The project identified four routes to connect the city and the Saunders-Monticello Trail. The routes were aligned with city and county planning documents. Credit: Credit: Maura Harris, "Charlottesville to Monticello & Beyond"

A team of urban and environmental planning master’s degree students is proposing numerous ways to improve pedestrian and bicycle connectivity between Charlottesville and Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.

The group of University of Virginia graduate students presented their planning study — entitled “Charlottesville to Monticello & Beyond” — to community stakeholders at CitySpace on Friday. In the months leading up to the presentation, the group worked with various local government officials and other advisers to help inform their research.

“Our master’s degree program students who are about to graduate work in teams on a real community-based project with a real community client, and they are essentially acting as consultants,” said Ellen Bassett, an associate professor of urban and environmental planning. Bassett co-taught the “Planning Process and Practice” course with lecturer, architect and Charlottesville City Councilor Kathy Galvin.

The Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission sponsored the group’s research as a component of its ongoing review of multimodal connectivity and update of the Jefferson Area Bike Pedestrian Plan.

“What they’re doing is somewhat of a mini-bike plan that will feed into our … regional plan,” said Chip Boyles, executive director of the TJPDC.

The study examined four different potential routes to expand connectivity to the Saunders-Monticello trail, a 2-mile trail that winds along the Thomas Jefferson Parkway and connects Kemper Park to the Thomas Jefferson Visitor Center and Smith History Center.

The routes included a connection to Avon Street through Piedmont Virginia Community College and another connection that would run along Monticello Avenue and Route 20.

A third proposed route would start east of Monticello Avenue and connect an area north of Moore’s Creek to the Saunders-Monticello Trail at Michie Tavern. A fourth route would start at Woolen Mills, follow the Rivanna River, run underneath Interstate 64 and then run along the south side of the interstate, down to Route 20 and the Saunders-Monticello trail parking lot.

“They all have unique strengths and weaknesses, and they really achieve different goals,” said project member Joel Lehman. “Significant investments are needed for all of them.”

The different plans called for various improvements, such as pedestrian bridges, multimodal paths and upgraded trails.

Cost estimates for the different routes ranged from $367,351 to nearly $3.7 million.

The lowest-cost connection was projected for the expansion of connections from Monticello Avenue and along Route 20, but the costs of reconstructing the I-64 interchange to accommodate bike and pedestrian use were excluded. The group suggested that this route could be part of a larger Virginia Department of Transportation funding request.

The group noted that because it is unlikely for the entire network to be built out at once, a phased approach could be helpful. The group’s report suggested connections initially be made to Piedmont Virginia Community College to help alleviate some of the parking challenges currently associated with the Saunders-Monticello trail.

“One thing that we do know is that our trail is very popular and parking is sometimes a problem, and it probably turns people away,” said Liz Russell, Manager of Planning and Projects at Monticello who served on the advisory committee for the group. “So if there was another option to get more people using our trail and enjoying our trail, I think that would be great for everyone.”

The group also studied use of the Saunders-Monticello trail and estimated that 152,161 people use the trail annually. This is more than previous estimates of 140,000 people.

The group’s research also was informed by a survey of more than 1,000 people that found widespread support for a proposed extension of the trail network.

During the presentation, Galvin noted a potential conflict presented by the fact that the trails include land in both the city and Albemarle County.

“You mentioned several times about how the community loved the high-quality maintenance of the Saunders trail,” Galvin said. “So have you thought about the strategy to maintain that high quality of maintenance, given that you may have to really identify who is going to be the owner of this network?”

Group member Julie Murphy described their research on case studies in other localities.

“I think one of the more successful ways that I’ve seen was they actually have an interjurisdictional committee that handles the maintenance of the whole trail,” Murphy said.

She said other localities sometimes divide maintenance on trail projects that cross over borders.

“One reason we did this project is to model a new way of working together as cooperating entities,” said group member Peter Krebs.

Albemarle County transportation planner Kevin McDermott, who also served on the group’s advisory committee, said there are precedents for maintenance agreements between the county and the city; he anticipated that funding would be a greater challenge than jurisdictional agreements.

McDermott also noted that several of the recommendations fall under existing transportation initiatives in the county. Charlottesville Park and Trail Planner Chris Gensic, who also advised the group, said the city is working on certain parts of the connections, as well.

“These are important areas for the city and the county,” McDermott said. “I think there’s momentum to do something about [the trail network].”

Another group in the course helped write up a plan for Woolen Mills and a third sought to address connectivity and community engagement in the Belmont neighborhood. A fourth came up with a plan for urban redevelopment in Whitesburg, Kentucky.