Despite sharp disagreement from some participants, the advisory panel called to examine traffic-relieving alternatives for Route 29 in the wake of the freezing of the Western Bypass project concluded yesterday with a $203 million plan that includes extensions of Berkmar and Hillsdale drives and a grade-separated interchange at Rio Road.
Former Virginia Department of Transportation Commissioner Philip Shucet—who led the 10-member panel of community officials from Charlottesville, Albemarle, and other municipalities along the 29 corridor—presented a plan that was something of a compromise.
The suggested package includes $43 million to complete several projects that have long had local support, including extending Hillsdale Drive, widening Route 29 between Polo Grounds Road and the Hollymead Town Center, and adjusting signal times.
Another $145 million would cover several construction projects: a further extension of Hillsdale to Holiday Drive, an extension of Berkmar Drive, and—the most controversial item—a ramp-and-underpass update to the Rio Road intersection expected to cost $81 million. The plan includes another $10 million to study a similar grade-separated interchange at Hydraulic Road. Also included is $5 million toward expanded Amtrak service between Lynchburg and Washington, D.C.
Shucet also said it was time to dump the tens of millions in property acquired by the state to build the Western Bypass. “I think personally it’s time to suture the wound and sell off this right-of-way,” he said.
He acknowledged that there were “tough issues on both sides” of the debate over what to do with the more than $240 million allocated for the all-but-defunct Bypass. Still, he said he’d hoped to be able to present some sense of consensus to Commonwealth Transportation Board, which will vote in June on the package of projects as well as whether to officially abandon the Bypass.
But while some local representatives on the board—including Albemarle County Supervisor Jane Dittmar and Metropolitan Planning Organization rep and Charlottesville City Councilor Kirstin Szakos—were supportive of the plan, other panel members were far from satisfied.
“It seems like we’ve gone from looking at a solution that addressed our success factors 180 degrees to a solution that doesn’t meet half of them,” said Turner Perrow, councilman from the city of Lynchburg. Perrow slammed the proposal for its inclusion of what he said were largely local road improvements, saying he was left feeling like his city was paid lip service.
“This group has failed the broader challenge to improve mobility,” he said, and called the $50 million already spent on the scuttled Bypass “a disgrace for the Commonwealth.”
Kristina Hofmann, the Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce representative on the panel, also expressed disappointment in the plan. The chamber has long opposed grade-separated interchanges along the busy stretch of Route 29 in Albemarle, saying the construction and eventual traffic configurations would hurt businesses. She said an eventual Bypass, however far in the future, would negate the need for interchange upgrades—a statement that drew a sharp response from Shucet.
“I think the presumption of a Bypass is a very rebuttable presumption,” he said. Shucet said had read chamber president Timothy Hulbert’s arguments on the issue “more times than he cared to,” and while he understood the group was doing what it felt needed to do to represent its member businesses, its position of fighting traffic improvements would eventually condemn its constituents. “I respect your opinion, but it’s not going to sway me, because I think it is terribly wrong and short-sighted.”
The CTB meets next for a workshop and action meeting May 13 and 14 at the Double Tree Hotel in Albemarle County, but it’s not expected to vote on the project package until the following month.