The Albemarle Board of Supervisors voted 5-1 Tuesday to support a $203 million package of road improvements to address traffic congestion on U.S. 29, including $81 million for a grade-separated interchange at Rio Road.
Supervisor Kenneth C. Boyd, a key supporter of the now-defunct Western Bypass, was the lone vote against a resolution to direct the board’s two representatives on the Metropolitan Planning Organization to endorse the plan at that body’s meeting later today.
Approval came despite protests from business representatives who said at a public hearing that the Rio interchange would be overly destructive.
“This vote tonight will be remembered as forever changing the character of Albemarle’s Main Street,” said Neil Williamson, president of the Free Enterprise Forum. “Some businesses will relocate and recover, but some will not.”
However, Free Union resident John Martin dismissed those fears.
“As free enterprises, each of these businesses is experienced in managing risk and temporarily inconvenienced businesses in proximity to road improvement projects… is a cost of doing business on any commercial corridor,” Martin said.
Other projects in the package include $54 million to extend Berkmar Drive across the South Fork of the Rivanna River and an additional $10 million to further extend Hillsdale Drive Extended to Holiday Lane in Charlottesville.
The package was developed this spring by Philip Shucet, a former Virginia Department of Transportation Commissioner hired to facilitate a panel of elected officials and business leaders along the entire U.S. 29 corridor in Virginia. The group, which was tasked with finding alternate uses of $200 million allocated to the Western Bypass, also included an attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center.
“There have been a number of studies over the past few decades showing how important it is to [have] a parallel road network as well as to adjust the two most congested interchanges at Rio and Hydraulic if we are to build an effective transportation network,” said Trip Pollard, senior attorney with the SELC.
In 1990, the Commonwealth Transportation Board selected an alignment for the Western Bypass. They also set up a three-phase process that consisted of widening U.S. 29, construction of grade-separated interchanges at Rio Road, Greenbrier Drive, and Hydraulic Road, followed by construction of the bypass.
Albemarle, Charlottesville, and the University of Virginia signed a three-party agreement in 1992 that recommended the Meadow Creek Parkway be built before the interchanges. This became the formal position of the MPO, which must approve construction projects before they can receive federal funding.
However, in January 1995, City Council passed a resolution requesting that the Hydraulic interchange be dropped from consideration after opposition from the business community. The following month, the Commonwealth Transportation Board voted to end planning for the interchanges and accelerated purchase of land for the bypass.
If the CTB approves the package at its meeting in June, the interchanges will once again be official policy.
Shucet’s recommendation also includes $10 million to begin preliminary engineering for a future Hydraulic Road interchange
“Rio is a significant project that provides tremendous benefit for the area,” Shucet said. “I think that as you look at Hydraulic you’re going to find out that you can’t really do something at Hydraulic without thinking about what that might mean for the U.S. 29 and U.S. 250 interchange.”
Representatives from several businesses near the Rio Road spoke up at the hearing. The new intersection would eliminate three signals in all, including traffic lights at Fashion Square Mall and Albemarle Square.
“We will lose our light that we share with the Goodwill Store,” said Mark Wood, owner of Storage Solutions Center north of the future interchange. “Customers coming to us who are going north will have to go to the Woodbrook traffic light and make a U-turn to come in. I’m not sure how we will survive during the construction period.”
Rod Gentry, senior vice president of Union Bank, said he did not think construction of a Rio Road interchange should proceed if the Hydraulic interchange was not guaranteed.
“That is a significant gamble and I would be fearful of the impact on the business community if we roll the dice,” Gentry said. “If you just look at what happened at McIntire Plaza with the Meadow Creek Parkway, those businesses have suffered mightily.”
Small businesses opposed to the plan included Chandler’s Bakery, the new Rivanna Plaza shopping center, and PJ Networks Computer Services.
“I represent one small business with ten employees,” said Phil Jaderborg, manager of PJ Network Computer Services. “If I had known there was going to be this type of proposal when I rented the property in October, we would have looked elsewhere.”
However, not all business owners were opposed to the Rio interchange.
Bill Tucker, an attorney whose office is on Rio Road, also owns commercial property on U.S. 29.
“The Chamber of Commerce, in condemning any improvements to the Rio Road intersection, does not speak for me,” Tucker said.
Martha Wilhelm supported the plan but said she understood the concerns of the business community.
“The negative impacts of construction should be mitigated to the greatest extent possible,” Wilhelm said.
“It is absolutely essential that a panel of business leaders and community leaders be formed to help develop concepts for design, particularly for maintenance and protection of traffic,” Shucet said. “That discussion should not be about whether or not you’re going to do it but how you’re going to do it.”
Shucet said preliminary engineering and an environmental review would need to be conducted before construction could begin.
Supervisor Jane Dittmar said she was impressed by the turn-out from the business community.
“I can’t tell you in the nine years I served as president of the Chamber how hard it was to get more than just a handful of interested business people to come up,” Dittmar said. “The real fear about this plan may be eradicated a great deal through the process that we follow and the studies that we have.”
Boyd said he supported everything in the package except the Rio Road interchange. He suggested limiting funding to just preliminary engineering.
“If we said that we’re just going to do the study of the interchange at Rio Road at this point, it will give us time to get some of these other projects done which everyone agrees to, but I wouldn’t want to start construction on U.S. 29 with no parallel road system,” Boyd said.
However, other supervisors said it was important to send a message to the CTB that the project has support from elected officials.
The MPO meets at 4:00 pm today at the Water Street Center.
Supervisors will be presented with the details of a business assistance program at their meeting on June 11.
“I believe it is the intent of this board to really make sure going forward that we work to make the businesses as strong as possible during this period of construction,” said Supervisor Diantha McKeel.