Proposed detour route for during Rio Road construction

With four days remaining until a crucial hearing on three major construction projects in the U.S. 29 corridor, one business owner is concerned that the Virginia Department of Transportation has not sufficiently engaged the public.

“I don’t know that enough advertising has been done about these projects and their effects,” said John Nunley, owner of Better Living. “There are people who I deal with in Forest Lakes and Hollymead that have no idea of the consequences of [these projects].”

Nunley’s comments came at the end of the latest meeting of the Route 29 Project Delivery Advisory Panel, a group of stakeholders overseeing implementation of several projects that were both approved and funded earlier this year by the Commonwealth Transportation Board after the Western Bypass lost federal, state and local support.

The projects are the $81 million grade-separated interchange at Rio Road and U.S. 29, the $54 million northern extension of Berkmar Drive, and the $51 million widening of U.S. 29 between Polo Grounds Road and Hollymead Town Center.

VDOT is scheduled to hold a design public hearing for all three projects from 5 to 7 p.m. Tuesday at Albemarle High School. Feedback gathered at the meeting could help influence how the work might be constructed.  

However, VDOT has asked three firms to submit proposals to design and build the projects. The Commonwealth Transportation Board plans to award a contract in February, and construction is expected to begin in early 2016. All projects are to be completed by October 2017, officials have said.

Nunley said he did not think enough has been done to let the public know that the projects are moving forward so rapidly.

Supervisor Brad Sheffield, who has held several town hall meetings on the topic, said he would like to see more electronic signs along U.S. 29 to help communicate to the public what is going on.

“We can only reach the audience that is paying attention,” Sheffield said. “The people traveling the corridor will pay attention. I’m also going to hold as many town hall meetings as I can.”

Sheffield also said he thought it was important to communicate with different audiences. Businesses want to know how their livelihoods will be impacted by construction, whereas residents are concerned how their neighborhoods and streets will be affected.

Karen Weiner, manager of Fashion Square mall, said the distinction was not that simple.

“[The mall] is not just a building or a parking lot,” Weiner said. “There are thousands of people who work there and also live in this community and it is affecting them greatly. It is not just a selfish business owner perspective.”

Another panelist said many people are simply apathetic about the projects.

“A lot of people in the community have this attitude that there’s no need to going to meetings because the decision has already been made,” said Eddie Giles, owner of Professional Movers Inc.

Giles added that his business does not depend on vehicular traffic, but many neighboring retail outlets do. Yet, he said he felt the construction is necessary and the panel’s purpose was to try to make the situation better.

“There are improvements that need to be made in this area, but I am not a blind cheerleader for these projects,” he added.

Philip A. Shucet, a former VDOT commission hired to oversee implementation of the projects, said he was glad to have a difference of opinion on the panel.

“I would not want to waste my time with 12 cheerleaders,” Shucet said. He added the panel has made an impact on the projects, such as suggesting that the county’s architectural guidelines be included in the request for proposals.

Shucet also briefed the panel on other changes to the suite of projects.

The so-called “Best Buy ramp” project to add a south lane from U.S. 29 to the U.S. 29-U.S. 250 Bypass is officially underway now that VDOT crews have begun relocating utilities.

Installation of hardware for a network of adaptive traffic signals also has begun. The goal is to place all cameras and other equipment between Hydraulic Road and Fashion Square by Nov. 30. The entire network is to be installed by the end of May 2015.

“They are performing all work that requires lane closures at night,” said VDOT engineer Dave Covington. “That’s exactly what we will do with the design-build contract.”

In related news, the Albemarle Board of Supervisors on Wednesday decided against pursuing funding of an extension of Ashwood Boulevard at this time. The idea had been raised by some panelists as a way to connect Berkmar Drive to U.S. 29 south of Hollymead Town Center.

Sheffield said he did not want funding for such a project to take away from other work that may be needed in the future, such as reconfiguring the intersection of Rio Road and Berkmar Drive.