The regional group that coordinates transportation planning in Charlottesville and Albemarle County has chosen Free Bridge as the project it will submit to the Virginia Department of Transportation for funding.
“This is a really important project for our jurisdictions,” said Councilor Kathy Galvin, a member of the Charlottesville-Albemarle Metropolitan Planning Organization’s board of directors. “[Free Bridge] is a terrible bottleneck and I would pursue this project post haste.”
In 2014, the General Assembly passed House Bill 2 that mandated VDOT switch to a process that requires projects to compete with each other for funding. Projects are scored on how well they relieve congestion, encourage economic development and other factors.
The initiative is now known as Smart Scale.
Last year, the MPO selected Interstate 64’s exit 118 as its main project for funding and it scored near the bottom in the ranking process.
The two projects the MPO will submit this year came out of an 18-month study that sought to identify environmental obstacles to potential road improvements through a process known as the Free Bridge Eco-Logical Study.
One project would increase capacity on Free Bridge at a cost estimate of $20.5 million. Sidewalks would be removed to allow for two additional lanes. A second bridge would be built for pedestrians and cyclists to cross the Rivanna River.
The other project would alter U.S. 250’s intersections at both High Street and Route 20 at a cost of $7.4 million. More turn lanes would be added to allow for traffic signals to be better coordinated.
Councilor Kristin Szakos said some city staff members have concerns that additional lanes on the bridge also would require the widening of U.S. 250 west of Free Bridge to Locust Avenue.
“I want to make sure that if we do this … that we make sure that doesn’t obligate it in any way to do it that way and we could continue the conversations,” Szakos said.
Supervisor Ann H. Mallek said eliminating that portion of the submission could reduce its chance of being ranked highly.
“I expect the evaluators are going to ask what the point is of bringing more people to the Long Street and High Street intersection when they can’t move west because there’s no room to go,” Mallek said.
The MPO also amended its long-range transportation plan to include the projects. Projects must be in that document before they can receive federal funding.
Charlottesville and Albemarle will submit their own projects through Smart Scale.
Alex Ikefuna, director of the city’s Department of Neighborhood Development Services, said Charlottesville will seek to supplement improvements for West Main Street. The City Council has approved allocation of $10 million toward the project in its capital improvement program.
“The [overall] price tag is approximately $30 million,” Ikefuna said in an email. “Having city funds in the project improves our chances of getting additional Smart Scale money.”
County planners will present possible projects to the Albemarle Board of Supervisors at its meeting Aug. 3.
The deadline to apply to the Smart Scale program is Sept. 30. If projects are not funded, the next time localities can apply will be in 2018.
In other news, the Federal Highway Administration has awarded a $100,000 grant to the MPO to study I-64 from exit 87 in Staunton to exit 124 at Pantops. The organization will work with its equivalents in Staunton and Waynesboro, as well as VDOT.
The goal is to find ways to improve traffic, relieve congestion and prevent crashes in a 40-mile stretch that crosses the Blue Ridge Mountains.
“This project will be a two-fold mission,” said Chip Boyles, executive director of the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission. “The biggest mission is to develop and promote a planning tool that FHWA uses and they’re trying to get MPOs to use to coordinate planning between multiple jurisdictions.”
Boyles said the second mission is to come up with high-level concepts of what can be built to help address the issues.
“It’s not just looking at I-64 but maybe looking at transit opportunities and possible changes to 250 so that it can handle a larger capacity when people have to detour onto it,” he said.
The Charlottesville MPO will hold a joint meeting with the Staunton-Waynesboro MPO in the fall to discuss the issue further.