Group discusses ways to invest $200 million on Route 29

A panel that state officials convened to develop solutions for traffic congestion in Charlottesville and Albemarle County along U.S. 29 met Thursday to discuss how to invest money from the now-defunct Western Bypass.

“There is about $200 million allocated to a project that we’re [no longer] going to consider building, so we can use that money to improve through traffic at least without disrupting local traffic,” said Philip Shucet, a former commissioner of the Virginia Department of Transportation.

The 10-member Route 29 Advisory Council, which held its first of three meetings at the Virginia Department of Transportation’s Center for Transportation Innovation and Research in Albemarle County, consists of elected officials from communities throughout the corridor from Danville to Warrenton, as well as representatives of regional business and environmental groups. The council is charged with presenting recommendations to the Commonwealth Transportation Board by May 13.

“We are going to prepare a set of recommendations that might be a group of projects, or it may be only one thing,” Shucet said. He was hired to facilitate the group’s proceedings. 

Virginia Secretary of Transportation Aubrey Layne urged the group to find common ground.

“At the end of the day, we’re all Virginians,” he said Thursday.

Panelists were first asked to measure what they thought a successful outcome would be. That prompted another question from one of the members.

“Are we trying to send through traffic better or are we trying to help congestion locally or are we trying to do both?” asked Albemarle County Supervisor Jane Dittmar. “Some solutions will help one more than the other.”

Lynchburg City Councilor Turner Perrow, a civil engineer, made clear that he favors projects that will help motorists move through Albemarle County quickly.

“One of our success factors should be to make sure we improve flow from southern Virginia to Northern Virginia,” Perrow said. “If we have not improved through traffic flow, then we have not succeeded.”

Charlottesville Mayor Satyendra Huja suggested that reducing the number of traffic lights, perhaps by using traffic circles, might help. He also suggested using land already acquired for the bypass.

“It would be a great place to have a transit-only and bike way on that road because you already have the right of way,” he said.

Fred Shanks, a civil engineer representing the Danville, suggested reducing the number of left turn lanes, creating express lanes and building overpasses.

However, Charlottesville City Councilor Kristin Szakos said there is disagreement locally about whether the overpasses should be built. She said she would prefer overpasses not be considered as short-term solutions.

“We have to really pay attention to the businesses at those intersections because it would have a huge impact,” Szakos said.

Short-term solutions simply could be projects already funded in the state’s Six Year Improvement Program, Szakos said.

“Expand the parallel road network, which includes Hillsdale Drive and Berkmar Extended,” she said. She added that adaptive traffic signals are coming to the corridor later this year, and that the city and county are considering an express bus route.

“There are a number of projects that actually are in the pipeline and are about ready to go,” said Trip Pollard with the Southern Environmental Law Center. For instance, the CTB has allocated funding for widening U.S. 29 between the South Fork Rivanna River and Hollymead Town Center.

Perrow said projects intended to improve local traffic should be paid for by the localities, and that the $200 million should be reserved for constructions that address traffic passing through.

“We need to make sure that we identify what is a regional and state solution over what’s a local solution,” Perrow said. “Having a pedestrian crossing … doesn’t seem to be really improving through-traffic flow on U.S. 29.”

Szakos disagreed.

“Eighty-seven percent of the traffic on this road is local, and if we can get that local traffic off, it makes sense,” she said.

But Perrow said the $200 million had been allocated specifically for a bypass, and so the money should be dedicated solely to through-traffic improvements.

“I’m not sure we’ll have agreement around the table for that,” Szakos said.

“There’s going to be disagreement like in any good negotiation,” Shucet said. “Probably everyone’s going to walk away feeling a little bit pinched.”

Shucet said a technical team will go through the proposals and evaluate which ones might be feasible. He said the CTB could decide to move that money elsewhere in the state if the panel does not come up with viable solutions.

“We all have different interests in this, but the interest we all have is that U.S. 29 works better,” Szakos said. “If we can’t work together to realize that, the money will go somewhere else.”

The panel’s two representatives from Lynchburg made clear their desire to plan for a long-term solution for through traffic.

“We need to begin with the end in mind, and we look towards the long-term solution,” Perrow said. He asked for up to 5 percent of the $200 million to be dedicated towards a long-term study.

Layne said he believed that a bypass around Charlottesville will be needed in the future.

“It won’t be a four- or five- mile bypass,” he said. “It will be a much larger bypass and it will be in the billions of dollars to get a bypass done. It’s not at our disposal today.”

The next meeting of the council is scheduled for April 10 at the Center for Transportation Innovation and Research.