Bell budget amendment aims to put Route 29 projects on hold

A lawsuit wants to halt the grade-separated interchange at Rio Road and Route 29. Image courtesy VDOT. A lawsuit wants to halt the grade-separated interchange at Rio Road and Route 29. Image courtesy VDOT.

Albemarle Delegate Rob Bell has proposed a state budget amendment that would put plans for a major overhaul of Route 29’s Rio Road intersection on hold and subject them to further scrutiny.

The $80 million stoplight-eliminating, grade-separated interchange is part of a package of improvements planned for the highway’s congested Albemarle stretch. The updates, which include extensions of parallel local roads and a ramp and interchange at the 250 Bypass, were agreed upon by a committee of local leaders and transportation officials last year after the Federal Highway Administration effectively killed plans for a Route 29 bypass around Charlottesville.

But many business owners have pushed back hard against the Rio interchange in particular, which they say would severely curtail access to their storefronts during construction and discourage shoppers from pulling off the highway to shop in the future.

Bell, who represents the 58th District, said he’s heard from many of those business owners, and thinks the project should be vetted through a new prioritization process adopted by the state last year. That procedure, lauded by Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne, requires the Commonwealth Transportation Board to rank transportation projects based on factors like congestion mitigation and economic development potential. The Route 29 improvements weren’t subject to the new criteria, because they were approved before the prioritization rules were put in place. Bell thinks they should get the new treatment anyway.

“You can count me as a skeptic of the value of the [grade-separated interchange], but I think that regardless of what the politicians might think about it, the real question is, ‘What’s the value?’” he said. “We already have this prioritization criteria, and we should see if in fact building this 1,800-foot highway in the middle of the Route 29 corridor is worth $80 million.”

Before the review of the project could go into effect, the amendment would require legislative approval and the signature of Governor Terry McAuliffe, who has publicly supported the Route 29 improvements and could issue a line-item veto. Meanwhile, VDOT has received three bids on the Route 29 project package from design-build firms ranging from $117 million to $188 million. VDOT plans to have the Rio interchange completed by late 2016, and the rest of the projects wrapped a year later.