Planners have been hit with criticism about the costs and practicality of the Places29 Master Plan, a 20-year transportation and land-use plan for Albemarle County — and now the Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce is labeling Places29 “fundamentally flawed.”
The chamber has sent a letter to the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors and the state transportation secretary slamming some projects and dismissing the premise of the plan. It also lambastes planners for failing to address whether officials should build a western bypass, which would allow distance travelers passing through Charlottesville to avoid U.S. 29.
“Our chamber categorically rejects the ‘Places29’ report’s and planners’ disregard [for the ability of a western bypass] to improve travel through this already congested corridor,” the chamber’s letter states.
Local officials estimate that 12 percent of the traffic on U.S. 29 consists of travelers who are only passing through the area.
However, county officials are defending Places29, saying that the plan isn’t dependent on the western bypass.
“Places29 does not prohibit building a bypass,” said Mark Graham, Albemarle’s director of community development. “But it works without a bypass.”
The Places29 Master Plan — a joint effort by the county and the Virginia Department of Transportation — aims to guide the future of public and private development of the portion of the county that runs along an 11-mile stretch of U.S. 29 from the U.S. 250 Bypass to the Greene County line.
Wayne Cilimberg, the county’s director of planning, said that county planners had been asked by the Virginia Department of Transportation not to design the plan based on an assumption that the western bypass would be built.
Cost estimates haven’t been assigned to many of the components of Places29, and it has not been determined where the funding would come from and when.
The projects, however, would cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Some business advocates have called Places29 a “half-a-billion-dollar” plan.
The local Chamber of Commerce has criticized planners for estimating the costs of some projects based on 2007 figures, instead of taking into account inflation. Planners also haven’t calculated the costs of acquiring land needed for road projects.
“Who knows what happens with these estimates when you include acquisition?” said Timothy Hulbert, chamber president. “That’s really, really disappointing. We have a pretty significant disagreement over their estimating.”
County officials, however, say that it’s premature to assign firm costs to projects, because Places29 is still in the early planning process.
“We’re not down to the details, the design, the engineering where you make your true cost estimates,” Cilimberg said. “You don’t get down to a point where you can really start firmly estimating costs until you know exactly that you’re doing the project and what the project’s going to [entail].”
The cost estimates will be updated to reflect 2010 or 2011 dollar figures in time for an upcoming Planning Commission work session, officials said.
While Places29 allows for some flexibility, the plan’s stated aim is to diffuse traffic from U.S. 29 by creating a system of parallel roads and increasing public transit, sidewalks and bikeways. Residents ideally would live closer to where they work, shop and play.
Places29 outlines plans to build single-point urban interchanges — essentially overpasses — at the U.S. 29 intersections with Rio Road and Hydraulic Road. Construction of the Rio Road interchange would cost an estimated $35 million, while the Hydraulic Road project would cost an estimated $33 million.
One component of the plan is to widen to six lanes the section of U.S. 29 between Polo Grounds Road and Town Center Drive at Hollymead Town Center. Another priority would be to extend Berkmar Drive past the Doubletree Hotel Charlottesville, across a bridge over the Rivanna River and ending at Hollymead Town Center.
Business leaders object
However, leaders of the North Charlottesville Busi-ness Council insist that there are two options that would relieve much of the congestion on U.S. 29: building the western bypass or building an expressway through the center of the existing U.S. 29 commercial corridor.
The council, a subset of the Chamber of Commerce, supports building the western bypass. Business council member Henry Weinschenk said that an expressway would be less practical and would require U.S. 29 to be widened substantially, wiping out many of the businesses along the corridor.
Local officials say they have no plans to build an expressway.
Albemarle Board of Supervisors Chairman David L. Slutzky said that the officials aren’t limited to a choice between an expressway and the western bypass, neither of which he supports.
“The reality of the western bypass is it’s a VDOT-proposed road that it’s been estimated [to cost] between a quarter-of-a-billion dollars and a third-of-a-billion dollars to build,” Slutzky said. “There’s no way that we have the money to build it or are going to have the money to build it anytime soon. That’s one reason why it’s unrealistic to be talking about it, because it ain’t going to get built.”
Slutzky said that it wouldn’t make sense to spend all of the county’s transportation funds for decades to come on the western bypass, particularly when the “result would not change the traffic congestion on [U.S.] 29 measurably. … It’s a dumb idea.”