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Officials tour U.S. 29 construction zone

A Virginia Department of Transportation engineer overseeing construction of the grade-separated intersection of Rio Road and U.S. 29 made a prediction Thursday that the work will be completed ahead of schedule.

“The contract says they have to be done by September 2 and open it back up to traffic,” said Dave Covington, a manager for the Route 29 Solutions projects. “I can guarantee you that we will be done well before then.”

Covington made his comments as part of a tour arranged for members of the Route 29 Project Delivery Advisory Panel. The group was formed in 2014 to oversee implementation of the projects that were planned and implemented after federal, state and local decisions to end consideration of the Western Bypass.

The group was joined by Greg Yates, an at-large member of the Commonwealth Transportation Board who represents rural communities.

“I’ve been in the area for a long time and am very familiar with Charlottesville,” Yates said. “Once the bypass was a no go, this is a great project. It is way ahead of schedule and it looks like it’s doing well.”

The tour began with a visit through the new ramp at Best Buy from U.S. 29 south leading to westbound U.S. 250. A second lane from U.S. 29 now allows space for vehicles turning onto westbound U.S. 250 and this lane continues on U.S. 250 all the way to the Barracks Road exit.

“When we first opened it up, it took a while for people to get used to it,” Covington said, adding that motorists did not yet know they no longer had to get into the far right lane to get onto the bypass.

Covington himself uses the interchange on his afternoon commute home.

“It seems to be operating well now,” he said. “It seems like it’s not backing up quite as far.”

Most of the sound walls have been completed but a few still need to have their stone faces stained.

Upon completion, all of the projects will include sections with stone faces to give all of the projects the same rocky texture.

“We were able to engage the same company that did the staining for the John Warner Parkway and the McIntire Road interchange so everything will look the same,” said Lou Hatter, a VDOT spokesman. “We want to make sure we have a consistent look throughout the projects.”

The tour then headed north to the Rio Road intersection.

An electronic sign in the median reads “Rio Stores open.” The long arm of a truck that pumps concrete to form barrier walls is raised high into the air.

Covington said work is well underway.

“They are almost complete with all the excavation and are working on a final bit below the bridge,” he said. “They’ve poured the first two segments of the bridge deck and have three segments left. They should have those finished by next week.”

If Rio Road is opened up before Aug. 5, the Lane-Corman joint venture hired to do the work will receive a bonus. The amount will drop each day until Sept. 2. After that, there are penalties.

“They started on May 23 and within those first two days, they were already three shifts ahead of schedule,” Covington said. That allowed Lane-Corman to give workers a day off one day a week.

One shift works from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. and the other from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m.

Covington said about 40 percent of the construction workers are local. The rest are skilled laborers who travel the country working on different projects.

“They’re renting hotels and spending their money here,” said Philip Shucet, a former VDOT commissioner hired to oversee implementation of the U.S. 29 projects.

The signs that will tell motorists of the new traffic patterns also are completed.

“All the overhead sign structures are in place but are just covered up,” Covington said.

When finished, local traffic will use the outermost lanes to access Rio Road. Black poles that will carry the future traffic lights already have been installed. For the first time, pedestrians will be able to easily cross U.S. 29 at Rio.

“There is a very nice refuge area along the bridge in the median,” Covington said. The panel had urged landscaping be installed to improve the pedestrian experience.

One member of the panel who has opposed the Rio Road grade-separated intersection also went on the tour.

“It’s well-managed and well-planned,” said Henry Weinschenk. “But it’s not going to do anything to help the national and regional transportation network.”

Yates is not a member of the panel, but said he has been watching its meetings via live-streams.

“If you are passing through the area, this is a real bottleneck and it hurts commerce, so it will be great when it’s done,” he said.