At the same time Albemarle County is developing the twenty-year Places29 Master Plan , the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) has been conducting a study of the entire US 29 corridor from Gainesville to the North Carolina border . The consultant hired to conduct that study, the Parsons Transportation Group, has spent a significant amount of time soliciting comments from citizens and other interests along the 219-mile route in order to build consensus on the best possible future for this highway.
At a public meeting in February, Project Manager Joe Springer told an audience that portions of the Places29 Master Plan will be included in the greater corridor study. Places29 recommends the creation of a regional road network by constructing at least six grade-separated interchanges and several parallel roads to take some of the local traffic off of US 29. For instance, the proposed extensions of both Hillsdale Drive and Berkmar Drive would allow more choices for motorists to travel north and south. Places29 also calls for widening of US 29 to six lanes from Polo Grounds Road to Airport Road. The improvements would be implemented over the next twenty years as different sections of the study area are redeveloped.
The North Charlottesville Business Council (NCBC), an organization that favors the construction of the Western Bypass for US 29, offered its input into the corridor study in the form of a letter sent by NCBC Chairman Lloyd Wood to Pierce Homer, Virginia’s Transportation Secretary. Wood’s letter calls for a bypass of Charlottesville to allow for a limited-access highway to serve the area between Interstates 95 and 81. Wood said the Places29 plan cannot satisfy the needs of both the local community and the needs of motorists who want to travel through Charlottesville.
“[US 29] is a US highway of national significance that divides Virginia, goes right through Albemarle County and Charlottesville from the northern part of the state right through to the North Carolina Border, and unfortunately it travels right through our commercial boulevard,” Wood said in an interview with Charlottesville Tomorrow conducted at the miniature golf course he owns off of Rio Road.
The NCBC believes there are only two solutions to meet the standards that Wood says comes with being a “highway of national significance,” which he claims requires VDOT to build a road that can provide through-motorists with a way to travel 55 miles per hour without stopping. If VDOT does not build the Western Bypass, Wood claims the agency will need to build what he calls an “expressway” along US 29 in Albemarle County. Wood’s “expressway” is also how some local business leaders have framed the Places29 transportation plan with its grade-separated interchanges.
The letter to Secretary Homer, with illustrations, says the footprint of the road’s width will need to be expanded from 160 feet to 300 feet over several miles in order to accommodate both a six-lane highway for through-traffic as well as a parallel access road for local traffic. Currently US 29 through Albemarle County is generally 160 feet wide
“The existing 29 North boulevard that we consider our business district currently has 20,000 jobs, 20,000 people employed from the  bypass to the Greene County line,” Wood said. He said the expressway option would disrupt the County’s most lucrative commercial corridor costing the County in lost revenue from property and sales taxes.
However, the transportation component of the Places29 plan does not call for such a disruptive widening project. Charlottesville Tomorrow interviewed County and VDOT planners a few days after speaking with Wood and learned that there are no plans for an “expressway” on the scale that Wood suggested to Secretary Homer.
“That is not a concept that the [road] network calls for,” said David Benish, Chief Planner for Albemarle County. However, he acknowledged that the grade-separated interchanges might in some areas exceed a width of 160 feet to accommodate the necessary ramps, but that those plans are not past the conceptual stage. He said none of the plans in the transportation improvements called for in Places29 would approach 300 feet.
“You wouldn’t need 300 feet of right-of-way,” said Chuck Proctor, an engineer with VDOT. Proctor also said there are no speed standards associated with the designation of a “highway of national significance.”
“As part of the overall 29 corridor study we’re looking at the corridor as a whole to see how we can get the road through various areas and state what kind of road it’s going to be and how it’s going to act in different locations as opposed to having one standard for a road throughout the entire state,” Proctor said.
“So in areas that are more developed and urbanized you’re going to have a lower traveling speed.”
Wood’s letter calls Places29 a “flawed project” because he claims the road the improvements are designed to achieve an average speed of 30 miles per hour. He also says that it will be impossible to maintain traffic flow as the Hydraulic, Rio, Airport Road and three other intersections are converted to grade-separated interchanges.
The plans for the Hydraulic Road interchange, which were developed as part of planning the Albemarle Place development are the most complete designs of any of the contemplated grade-separated interchanges. The design would phase the construction in several steps in order to provide for at least three lanes of traffic in each direction at all times during construction.
County Transportation Engineer Jack Kelsey said the preliminary concept for the Rio Road grade-separated interchange includes a series of ring roads in order to eliminate the need for ramps. Kelsey also said the ring roads would also help businesses redevelop in the future, potentially bringing in more tax revenue for the County if that redevelopment is done at a higher density.
