The University of Virginia is asking the Virginia Department of Transportation to consider changing the design for the southern terminus of the Western Bypass of U.S. 29 in order to limit the ecological and aesthetic impact on its North Grounds.
“We have had an ongoing discussion around the [bypass] with VDOT since 1991,” said David Neuman, UVa architect. “In that arrangement, we agreed to have a conversation and collaboration with VDOT when and if they put this project firmly on the table.”
Since the Commonwealth Transportation Board selected an alignment for the road in 1990, UVa has invested heavily in its North Grounds area.
UVa officials are concerned about the visual, noise and air quality impacts the bypass will have on the Darden School and the law school. They are also concerned about the impacts to nearby streams and the Rivanna Trail.
“We’ve been looking at this proposal from that standpoint of what are the costs and impacts and benefits of this,” Neuman said. “We have been very neutral on this because we’ve been planning for this to happen for almost 25 years.”
In all, 31.6 acres in North Grounds will be affected, as well as 21.8 acres on the north side of the existing U.S. 250 Bypass that are owned by the UVa Foundation.
“This entire area right now is woods,” Neuman said. “You mainly cannot see Darden [from U.S. 29/250] right now except in the winter you can see the parking garage.”
The original plans for the southern terminus depicted a large flyover ramp that would have crossed the existing bypass.
“That proves to be a more expensive [option] and was strongly objected to by St Anne’s[-Belfield School] and a nearby residential neighborhood,” Neuman said.
In July, the CTB awarded a $136 million contract to the team of Skanska-USA and Branch Highways to design and build the 6.2-mile bypass and its two interchanges.
At the southern terminus, Skanska-Branch’s preliminary design would utilize on-ramps that would be controlled by a pair of traffic signals. A long ramp would carry traffic leaving North Grounds onto the existing U.S. 250 Bypass.
One member of the BOV was concerned about that approach.
“I don’t understand why they don’t have a normal interstate-style interchange,” said Timothy B. Robertson. “It just seems to be way overbuilt.”
Neuman said it was his understanding the Skanska-Branch design would be less expensive than that option.
“[It’s about] how you manage the traffic coming off and on,” Neuman said. “The two signals is the simplest way to manage this and probably, in my judgment, the least expensive way to do it.”
Neuman also briefed the BOV subcommittee on concerns many in the community have about the ramp leading northward onto the bypass from the interchange.
“To get over the road at this point will require an 11 percent grade, so there is some question about how this will work,” Neuman said. In comparison, Neuman said westbound Interstate 64 crosses Afton Mountain at a 5 percent grade.
UVa is also seeking to relocate a stormwater detention pond that would collect runoff from the highway and from a stream that flows through the area. A large amount of forest will need to be cleared to make way for the pond.
“That would save a lot of the forested area and would continue to buffer the Darden area more or less as it is today,” Neuman said. “Could we likewise move the ramp closer to the existing bypass? That would save a lot of grading, a lot of impact on the stream, and a lot of forest removal.”
Neuman’s office has hired VHB Engineering to do a preliminary conceptual plan depicting this scenario. Those designs will be completed in advance of a meeting UVa is hoping to have with VDOT in mid-October.
“In our view, both of those changes would be a reduction in cost but that view may not be shared by Skanska,” said Donald E. Sundgren, UVa’s chief facilities officer.
However, representatives from the Skanska-Branch team may not be able to attend that meeting because they cannot begin working on a final design until VDOT receives an authorization from the Federal Highway Administration.
“It would be up to VDOT whether they include Skanska in the conversation or not,” said Collette Sheehy, UVa’s vice president of management and budget.
BOV member Hunter Craig said he was concerned about a potential need to upgrade Leonard Sandridge Road to a larger street.
“I hope we can avoid that because it’s such an attractive design on that road,” Craig said.