While debate continues on the design, costs and delays of the Western Bypass of U.S. 29, planners at the Charlottesville-Albemarle Metropolitan Planning Organization are now including the existing road in the region’s long-range plans.

As proponents and opponents of the bypass float ideas to improve the current corridor, the MPO is considering a scenario called Multimodal 29 to reshape the highway into a low-speed, urban boulevard.

“Building a sidewalk and hoping people walk there is not enough,” said Sarah Rhodes, a transportation planner for the MPO. “The general landscape of U.S. 29 would have to change.”

One option is implementing express bus service between the Charlottesville Albemarle Airport to the Downtown Mall, Rhodes said. 

Some, however, are questioning the feasibility of such a scheme.

“Based on the transit ridership in the Charlottesville region, I do not believe the bus rapid transit concept will work in the next 20 years,” said Neil Williamson, president of the Free Enterprise Forum, a business advocacy group. “Most of the designs for [bus rapid transit] that have worked have included … elevated stations and expansive parking.”

The Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission estimates that Multimodal 29 would cost $46.9 million over 20 years. An express bus option would add another $127 million.

Other elements of the Multimodal 29 plan include multi-use paths on both sides of the highway, traffic signal phases dedicated to pedestrians, and crosswalks.

Currently, there are no crosswalks on U.S. 29 north of Angus Road in Charlottesville.

“Yesterday, I saw [someone] standing on the island median in the middle of U.S. 29 attempting to cross at Fashion Square mall,” Williamson said. “There has to be a better way to deal with this.”

Williamson’s vision for the corridor, which he calls Business 29, shares some ideas with the Multimodal 29 concept. He calls for a “repurposing of the pavement … to create bike lanes, extended right- and left-turn lanes and pedestrian improvements.”

The Multimodal 29 scenario also proposes to increase pedestrian safety by lowering the speed limit to 35 mph.

Morgan Butler, a senior attorney at the Charlottesville-based Southern Environmental Law Center, said he doubts a lower speed limit would really solve the problem.

“My opinion is that if crossing [U.S.] 29 is ever to be a realistic, safe option for pedestrians and bicyclists, we need elevated crossings,” Butler said. “This is one of the many benefits of building overpasses at key intersections.”

Butler is one of creators of the Go 29 alternative that the SELC advocates. The plan calls for installing two “compact overpasses” to carry Rio Road and Hydraulic Road over U.S. 29, as well as extending Hillsdale and Berkmar drives to serve local traffic.

Neither overpass appears in the scenarios the MPO is reviewing. In the case of the Rio Road interchange, Butler said it’s because that proposal was tied to the dormant Eastern Connector project between Route 20 and U.S. 29.

“In the work being done for the new plan, it appears it’s not being looked at as a separate project, but rather only as part of the Eastern Connector — a project that the MPO is lukewarm about at best,” Butler said. “The Rio interchange needs to be considered separate from that road. It’s a huge priority all by itself.”

But Rhodes said that the MPO has yet to conduct intersection analysis and stressed that it is still early in the planning process.

“Scenario development and analysis will continue for several months,” she said. “There will likely be three to four rounds.”

Once the options are solidified, the planning district commission will host a public workshop. Attendees will review the options and help steer the MPO toward a final preferred scenario for the long-range transportation plan, Rhodes said. Being on the plan would make the project eligible for some federal funding.

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