Planning currently underway at every level of government will shape the future of U.S. 29 through northern Albemarle County. At the local level, the Albemarle County Planning Commissio n is reviewing the final draft of the Places29 Master Plan before sending it on to the Board of Supervisors. At the state level, the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) is studying future options for the entire U.S. 29 corridor south of Gainesville, VA. Both studies are being conducted while the U.S. House of Representatives begins to debate a major transportation funding bill.
Local and national advocacy organizations such as the Piedmont Environmental Council (PEC) and the Coalition for Smarter Growth believe that any investments in transportation need to include key planning principles being followed locally in the Places29 master plan. In times of very limited resources, this community’s emphasis on parallel roads, interconnected neighborhoods, and improvements on Route 29, for example, are seen by these groups as highly preferable to building a bypass around Charlottesville.
On July 13, 2009, the PEC hosted a panel entitled “The Route 29 Solution – Winning Federal Support” which sought to encourage individuals and organizations to get involved with local, state, and federal efforts to prepare for a “21st century transportation system.”
The discussion was moderated by Stewart Schwartz, the Executive Director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth , a Washington D.C.-based group. Schwartz said groups and individuals that would like to see a higher priority placed on funding transit, sidewalks and other mobility choices have a chance to influence the federal process this summer and fall as the House begins deliberating on transportation legislation.
“We’re talking between over $300 billion and $500 billion in the next five years shared amongst all the states in the Union,” Schwartz said. He said that compares with $30 billion spent on transportation in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, otherwise known as the stimulus package.
Schwartz said Albemarle County and Charlottesville could be well placed to influence the national discussion. Congressman Tom Perriello (D-5th) sits on the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, the only member of the Virginia delegation to do so.
“We want to see a bill that will ensure that the transportation spending that we do and the federal housing spending that we do are linked together,” Schwartz said. During his presentation, Schwartz urged stakeholders to send feedback to both VDOT and the federal government saying that Places29 is in line with emerging federal transportation priorities.
FORMER TJPDC EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR RETURNS TO PROMOTE PLAN
Harrison Rue , the former Executive Director of the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission (TJPDC), returned to Charlottesville for the discussion. During his tenure, Rue helped develop many of the underlying concepts contained within the Places29 plan, which he said came about in part as an alternative to the Western Bypass. He said the bypass would do very little to address congestion caused by motorists seeking to move within the region. Rue said only 12% of the average daily trips are people traveling through the area.
“Once we saw that number we realized that we could come up with a different plan to maintain through traffic by providing a local network over time,” Rue said. For instance, grade-separated interchanges would allow for traffic to travel from east to west at key intersections. The interchanges are the most capital-intensive of all the transportation components called for in Places29, but Rue said each one would increase the efficiency of the overall system.
“You don’t have to build the whole thing at once, unlike a single roadway, to make the whole thing work,” Rue said.
Now with the firm ICF International, Rue predicted that the new federal bill will place a priority on funding the kinds of the transportation improvements called for in Places29.
Rue said that urban planning is about choices and that given the current funding climate, the community would have to make a choice between the Western Bypass and the dozens of projects called for in Places29. The projects identified in the first ten years of the draft Places29 plan are projected to cost about $350 million (in 2010-11 dollars).
“We’ve long known that if a bypass was chosen to be funded and built, there would be no money for decades to do anything on U.S. 29,” Rue said. “Not a light, not a crosswalk, it would take all of our primary funding.” Rue also said it was more likely that smaller projects will be the priority for federal funding in the next few years.
COUNTY PLANNER DEBUNKS PLACES29 MYTHS
Wayne Cilimberg, the Director of Planning for Albemarle County, spent several minutes addressing some of the concerns that have been raised by critics of the master plan. Cilimberg said the Places29 Master Plan builds on the land use decisions made by the Board of Supervisors over the last several decades. For instance, the County’s 1980 Comprehensive Plan further refined the County’s urban growth areas and downzoned the rural countryside. In 2001, the County adopted the Neighborhood Model District . Now, the transportation component of Places29 contains a series of recommended projects to help address the infrastructure needs required to support mixed use development and high residential density, some of which has already been approved in major developments like Albemarle Place, Hollymead Town Center, and North Pointe.
“The overwhelming majority of infrastructure recommendations are already required by existing approved and planned development,” Cilimberg said. “We feel like the area will be better off with the land use pattern of mixed-use, walkability and transit options that Places29 could result in, even if the road improvements are very limited, significantly delayed or in some cases not at all constructed.”
Cilimberg also addressed concerns raised by the North Charlottesville Business Council that Route 29 would become a major expressway. He said that the concept of grade-separated interchanges predates the Places29 master plan. While Cilimberg said that he felt Places29’s transportation improvements would be a better investment, he said nothing in the plan precluded the construction of a Western Bypass.
SUPERVISOR ROOKER SAYS COMMUNITY AS A WHOLE WILL BENEFIT FROM PLACES29
As one of the County’s six Supervisors, Dennis Rooker (Jack Jouett) will vote on the Places29 Master Plan. As a member of the MPO Policy Board, Rooker is one of four elected officials who communicate local priorities to both the state and federal government.
At the beginning of his comments, Rooker said decisions made locally by that Albemarle County have set a standard for the rest of Virginia. For instance, he said the County’s land use policies are being emulated across Virginia.
“As proof of that, about a year and a half ago the legislature passed a bill which requires that localities establish urban development areas much like our growth areas in Albemarle County,” Rooker said. He said the bill also calls for localities to incorporate interconnectivity and other new urbanism principles into their comprehensive plans. “What they have basically done is legislated what we adopted about eight years ago as our Neighborhood Model.”
Rooker used the example of the Biscuit Run development to show that developers are increasingly seeing the potential of greater returns by developing a conceptual plan that stayed within the principles of the Neighborhood Model District. He said the developer, Hunter Craig, could have built 900 units by-right. However, by working with the County, the developer was eventually given permission through a rezoning to build up to 3,200 units because of the various proffers for community improvements, as well as the mixed use components.
He said groups that attack master planning efforts such as Places29 usually do so because out of a concern that their interests will be threatened. In the case of the North Charlottesville Business Council, Rooker said members of that group feel that grade-separated interchanges will hurt their livelihood. But, Rooker said the City of Charlottesville has benefited tremendously from the many grade-separated interchanges on the Route 250 bypass.
On the subject of the Western Bypass of Route. 29, Rooker said the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors has been consistently against the Western Bypass and has “never spent any of its own money on the project. Funding for preliminary engineering and the purchase of the right-of-way has come entirely from the Virginia Department of Transportation.
Rooker said it was more likely that smaller projects called for in Places29 would receive funds than the Western Bypass, which has been estimated to cost around $300 million.
“Nobody is going to give a proffer for building a bypass,” Rooker said. “The state has now determined that [the Western Bypass] does not pass any reasonable cost-benefit analysis in terms of looking at the transportation improvement provided for the dollars invested.”
In response to a question from Brian Wheeler of Charlottesville Tomorrow regarding opposition from the NCBC, Rooker responded that the County and the business community are more in agreement than disagreement.
“They support the Hillsdale project, they support the 29 improvements from Hydraulic Road to the 250 Bypass and the ramp at Best Buy,” Rooker said. “The NCBC has never supported the grade-separated interchanges. If you look back at the history [of the NCBC], it was formed for the purpose of opposing grade-separated interchanges on 29.”
“We have enough projects that we are in agreement on that are in this plan that would take us out for the next ten years, and in total they would make a substantial improvement to the traffic flow on 29,” Rooker said.