Business owners seek answers at Route 29 solutions forum
More than 100 people representing businesses on U.S. 29 filled the cafeteria at Jack Jouett Middle School on Thursday to find out more about construction projects that many of them feel threaten their livelihoods.
“We worked on getting a lot of people here,” said L.F. Wood, a business owner and chairman of the North Charlottesville Business Council. “Businesses need to be informed on what is happening.”
Albemarle County, the city of Charlottesville and the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission joined forces to reach out to ensure that all businesses along the corridor were contacted in advance of the meeting.
The Commonwealth Transportation Board approved a package of several road construction projects in June as an alternative to the $245 million Western Bypass. The proposed highway was denied an environmental approval by the Federal Highway Administration in February.
County Executive Thomas C. Foley said the goal of the forum was to get input on an assistance program to help businesses stay afloat during construction.
“Our community is the recipient of an unprecedented $230 million worth of projects to try to improve traffic conditions on the U.S. 29 corridor,” Foley said.
Displays were set up with information about all of the current Route 29 Solutions projects.
They include the $54 million northern extension of Berkmar Drive, the $30 million extension of Hillsdale Drive, the $17 million Best Buy ramp and the $51 million widening of U.S. 29 from Polo Grounds Road to Hollymead Town Center.
But many business and property owners expressed their frustration over the $81 million project to route four through-lanes of U.S. 29 underneath Rio Road.
“I haven’t seen a road [project] be built this quickly in Albemarle County or the city of Charlottesville,” said Joe Bonistalli, a commercial real estate broker.
The current schedule shows the interchange being under construction in the summer of 2016. Berkmar Extended would be built concurrently, but the widening of U.S. 29 farther north is not expected to happen until after work on the intersection is completed sometime in the fall of 2016.
Grant Gamble, vice president of training and development at ACAC Fitness & Wellness Centers, said he would like the Rio Road intersection project to be delayed. He said has about 2,000 of his company’s members use the Albemarle Square shopping center every day.
“About 90 percent of them use the Albemarle Square traffic light, but it disappears after construction,” Gamble said. “It’s going to be a brick wall. How does that affect our business? Pretty significantly.”
Bonistalli said he thought the new parallel roads and the widening should occur before the Rio Road intersection so that the new interchange’s impact on surrounding stores could be further studied. He said Albemarle’s Comprehensive Plan has designated U.S. 29 as a commercial area since 1980.
“For decades, the county has forced development along the U.S. 29 corridor as the county’s main street and restricted commercial development in the rest of the county,” Bonistalli said. “This proposed interchange is going to take a major chunk of that main street and restrict access to it.”
Wood, a longtime opponent of the Rio Road interchange, said he is glad the county is willing to offer assistance during the construction period.
“There is going to be devastation,” Wood said. “At least there is good communication with the Board of Supervisors. If it’s going to happen, we need to make it the best we can.”
County staff will collate the feedback received at the meeting and ask the Board of Supervisors in December for guidance on how to proceed. The elected officials will then take action on a business assistance program in the first of the year.
“We realize that those of you in the room are the ones who are going to have the best ideas on how to assist businesses before, during and after construction,” said Lee Catlin, assistant county executive for community relations.
Catlin said the intent of the assistance program is to encourage people to keep spending money in the affected areas.
Two possible steps include a temporary loosening of signage restrictions and mobile phone applications to help people know how to get to affected stores during construction.
The Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce is pushing for Albemarle County to create a tax abatement program for affected businesses. Catlin said that would likely take an act of the General Assembly.
In other U.S. 29 news, a stakeholder group overseeing implementation of the projects also met earlier in the day Thursday.
Philip A. Shucet, a former commissioner of the Virginia Department of Transportation who has been hired to help oversee implementation of the projects, confirmed the widening project will include a multiuse trail.
“It will be on the east side of 29 and it will be paved to Hollymead Drive,” Shucet said. At that point, there will be a crosswalk built to allow pedestrians to cross U.S. 29. A new sidewalk will be built northward to Hollymead Town Center.
The existing Berkmar Drive will be used as a detour during construction of the Rio Road interchange. Some panel members have previously expressed concern that it is in too poor a condition to handle the additional traffic. That prompted VDOT engineers to investigate.
“The good thing about it is that it really just needs a surface coating,” said Joel Denunzio, administrator of VDOT’s Culpeper District. He added that the road will be restriped differently to handle more vehicles.
The next milestone for the projects is Nov. 6, when VDOT will issue an addendum to its request for proposals.
The Commonwealth Transportation Board is expected to award a contract at its meeting in February.