The state has approved a $230 million package of Route 29 improvements—what’s next?

A conceptual drawing of what the Rio Road-Route 29 intersection could look like with grade separation. Image: VDOT A conceptual drawing of what the Rio Road-Route 29 intersection could look like with grade separation. Image: VDOT

The Western Bypass is down for its dirt nap, and all eyes are on the implementation of a $230 million package of alternatives aimed at easing congestion on Route 29 through Albemarle County. In a unanimous vote in Richmond last Wednesday, the Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB) allocated the funds for the local projects as part of a six-year, $13.1 billion statewide transportation spending package. With the vote came a firm message from Governor Terry McAuliffe, who singled out the now-scuttled Bypass plan as an example of how not to build in Virginia.

“I don’t care whose district a new road is in,” he said at the start of the public meeting. “I don’t care if it’s been on a list for 15 years. If it does not meet the standards, it will not move forward.”

The Route 29 alternatives—which include plans for extending local roads that run parallel to the route, traffic signal synchronization, a big contribution to expanded rail service between Washington and Lynchburg, and grade separation at sticky intersections—were drawn up by an advisory panel of elected leaders and other officials from up and down the highway corridor. The group, led by former VDOT commissioner and Norfolk-based consultant Philip Shucet, met multiple times throughout the spring in Charlottesville after the Federal Highway Administration signaled it wouldn’t fund the Bypass as planned. But not everyone was happy with the proposal that went to the CTB, or with how it was hammered out.

Before the official vote, several Charlottesville-area business owners spoke up against it—specifically, against the $81 million grade-separated interchange at Rio Road, and the allocation of $10 million to study a similar update to the intersection at Hydraulic. Their chief concern was that the inevitable construction and eventual configuration of the road improvements would restrict access to their businesses.

Peter Chandler, owner of Chandler’s Bakery in Rio Hill Center, recalled the economic hit businesses suffered during construction to widen Route 29 in the 1990s. He called for an economic impact analysis, saying it was “shocking [the plan] hasn’t been scrutinized by a third party,” and that the passage of the plan would be a “colossal mistake.” If a grade-separated interchange is constructed, he said, “these businesses will be bleeding, they will be hurting, they will be worrying about next week’s payroll, they will be bending, and they will go bankrupt.”

Others urged the long view. Kirk Bowers, a representative of the local chapter of the Sierra Club and a steadfast opponent of the Bypass, argued during the CTB’s public comment period that the “unclogging” of traffic on Route 29 would offer a long-term benefit to businesses. He joined members of the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors in supporting the plan with a mantra-like affirmation: Mobility creates value, congestion destroys it.

Morgan Butler, whose fellow Southern Environmental Law Center attorney Trip Pollard sat on Shucet’s panel, said the CTB vote is the most significant step toward fixing Route 29 in years of debate.

“It’s great to see a governor and a secretary of transportation that recognize it’s time to get something done, but want to make sure we do it right,” he said.

Timothy Hulbert, president of the Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce, said his group agrees with most of the plan, and has for years—the so-called “doables” that include local road extensions, a built-out on-ramp at Route 29’s intersection with Route 250, signal updates, and widening.

But the proposed overhauls of the two most congested intersections?

“We simply respectfully disagree with sincere people who feel those projects will enhance our community,” said Hulbert. “We believe there will be significant economic disruption, and indeed destruction, of business through that corridor,” an area he said generates 45 percent of the county’s local tax revenue. If a project is going to impact some of those businesses, “the city, the county, and the Commonwealth have to show proven, effective, and fully funded business assistance mechanisms,” he said. “We haven’t seen them yet.”

The allocation of the money is only the first step in the process of updating Route 29, Hulbert pointed out. There will be studies, impact statements, and local approval processes for each piece. “We’re going to raise questions at every stage,” he said. “We wouldn’t be doing our job for our membership if we didn’t.”

And he’s still firm in his support of an eventual alternative throughway. If the area keeps growing, it will need one at some point, and that’s argument enough to avoid making the existing stretch of road into “an expressway.”

“Do we want to turn that into a canyon of concrete?” he said. “If, 20 years hence, the traffic is moved off, you still have a canyon.”

But that’s an argument for another day, and another six-year state transportation plan. VDOT has already started selling off pieces of the swath of land, valued at $33.7 million, it purchased to make way for the defunct Bypass—though Lou Hatter, an agency spokesman, said the $482,300 property in the Montvue neighborhood that was sold back to previous owners in April would not have been used even if the road had been built, and the sale doesn’t mean VDOT is planning to shed all its property soon.

Still, the outlook is very different than it was a year ago, when debate still raged over a Bypass that already had a design-build contract and a blueprint. For Butler and others who pushed back against the road until the end, last week’s vote is evidence that citizen voices can have a big impact on public projects. “Had people just given up and said, ‘This is a done deal,’ the Bypass would be under construction,” Butler said. “People realized there’s a better way to spend this money.”—Chase Gunter contributed to the reporting of this story

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