Wood also said that the Places29 improvements would be more costly than the Western Bypass, citing a cost estimate of $90 million to build just the Hydraulic Road grade-separated interchange. Wood argued that if the community is going to pay that kind of money for a road project, it would be better suited spending it on the Western Bypass which his letter refers to as being “shovel-ready.”
“We would prefer a bypass, whether it’s the Western Bypass or not,” said Wood. “We just don’t want to see the main business corridor destroyed with an expressway.”
Benish said the cost estimate for Hydraulic was more in the $50 million range. In a follow-up interview, Wood acknowledged that at one point the estimate was $33 million. He also said the County’s figures did not include right-of-way acquisition. The public and the Planning Commission will not have complete figures until the County officially releases the cost estimates for the Places29 improvements later this summer.
County and VDOT officials were hesitant to give a cost estimate on the Western Bypass, because the project is considered dormant. In 2005, members of the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors put the estimated price tag of the Western Bypass at about $270 million. That same year, the Chamber of Commerce estimated the price at $271-280 million.
Benish said because the plans for the Western Bypass currently terminate at Timberwood Boulevard near Forest Lakes, south of Hollymead Town Center, it would not bypass the entire northern development area. In his interview with Charlottesville Tomorrow, Wood had argued that even building the existing bypass plans would give motorists a quick route to the University of Virginia, thus removing some of the traffic off of US 29. Benish said that if the bypass were constructed solely for that purpose, it would serve the same function as the planned Berkmar Drive extension.
“The Hydraulic Road-Rio Road loop is already in place,” Benish said. “Could a bypass potentially have that impact? If you can find $300 million to build that roadway, I suppose it could have that impact, but you’d still leave a pretty significant traffic issue still to be addressed in the short term in the 29 North corridor.” Furthermore, Benish said the road network would provide new routes for transit, sidewalks for pedestrians, and bike lanes for cyclists. The bypass, by comparison, would only support cars.”
Wood said the NCBC is reserving judgment on Places29 until the draft plan is fully completed. He also stressed repeatedly that his organization wants to work with the County. In the summer of 2007, the NCBC announced the results of a conceptual study conducted by University of Virginia graduate students that demonstrated several possible improvements to increase pedestrian safety in the short-term. The long-term future of Places29 calls for pedestrian bridges, and Benish said some of the interim steps suggested by the NCBC will be incorporated.
Places29 will return before the Albemarle County Planning Commission at their meeting on June 16, 2009. The US 29 Corridor Study is expected to be completed and released to the public later this year.
Another business advocacy group is critical of Places29
The Free Enterprise Forum is another business partner of the Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce which recently released what it called a “Reality Check Report” on the Places29 Plan. The report claims that the Albemarle County Planning Commission is deliberately underestimating the cost estimates of the Places29 Plan by using project cost estimates in 2007 dollars.
“If anything, I believe the shocking numbers included in the ‘Reality Check Report’ are understated,” said Free Enterprise Forum Executive Director Neil Williamson in a press release. “For over four years, we have raised concerns that Places29 costs have not been properly quantified. Now the Planning Commission will not agree to use project year dollars. While they accept the projected traffic figures that support their positions, they refuse to accept the reality of escalating costs. This is beyond bad project management, it is deceitful. The public deserves better,” Williamson concluded.
However, at their meeting on May 12, 2009, the Commission agreed to use cost estimates calculated in 2009 dollars, as previously reported by Charlottesville Tomorrow . Since the County’s master plans are scheduled to be reviewed every 5 years, the Commission reached consensus that cost estimates would be updated at the time of each review to reflect whatever economic conditions are present.
In a statement provided at their meeting on June 9, 2009 addressing the Free Enterprise Forum’s report, Planning Commission Chairman Eric Strucko explained the Commission’s decision to use current year dollars.
“The Planning Commission’s intent was to provide as reliable an estimate as possible in terms of what we absolutely know, which is current dollar values,” Strucko wrote. “We certainly realize there will be an escalation factor, as there would be with any road construction project envisioned for the future here in our community.”
Strucko also said he was concerned about Williamson’s description of the Planning Commission as ‘deceitful.’
“That is an irresponsible, accusatory and false statement which is at odds with the type of civil discourse about critical community issues that the Free Enterprise Forum promotes,” Strucko said.
Another point about the cost estimates which should be noted. Projects called for in the Places29 Plan are not expected to be constructed all at once. Judy Wiegand, a Senior Planner with the County, said the individual improvements will create a network.
“Each one of those projects can be done as needed,” Wiegand said. “Some of them are needed now, but some of them aren’t projected to be needed for several years and maybe a decade or so. Each one you do improves the [traffic] situation. And if necessary, sometimes 10 or 15 years from now we can rearrange the order [of implementation] to a certain extent if we found that suddenly one was needed because a different development went in somewhere else. We have a real choice and a flexibility with this program that you don’t have with one large improvement [i.e., the Western Bypass].”