After a 48-year wait, what will be impact of John Warner Parkway?

Charlottesville City Manager Maurice Jones speaks at a Thursday, February 5 ceremony marking the opening of the long-awaited last section of the John W. Warner Parkway. Photo: Rammelkamp Foto Charlottesville City Manager Maurice Jones speaks at a Thursday, February 5 ceremony marking the opening of the long-awaited last section of the John W. Warner Parkway. Photo: Rammelkamp Foto

When Charlottesville City Manager Maurice Jones began the ceremony to mark the opening of the final segment of the John W. Warner Parkway and the intersection that ties the road to the city’s downtown last Thursday, February 5, he couldn’t help driving home just how long locals had been waiting to cut the ribbon.

The year what was long called the Meadow Creek Parkway was first proposed, he reminded the gaggle of reporters and officials who stood shivering on the virgin pavement within sight of the new Route 250 Bypass overpass at McIntire Road, “Lyndon Baines Johnson was still President of the United States, Neil Armstrong had yet to take that first giant leap for mankind and it was still three years before I was born.”*

That would be 1967.

A joint project of the Virginia Department of Transportation, Albemarle County and the City of Charlottesville made possible with $25 million in federal funds earmarked by Senator Warner for its southernmost chunk and the Bypass interchange, the 1.4-mile corridor connecting Rio Road East and McIntire Road was long ago deemed critical for easing traffic flow in and out of the city’s center.

Just how well it will do that remains to be seen. A highly unscientific C-VILLE traffic survey seems to indicate it’s pulling cars from Park Street, the residential road that used to be the sole back route for travelers trying to get between East Rio and Downtown. (We counted cars entering the intersection of Park and the Bypass from the north and south at rush hour, and marked a 58 percent decrease a day after the Parkway opened.)

Peter Kleeman will need a little more convincing. The transportation activist was a member of the Coalition to Preserve McIntire Park, which delayed the Parkway in the courts starting in 2009. Kleeman and others bemoaned the use of public park land for the road, and the group built a legal challenge around the claim that officials tried to circumvent regulations designed to limit transportation impacts by slicing up the project and limiting dependence on federal dollars.

They lost. A federal judge in Charlottesville dismissed their last suit in 2012, the same year the county opened its portion of the Parkway.

“My feeling is some of the grander good was cut out of the picture by the manipulations of the state DOT and the actions of the city and county,” Kleeman said. He said anti-Parkway activists like him did help get the project scaled down to two lanes, as opposed to the four initially planned. But while that’s a plus for those who wanted to limit impacts, he said it renders the project obsolete almost from the start, because growth is already outpacing the capacity upgrade.

“They keep saying this is improving our traffic, but relative to what?” he said.

Brad Sheffield concedes Kleeman has a point. He was elected to represent the Rio District on the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors in 2013 and is a career transportation and land use planner. The future Parkway influenced his family’s decision to build in Belvedere, a planned community off East Rio.

“This is what happens when it takes so long for us to build something that we don’t build it for future capacity, we just build it for current capacity,” Sheffield said. Without a doubt, “the day it opens, there’s no room for additional demand to be accommodated.”

But he estimates the sinuous ribbon of road will shave about five minutes off his morning commute, and he knows he’s not alone in being happy about that kind of improvement.

“We have a road dedicated to moving people not just from the northern part of the city, but the adjacent part of the county, in and out of Downtown,” he said, and there won’t be further development along its parkland flanks. “That’s going to be a good thing.”

His own experience indicates the effects on traffic could go beyond his corner of the growth area. He and his wife carried two carfuls of kids from their neighborhood to UVA’s Grounds last Saturday, two days after the Parkway opened to traffic. His wife drove straight down Route 29 to Emmett Street, but he took the new route to the Bypass.

“I got there five minutes faster,” he said, “so I’m very curious about how it’s going to affect westbound travel.”

He and everyone else will have to wait awhile to learn. The traffic pattern at the Parkway’s southern terminus will still be in flux for a few weeks as VDOT finalizes the ramp configuration; landscaping and final touches to pedestrian and bike paths will be completed later this year, officials said.

But what’s a few months after five decades? Enough to stir up snark, probably. The new road’s debut day didn’t go smoothly enough for some locals who were stuck in long car queues on the Bypass as traffic there was shunted into a single lane for last-minute asphalt grinding and line painting, which pushed back the opening of the Parkway by a few hours.

Quoth one Twitter user at the backup half a century in the making: “Irony abounds.”

*This story originally spelled the middle name of Lyndon B. Johnson incorrectly. The error was ours, not Jones’.