City Council’s sixth town hall dominated by traffic concerns

By Brian Wheeler

Charlottesville Tomorrow

Friday, May 13, 2011

About 90 city residents gathered at Johnson Elementary School on Thursday for the sixth community town hall meeting held by Charlottesville’s City Council during the past year.

Mullberry Avenue residents Beth Stein & David Tooley

Neighbors from Fry’s Spring and Johnson Village provided abundant feedback on a wide range of issues, including traffic congestion and mass transit. City leaders listened attentively and served up an ample supply of food from the nearby Wayside Takeout & Catering.

Beth Stein and David Tooley moved onto Mulberry Avenue in April of 2010. They spoke up early with concerns about cut-through traffic related largely to diversions around the closed Jefferson Park Avenue bridge. The bridge recently was put out of service as part of an 18-month replacement project.

“We recently bought a house in this area and we want to be active in the community,” Stein said in an interview.

“A lot of the inhabitants on Highland [Avenue] and above are now cutting through Mulberry to get to Shamrock,” Tooley told the City Council. “A lot of them are driving very quickly. I have seen people go 45 miles per hour down this essentially one-lane road because nobody has driveways and there is parking on both sides.”

Mayor Dave Norris (standing) responds to a neighborhood question while fellow city councilors listen and take notes.  Seated (L to R): Kristin Szakos, Holly Edwards, David Brown, & Satyendra Huja

Tooley asked Jim Tolbert, director of the city’s Department of Neighborhood Development, to compare their street with others with speed bumps, slower posted speeds and sidewalks.

“A lot of us have very young children,” Tooley added.

Tolbert promised to have the city’s traffic engineer look at the situation, but said the city could not post any speed less than 25 mph.

“We can also coordinate with the police department to ramp up enforcement and get the traffic engineer to see if anything else might be done,” Tolbert said.

Peter Hedlund spoke on behalf of the Fry’s Spring Neighborhood Association and raised more than a dozen concerns and priorities for the city’s consideration. Over the past several years the neighborhood association has demanded improvements to Old Lynchburg Road to improve safety of pedestrians and bikers.

The Old Lynchburg Road project was planned at the same time Albemarle County was anticipating nearby Biscuit Run would become its largest residential development. While that 1,200-acre property has now been acquired for a state park, Hedlund said Fry’s Spring residents still had concerns about traffic originating from Albemarle’s growing urban area south of Interstate 64.

“We’d like the city to practically act on our neighborhood’s behalf to protect us from county commuter traffic which affects our quality of life,” Hedlund said. “Someone suggested [at our neighborhood meeting] last night that there be a commuter lot set up in the county so a [university] bus could run people to [the University of Virginia.]”

Two residents suggested to councilors that they close Old Lynchburg Road at the border with Albemarle.

“It doesn’t solve the problem, it displaces the problem and just makes traffic worse for other people in the neighborhood,” Mayor Dave Norris said. “I think we need a Sunset-Fontaine Connector … and we need to work with the county on looking at patterns of development and growth. We need to look at improving transit, and that was a very creative idea that you all came up with for a commuter lot.”

After about 30 minutes heavy on car traffic concerns, new resident Jean Rodgers shared her experience using the Charlottesville Area Transit system.

“I’d like to offer a compliment to this city for the public transit system,” Rodgers said. “My husband and I have an automobile, but we have used it less since we’ve been here simply because we learned the schedule on the bus.”

That sparked a less than glowing review of the bus system from neighbor Jeanne Brown.

“Unless you are going to UVa or downtown, you can’t get anywhere from here. It takes forever so it’s kind of useless,” Brown said. “I once tried to get to Barracks Road and it took me an hour.”

As a candidate for the City Council in 2009, Kristin Szakos promised to move some council meetings out into the community “where residents can voice their concerns and offer suggestions on issues facing the city.”

After her election, the city began holding a series of neighborhood town halls starting in July of last year.

“I would like to compliment this neighborhood as you have not just one but two very active neighborhood associations,” Szakos said. “I think that that really enables you to be better citizens and to have an impact on what happens in the city.”

“One of the goals for [Thursday] night was to make sure the Johnson Village neighborhood was heard,” city spokesman Ric Barrick said in an interview. “That was one goal that we met. To date it was one of our most productive and successful meetings.”

Barrick said the next town hall is anticipated to be for the Kellytown area sometime this summer. That will be followed by a Sept. 8 town hall for North Downtown and Martha Jefferson.