A routine briefing by the Virginia Department of Transportation’s top official in Albemarle County provided an opportunity for the Board of Supervisors to ask tough questions about several major road projects in the area.
Currently, U.S. 29 goes from eight-lanes to four-lanes north of the South Fork Rivanna River. In 2011, the Commonwealth Transportation Board allocated $32.5 million to a project to widen that section of road.
Supervisor Kenneth C. Boyd asked acting Charlottesville residency administrator Joel DeNunzio why VDOT’s official description of the project states the widening would occur between Ashwood Boulevard and Hollymead Town Center.
“That bothered me a little bit because I thought it was going to be a widening of U.S. 29,” Boyd said. “Why is that written that way as opposed to saying from Polo Grounds Road?”
DeNunzio said the widening project has been split into two sections and that the portion between Polo Grounds and Ashwood Boulevard would be upgraded as part of the Western Bypass of U.S. 29. The CTB has allocated $136 million to the bypass and awarded a design-build contract to the team of Skanska-USA and Branch Highways.
“The intent is to widen to six-lanes all the way from Polo Grounds but I think it will be within the combination of the two projects,” DeNunzio said.
Supervisor Dennis Rooker, an opponent of the bypass, said VDOT originally required the bypass to accommodate six through lanes in its original request for proposals. The 2012 design for the northern terminus of the Western Bypass shows a road section retaining today’s four-lane configuration.
“They put it in, and then they took it out,” Rooker said. “The Skanska design does not show widening through there, and does not show changes in geometry in the road through there which was a major issue.”
Steep grade changes in that section of road have been blamed for several accidents because they can make it difficult for motorists leaving Ashwood Boulevard to see oncoming traffic.
“That’s another issue to that we expect them to [address],” Boyd said. “It’s something that I’m watching very closely.”
Boyd also questioned a statement in VDOT’s written report that said the city’s portion of the Meadow Creek Parkway would be completed in June 2013.
“That’s the phase from Melbourne Road to I think about four-tenths of a mile before you hit McIntire Road,” Denunzio said.
However, the city’s portion of the parkway cannot open until a $33.5 million grade-separated interchange is completed.
In May, Judge Norman K. Moon ruled in favor of the Federal Highway Administration’s approval of the interchange. The project is mostly funded through a $27 million earmark secured by former Sen. John Warner.
The City of Charlottesville is managing the design and right-of-way acquisition for the interchange. Officials had originally stated they would advertise the interchange project for construction bids in August, but that action has been delayed.
Rooker said he was concerned the entire Meadow Creek Parkway may be in jeopardy if the federal earmark ceases to exist.
“With the upcoming [federal] budget problems and issues being dealt with, potential sequestration, they need to make certain they’re far enough along with that project that it’s not something that would be subject to being raided,” Rooker said.
Rooker also sought information about when improvements at the U.S. 29/250 interchange, known as the “Best Buy Ramp” would move forward. The project would include an additional lane on southbound Emmet Street leading onto the existing westbound U.S. 29/250 bypass
The project was originally being managed by Charlottesville, but VDOT took it over in the summer of 2011.
“Stonefield is probably starting to open up some things in November,” Rooker said. “When that was turned over to VDOT, VDOT said they could move forward with it in a hurry.”
This summer, the cost estimate rose from $4.7 million to $7.6 million as further engineering on the project was conducted.
DeNunzio said the Best Buy ramp will have a design public hearing in November, and the project will be advertised for construction in November 2014. Construction would start in November 2015 at the earliest.
Rooker said he was frustrated that the 6.2-mile Western Bypass was moving along faster than an interchange improvement that has been in the works for several years.
“[VDOT] seems to be able to move that forward faster than a project that is a one-mile project with no right-of-way,” Rooker said. “Everybody supports this project and wants to see it done.”
At the end of the briefing, County Executive Thomas Foley said he would try to arrange a meeting between the board and top VDOT officials to get an update on all of the projects.
“It seems like a comprehensive report would be helpful,” Foley observed.