can find passages to justify pretty much anything,” Norris said, prompting laughs from the audience.