As the Virginia Department of Transportation prepares for an $84 million grade-separated interchange at Rio Road and U.S. 29, one business group said Thursday that it has met with attorneys to consider legal options to block construction.
“We’ve spoken with several law firms, particularly about eminent domain,” said Charles Lebo, a spokesman for Smart29. “There will be ongoing problems with that.”
The Commonwealth Transportation Board approved and funded the interchange in June after local, state and federal officials withdrew support for the U.S. 29 Western Bypass. The interchange is part of a suite of improvements designed to reduce traffic congestion in the U.S. 29 area.
While VDOT officials have said no additional land is needed for the interchange’s right-of-way, the agency will need to negotiate for easements for temporary construction and stormwater retention systems. Landowners would be financially compensated in both cases.
Philip Shucet, a former VDOT commissioner hired to oversee implementation of the projects, had no comment about a potential lawsuit.
The Route29 Solutions package also includes an extension of Berkmar Drive and a widening of U.S. 29 between Hollymead Town Center and Polo Grounds Road.
Lebo said Smart29 supports those two projects, as well as an extension of Hillsdale Drive and a new system of traffic lights on U.S. 29 that adjust in real time.
But the group wants local and state officials to halt or delay the interchange, which would place four lanes of U.S. 29 beneath Rio Road to eliminate the traffic signal there along with two other lights.
“It is a two-thousand-foot tunnel that is ugly, it’s very expensive, and it has safety issues,” Lebo said.
Lebo claimed that the project is being forced on the community by Richmond officials, but one member of the panel pointed out at Thursday’s meeting of the Route29 Project Delivery Advisory Panel that the Rio Road interchange has been endorsed by local officials through the Places29 Master Plan.
“These have all been part of the county’s plan for quite some time,” said Mark Graham, the county’s community development director. “These aren’t new projects that have just popped up in the last year.”
Additionally, the CTB voted in 1990 to approve a phasing plan for improvements on US. 29. The so-called Three Party Agreement called for the Rio Road interchange to be built before the Western Bypass.
Many business owners have fought the interchange since that time, and that opposition continues.
The group’s executive director, Laura Knox, told the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors Wednesday that more than 600 people have signed a petition against the project.
Lebo said Smart29 will be conducting a poll on the topic.
“We’re going to show Richmond that a majority of folks do not want this interchange,” Lebo said.
In February, VDOT will award a contract to one firm to design and build the interchange, extend Berkmar and widen U.S. 29. Construction of the interchange is expected to begin in May 2016 and is required to be completed by the beginning of September 2016.
To stop the project, Smart29 will need to convince the Charlottesville Albemarle Metropolitan Planning Organization to intervene. The MPO included the interchange in its long-range transportation plan in both 2009 and 2014.
One of the MPO members also sits on the U.S. 29 panel.
“There’s not much point to rehashing this point right now,” said Charlottesville Mayor Satyendra Huja.
Lebo, who is also a member of the county’s Architectural Review Board, serves on the panel and said he will continue to do so even if he doesn’t support the interchange.
“We’re still trying to learn what we can do to improve this situation,” Lebo said. “We’re hoping it isn’t built, but if it is, we want to work with it and see that it has a proper design.”
Albemarle County officials are also preparing an assistance program to help businesses who will be disrupted. The initiative will include marketing efforts to help encourage commerce in the area during construction.
“The other area where we think there is more extensive work to be done is in the financial and regulatory area of suggestions,” said Lee Catlin, Albemarle’s assistant county manager for community and business partnerships.
Catlin also said county laws may need to be adjusted to accommodate other ideas, such as signage that would not currently be approved by the Architectural Review Board. That process may take time, and Albemarle’s Board of Supervisors has said they want to make sure laws will be ready in time for construction.
On Thursday, Lebo said he did not think program would do much good.
“When you cut off traffic … to a business, I don’t care how much assistance you provide, [because] it’s not going to make a difference,” Lebo said.
Information on all the projects can be found at Route29solutions.org. However, the website will be down for maintenance over the weekend.