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Opponents hold non-binding workshop for Rio Road interchange alternatives

A group opposed to a grade-separated interchange at Rio Road and U.S. 29 held a design workshop with a prominent urban designer Monday to try to come up with alternatives.

Smart29 has been waging a campaign to fight the interchange, which is one of several projects approved by local and state officials to replace the defunct Western Bypass project

“If the grade-separated interchange is not the right solution, then what is the right solution?” asked Grant Gamble, vice president of training and development for ACAC Fitness & Wellness Centers, a fitness club in nearby Albemarle Square shopping center, whose management is publicly opposed to the interchange.

However, the Commonwealth Transportation Board plans to award a contract on the interchange and two other road projects Feb. 18 with major construction expected in the summer of 2016.

In the face of such a fast-paced construction program, supporters of Smart29 have hired Ian Lockwood of the Toole Design Group to identify alternatives to the interchange.

Lockwood took input at three sessions held in an empty storefront in Albemarle Square. One was for property owners in the area, one was for appointed and elected officials and the last was intended for county planners.

Reporters were barred from attending the sessions.

This is not the first time Lockwood has been hired by a local government or group to consult on area transportation issues. The city of Charlottesville paid his company up to $35,000 to hold a four-day charrette on city streets last May.

“We didn’t hire him because he’s against the [interchange],” Gamble said. “We hired him because he’s internationally acclaimed, he’s been hired by the city and the county and the guy comes with local credibility.”

Smart29 officials would not disclose how much they were paying Lockwood.

Gamble said the charrette was held in response to what he called the “challenge” the grade-separated interchange would present to area businesses.

Gamble said Lockwood suggested a “complete streets” solution and Smart29 hired him to flesh out that concept.

“We’ve hired him and we’re paying his costs but he’s said the conclusion he comes to may be something we don’t like,” Gamble said.

A former VDOT commissioner who helped create the solutions package did not participate in the workshop.

“The charrette will not affect the construction of the Route 29 Solutions projects, including the Rio [interchange],” said Philip Shucet. “Any suggestions coming out of the charrette that might work together with the [interchange] should be shared with the city and county for their future consideration.”

Karen Weiner, the manager of the Fashion Square mall and a member of the Route 29 Project Delivery Advisory Panel, attended the first session.

“This afternoon was very preliminary,” Weiner said. “However, it is great to see exploration of both doable and livable options.”

However, neither Charlottesville nor Albemarle nor VDOT is under any obligation to incorporate suggestions, as the design workshop is not part of the public process that selects transportation projects.

As executive director of the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission, Chip Boyles has been helping Albemarle County with a plan to assist local businesses during and after construction. However, Boyles did not receive an invitation to the charrette and was skeptical about its purpose.

“This will have a very strong likelihood to create more confusion around an already very complex project,” Boyles said. “Holding any public meetings, and especially working design sessions, without qualified input from major stakeholders cannot create a truly comprehensive or objective discussion or work product.”

Supervisor Ann H. Mallek, who was active in transportation issues before her election in 2007, was invited and attended. She said the charrette was reaffirming in many ways.

“Many of [Lockwood’s] suggestions talked about development of a parallel road network which is something that we’ve been working on for 15 years,” Mallek said.

As a member of a citizen’s transportation advisory board, Mallek helped develop the Places29 Master Plan, which envisions grade-separated interchanges as a way to connect the parallel roads while allowing through traffic to flow. She stands by her vote to support the interchange and other pieces of the Route29 Solutions packaged.

“It’s something I have supported for many years for many different reasons,” Mallek said. “It will make improvements to the predictability and consistency of traffic.”

“There are some nuanced ways of looking at the network which might be refreshing to a lot of people and that may give a better outcome for the business community,” Lockwood said after hearing from the groups.

Lockwood will take input from the workshops to develop an alternative that will be displayed at Supervisor Kenneth C. Boyd’s town hall meeting scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Thursday at Sutherland Middle School.

On Friday, VDOT announced it plans to select a team headed by Lane Construction to build the interchange as well as the extension of Berkmar Drive and the widening of U.S. 29 between Polo Grounds Road and Hollymead Town Center. The team submitted the lowest bid of $117 million to build all three projects.

Gamble said Smart29 supports other projects in the Route29 Solutions package, but that his group will continue to fight the interchange.

“The bypass was [also] a done deal,” Gamble said. “A contract was awarded. From our standpoint, we’re not there yet with shovels in the ground.”