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Two hundred people attend public hearing for Route 29 projects

More than two hundred people crowded into the cafeteria at Albemarle High School on Tuesday to express their thoughts about design features of three major construction projects in and around U.S. 29 that Virginia Department of Transportation officials hope will be constructed within three years.

“We’ve got three design-build projects that are being advanced as part of one contract,” said Lou Hatter, a communications manager with VDOT.

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

Three teams of engineering firms have been asked to submit proposals to design and build all three projects. The Commonwealth Transportation Board is expected to award a contract in February.

In September 2012, more than 500 people attended a similar hearing for the Western Bypass.

At the time, VDOT was looking for input on a draft environmental assessment over the impacts of a new 6.2 mile four-lane highway.

The bypass ultimately was put on hold because the Federal Highway Administration opted not to approve the project unless VDOT considered alternatives as part of the environmental analysis.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s administration decided instead to pursue what has become known as the Route 29 Solutions, which have been under development since March.

Additional projects in Route 29 Solutions include $10 million to study a future grade-separated intersection at Hydraulic Road, $20 million to start a second daily passenger train between Lynchburg and Washington and additional money to extend Hillsdale Drive in Charlottesville to provide a parallel alternative to U.S. 29.

“I’m really enthusiastic for these solutions because I think Route 29 is where the problem is,” said Kathryn Brust, an Ivy Ridge resident who had opposed the bypass.

Brust said the process for the solutions is much more transparent and open than the method by which the bypass was revived beginning with an unexpected approval by Albemarle supervisors in June 2011.

The U.S. 29 projects have been developed by a technical team with input from two stakeholder panels led by former VDOT Commissioner Philip A. Shucet.

“They have been very public by how they have gone about designing what they want to do now, whereas before it just started with a mystery vote,” Brust said. “Now it’s all swung in the other direction and it feels so much better.”

However, many business representatives attended the meeting to signal their opposition to the Rio Road intersection.

Phil Wendel, the CEO of ACAC Fitness and Wellness Centers, said he thinks that project is moving too fast. Current plans are for major construction of the interchange to occur in the summer of 2016.

“It is inordinately expensive, it doesn’t appear to provide any real solutions, and it’s going to screw up access to virtually the entire merchant base north of Rio, south of Rio, east of Rio, and west of Rio,” Wendel said. “I don’t see the advantage.”

Wendel has started an online petition to ask McAuliffe to put the brakes on the interchange. More than 140 signatures had been received as of Tuesday night. He called the Rio Road interchange a “tunnel to nowhere” that would only remove three traffic lights for through traffic.

“You might get them through 60 seconds faster,” Wendel said. “Then what? It’s an awful amount of money to spend to not really create a lot of value.”

One of ACAC’s clubs is located within the Albemarle Square shopping center and access would be restricted during construction and limited afterwards. He said he has not had any clarity from VDOT regarding that issue.

Timothy Hulbert, the president of the Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce, echoed Wendell’s desire to slow down the Rio Road project.

“One of our concerns is that [the Rio interchange] will be very disruptive to our economy and to businesses,” Hulbert said. Six Chamber members sit on the Route 29 Project Delivery Advisory Panel, Hulbert said, but their request to have the parallel roads built first has not been heeded by VDOT.

“That sequencing would allow VDOT and the community to see the merit of those projects and then we can consider these projects on which we don’t have common ground,” Hulbert said.

Hatter said it is unlikely that that the Rio Road interchange will be delayed.

“We don’t feel that’s the right way to proceed, because we have a situation with the Rio Road intersection in that it’s already at a very low level of service during peak periods,”

Hatter said. “If we build those parallel roads first, it could potentially push more traffic into that intersection and it will exacerbate the problem.”

Adam Hillis, who has lived in Albemarle for four years, attended the meeting to get a better idea of what the solutions would entail.

“The Berkmar extension seems to be a pretty good idea,” he said. “I don’t know how much it will alleviate the traffic on U.S. 29, but I imagine it will make it a lot better.”

Hillis said he had concerns about the Rio Road interchange but was not entirely opposed.

“It seems like a very big interchange to shove into a very small area,” Hillis said. “I’m not too concerned about the inconvenience to the traffic [during construction] because I imagine there will be long-term pay-offs.”

One of the new presentations at the meeting was a five-minute video depicting how traffic will move through the proposed interchange.

Comments on the three design-build projects can be submitted to VDOT through Oct. 24. The agency is expected to issue an addendum to the request for proposals on Nov. 6.

Hatter said other opportunities for public comment will occur as the design for the projects are finalized.