Within five years, thousands of commuters could find themselves moving through very different traffic patterns while driving to Charlottesville.
The Virginia Department of Transportation currently is receiving bids to design and build a bundle of projects at highway intersections throughout Albemarle County. The estimated cost for all six projects is $37.5 million.
On Monday, the Pantops Community Advisory Committee was briefed on the largest of these projects: a diverging diamond interchange on U.S. 250 at Exit 124.
In a diverging diamond interchange, two sides of a divided highway cross over at two points that are controlled with a traffic light. Unlike a traditional “cloverleaf” interchange, a diverging diamond doesn’t require drivers to make a left turn into incoming traffic. Hal Jones, project manager for VDOT, said it significantly reduces the number of vehicle-to-vehicle conflict points compared to a conventional interchange.
“It’s a better flow of movement, with synchronized signals,” Jones said.
Virginia’s first diverging diamond interchange opened in 2014 at Zion Crossroads in Louisa County. According to VDOT data, the new design has reduced the rate of crashes there.
A traffic study by VDOT recorded 19 crashes at the Zion Crossroads interchange between May 2014 and December 2017, with two resulting in injuries. In another 44-month period from 2009 to 2012 — before the diverging diamond was built — there were 34 crashes and 14 injuries.
Since 2014, two other diverging diamond interchanges have been built in Virginia, one at the Valley View interchange on Interstate 581 in Roanoke and another at the interchange of Interstate 66 and U.S. 15 in Haymarket.
The Charlottesville-Albemarle Metropolitan Planning Organization successfully applied for $18.4 million in federal funding through VDOT’s Smart Scale process to build the interchange at Exit 124 and associated improvements.
Cal Morris, chairman of the Pantops advisory committee, asked if the work would cause delays for emergency vehicles traveling to the nearby Sentara Martha Jefferson Hospital.
Jones said some lanes leading to the hospital would always remain open and that VDOT would coordinate with emergency services to make contingency plans.
“We would certainly look to keep most of the lanes open during the day, maybe with some night closures,” he said.
Andrew Dracopoli, vice president of Worrell Investment Company Inc., pointed out that VDOT’s latest concept plan would require guests at the Comfort Inn to travel through the intersection twice to head east on U.S. 250.
Jones said that closing off left turns at Inn Drive and other roads onto U.S. 250 would reduce opportunities for T-bone crashes.
“There is always a tradeoff,” he said. “We may have to change some things. Over the next month or two, we will have a better concept.”
Jones said VDOT still was open to technical alternatives to the diverging diamond interchange and other projects.
“But we have to be pretty careful about that because if it varies too much with our Smart Scale applications, we may have to re-evaluate those,” he said.
Two of the proposed projects focus on eliminating some of the weaving of traffic near Exit 118.
One would add a lane on northbound U.S. 29 South to eliminate a weave movement onto Fontaine Avenue. The Charlottesville-Albemarle MPO received $2.9 million in funding for this project through Smart Scale.
Another project will remove a loop ramp and add a traffic light on U.S. 29 to control left turns made by southbound traffic moving onto eastbound I-64. The $1.3 million project will be funded through the Highway Safety Improvement Program.
Also included is a $5.8 million roundabout project at the intersection of U.S. 250 and Route 151 in Afton. A temporary traffic light was installed at the intersection in April 2017 as an intermediate measure.
A roundabout also is being considered for a $4 million reconstruction of the intersection of Stony Point and Proffit roads in northern Albemarle.
The sixth project is a quarter-mile, two-lane connector road between Rio Mills Road and Berkmar Drive. The $3.8 million project will include a sidewalk and shared-use path.
VDOT plans to begin holding public hearings on the intersection projects in September. Work on all six projects is scheduled for completion by March 2023.
“We are leaving these six projects flexible so the offerers can look at how they can best sequence these projects,” Jones said.