Tunnel vision: Emmet renovations include bike lanes, pedestrian underpass

The illustration above shows the planned railroad tunnel underpass. Courtesy Emmet Streetscape project The illustration above shows the planned railroad tunnel underpass. Courtesy Emmet Streetscape project

A central stretch of Emmet Street, from Arlington Boulevard to Ivy Road, may see some improvements thanks to the state-funded Emmet Street-scape project. Plans for the renovations were on display at a public design hearing last week.

New bike lanes, an expanded sidewalk, handicapped-accessible crosswalks, and better landscaping are all in the future of this chunk of currently nondescript roadway. The speed limit will be lowered from 35 miles per hour to 25. 

The project aims to improve access for bikes and pedestrians—“make it safer, more efficient, and more inviting,” project manager John Stuart says.

The flashiest new feature is a pedestrian tunnel that will run underneath the railroad line. “If you’ve ever been to a basketball game at JPJ, when it lets out and people are trying to walk down, it’s like a big bottleneck here,” says Bill Wuensch, a traffic engineer whose firm, EPRPC, is assisting with the project. “This’ll be really nice, to be able to go through a nice tunnel.” 

UVA owns 95 percent of the land along the strip of road under development. The University’s construction plans for the land that once held the Cavalier Inn, at the corner of Ivy and Emmet, are not connected to this project.

The state will pay the $12 million bill for the renovations. Virginia evaluates transportation infrastructure projects using a system called SMART SCALE. Wuensch says the renovation scored points on the SMART SCALE system for increasing walking and biking safety and decreasing traffic congestion. “This is part of the Route 29 system, so it’s a corridor of state significance, even though it’s a business route,” Wuensch says.

The meeting was sparsely attended. Peter Krebs, community outreach coordinator at the Piedmont Environmental Council, says he’s noticed that the community has not been vocal about this project, despite the fact that it’s one of the “top three bike-ped projects” currently underway in the area. “My theory is that it doesn’t go by anybody’s house,” Krebs says.

However, the construction will pass the Lambeth Field Residence Area, which holds 174 university-owned student apartments.

At the meeting last week, Gay Perez, the executive director of housing and residence life at UVA, worried that the project would leave those students in the lurch. 

“There is no real safe way that I see the Lambeth folks being able to cross the road to the beautiful tunnel,” Perez said.

“Students take the most direct route that they possibly can,” Perez said, suggesting that students would forsake the proposed crosswalk at Massie Road and instead cut through the parking lot and jaywalk across the street.

“With the constraints we have, we’re doing our best,” Stuart replied. 

The planning commission and City Council will still have to review and vote on the project. 

“I’d love to predict it’ll go smooth as ever, but you know, I wouldn’t bet the house on it,” Stuart says of the approval process.

Wuensch says the project has “enjoyed pretty wide support,” and Krebs praised it as a good example of collaboration between the community and the university. “It’s important that the city and the county and the university work together on transportation,” he says. “That makes me happy.”

According to Stuart, the project’s design phase is 60 percent complete. Construction is projected to begin in 2021. 

“I love this project,” Krebs says. “The only thing that doesn’t make me happy is that it’s not already done.”

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