The regional panel that sets transportation policy in Albemarle County and Charlottesville has reaffirmed its support for several projects in the U.S. 29 corridor, including one project that has been singled out for a budget amendment in Richmond.
“The Rio Road grade-separated intersection has been reviewed and planned many times since 1988,” reads a letter to Gov. Terry McAuliffe that the Metropolitan Planning Organization endorsed Wednesday.
The interchange is part of the Route 29 Solutions package that the Commonwealth Transportation Board adopted and funded in June after local and state officials withdrew support for the Western Bypass of U.S. 29.
The interchange would drop U.S. 29 below its intersection with Rio Road and would allow two lanes of traffic in each direction to pass through unimpeded. Proponents argue the interchange will be part of a parallel road network that will allow vehicles to travel through Albemarle’s northern urban area without getting on U.S. 29.
The Virginia Department of Transportation is expected to award in February a $117 million contract to Lane-Corman Joint Venture to construct the interchange as well a northern extension of Berkmar Drive and a widening of U.S. 29 between Polo Grounds Road and Hollymead Town Center.
Major construction on the interchange is expected to take place in the summer of 2016.
However, Del. Rob Bell, R-Albemarle, introduced a budget amendment earlier this month that, if adopted, would not allow the interchange to proceed until it is evaluated by a new prioritization process mandated by legislation passed in the 2014 General Assembly.
The legislation, known as House Bill 2, would require future transportation projects to be approved only after they are evaluated on a series of factors. These criteria would include how well the project addresses safety, how it mitigates congestion, and how it would contribute to economic development.
The exact criteria have not yet been established, but a draft list is expected to be ready this spring. The full prioritization process will not be implemented for some time, officials said.
The CTB approved the interchange and other U.S. 29 projects last June before the prioritization process took effect.
“This upcoming year is going to be kind of a beta version of H.B. 2,” said Will Cockrell, the program manager for the MPO.
“This MPO Policy Board remains committed to its support of the Route 29 Solutions project and the state desire for expeditious construction and does not support legislation or budget provisions that jeopardize progress,” reads the letter.
“This is clearly targeted against a particular project and I think the legislature is busier than wanting to take things up like that,” said Charlottesville City Councilor Kristin Szakos, MPO chairwoman.
One member of the public asked the MPO to reconsider its position on the Rio Road interchange because, in his opinion, it is flawed.
“I cannot believe that two lanes of through traffic in each direction will be adequate,” said Paul Grady of Crozet. “This interchange could become a horrible bottleneck that future generations will never have the public will or enough money to tear down and widen.”
Albemarle Supervisor Ann H. Mallek said she would continue to represent the will of her board on the MPO.
“Until the county [Board of Supervisors] changes its mind, then I am here to represent what the majority has decided,” Mallek said.
Meanwhile, opposition group Smart29 has hired an urban designer to draft alternatives to the interchange. The work by Ian Lockwood of the Toole Design Group is slated be on display at Supervisor Kenneth C. Boyd’s town hall meeting on the interchange at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at Sutherland Middle School.
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