By Sean Tubbs & Brian Wheeler

Charlottesville Tomorrow

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The director of the area’s regional transportation planning body wants state officials to explain why nearly half of the $9.8 million used to

purchase the Biscuit Run property

for a new 1,200 acre state park came from federal transportation funds.





CAPTION

Stephen Williams, director of the

Metropolitan Planning Organization

, has sent a letter expressing his concerns to Pierce Homer, the Secretary of Transportation under former Governor Tim Kaine. While Williams stated he has no opinion on whether the state should have purchased the land, he points out two-thirds of the

Biscuit Run

property is within the boundaries of the MPO’s jurisdiction.




Download William’s letter to former Secretary Pierce Homer

“Federal regulations require that when the state spends federal transportation funds, they are required to get approval from the MPO policy board as well as the CTB before the money can be spent,” Williams said in an interview with Charlottesville Tomorrow. In this case, the procedure was not followed.

The manner by which transportation projects are both planned and funded is codified by federal law as well as a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the MPO and the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT).




MOU between MPO, VDOT and federal government

The state’s acquisition of Biscuit Run was financed in part with $4.8 million in funds classified as “transportation enhancement” (TE) funds. According to the MOU, the MPO is to be notified by the state before this money is used.

“The MPO was never informed of this proposed use of federal transportation funds and the funds were committed and expended without the approval of the MPO Policy Board,” Williams wrote in the letter. “Due to the fact that the adopted procedures were not followed by VDOT, the public was denied its right to be involved and comment on this use of federal transportation funds.”

Ordinarily, federal, state and local authorities jointly determine what projects should receive funding, and then these projects are to be placed on a document called the constrained long-range plan (CLRP).

Locally, that plan  is known as the

United Jefferson Area Mobility Plan

(UNJAM 2035) and

it was updated as recently as last summer

.  Since the identified projects can’t exceed available funding, officials spent last spring debating what projects could be removed from the CLRP in order to balance its budget.

Next, the MPO and VDOT officials collaborate on a document called the

Transportation Improvement Program (TIP)

which lists all active projects that are currently receiving funding from state or federal sources. Any amendment to an item on the TIP must pass through the MPO with at least one public hearing. Only projects on the CLRP and TIP are eligible to receive federal funds.

Mike Estes is the director of the transportation enhancement program. He says he is withholding comment until VDOT can formulate an official response to William’s letter.

Albemarle County Supervisor

Dennis Rooker

(Jack Jouett) is a member of the

MPO Policy Board

. He said the use of money comes at a time when the state has dramatically cut funding for secondary funds for projects.

“It’s especially ironic in light of the fact that by purchasing [Biscuit Run], the state has purchased property [that] eliminates millions of dollars of transportation improvements that would have been done as part of the development of the property,” Rooker said.

While many of the transportation proffers for Biscuit Run were intended to mitigate future development of up to 3,100 new homes, like support for public transportation, other proffers were for off-site improvements that some observers thinks are still needed today.  Some of those funds were even going to be invested in transportation projects neighboring Charlottesville.

Jim Tolbert, the head of

Neighborhood Development Services

, said that Charlottesville was counting on the developer’s contribution of $1.55 million towards sidewalk and drainage improvements along

Old Lynchburg Road

.

“It was roughly half the construction costs and the contribution was related to what we perceived as increased traffic coming from the Biscuit Run,” said Tolbert in an interview.  “This changes the traffic numbers, and the absence of the proffer potentially changes the budget for the project.”

Another Biscuit Run proffer included funding up to $13 million in capital improvements identified by Albemarle County.  One suggestion in the proffer agreement included support for the construction of the Fontaine Avenue-Sunset Connector.

While embracing the idea of a new state park, Fry’s Spring neighborhood advocate Jeanne Chase said local governments and the university should not back away from their commitments to improve roads connecting the city, county, and Fontaine Research Park.

“In my personal opinion, the state park is a marvelous idea,” said Chase in an interview.  “I couple that with the fact that the

Fontaine Avenue-Sunset Connector

is as important as it has ever been because of all the other development that was allowed to occur south of

Azalea Park

[in the county].”

Chase said that any change in plans or schedule for the improvements to Old Lynchburg Road, where she resides in the city, would be “totally unacceptable.”

Williams has invited state transportation officials to explain the funding matter  at the MPO’s meeting this Wednesday. However, Governor Bob McDonnell’s appointee for Secretary of Transportation, Sean Connaughton, has not yet been confirmed by the General Assembly, so it is unclear if there will be a representative designated to attend.

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