The road to a recommendation on how to unclog Albemarle County’s main artery is paved with big bucks, political turns and stubborn unknowns.
A 10-member advisory panel formed earlier this year at the directive of state Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne meets this week for a fourth and final time to discuss how to alleviate congestion on U.S. 29, a riddle that’s lingered for decades.
Looming large over the talks is the prospect of so-called grade-separated interchanges at Hydraulic and Rio roads, both part of two big-ticket concepts being considered by the advisory committee. Those ideas have splintered groups once united – local business leaders and their peers in Lynchburg and Danville, many of whom favored the 6.2-mile Western Bypass of U.S. 29, a $244.5-million project killed earlier this year by the feds.
Panel members from out of town and the Southern Environmental Law Center favor the interchanges, but area business leaders fear the impact. Colorful diagrams presented to the panel do not depict the destruction local businesses could expect to endure, said Charlottesville Area Regional Chamber of Commerce President Timothy Hulbert.
“Grade-separated interchanges are not immaculate conceptions – they have to be built – and the notion that you can just wave a wand and arrive at what’s drawn here is flawed,” Hulbert said. “This is different than a bunch of nice antiseptic designs in a conference room at a state agency somewhere. We’re talking about the real world.”
Rich Warburton, who owns the Meineke auto shop business at the corner of U.S. 29 and Hydraulic, said long-term construction would cripple the business he has owned for 25 years.
“They say it’s for the greater good, but I employ eight people, and that’s eight people out of work,” Warburton said. “I’m not happy about it, but they’re going to do what they’re going to do.”
Toan Nguyen, who has owned C’Ville Coffee, a Harris Street café, for 15 years, said he knows the impact of such a project. He said he’s lost a fourth of his business since work began last year on the Meadowcreek Parkway interchange at the U.S. 250 Bypass and McIntire Road. That $20-million project is expected to be finished in summer 2015.
“I can see why the merchants on 29 absolutely do not want this construction. They could be put out of business,” Nguyen said. “Some people can’t take even a 10 percent loss. They’ll fold.”
Drivers will go to great lengths to avoid even the possibility of a traffic snarl, Nguyen said, and once those patterns change, the repeat customers who sustain local businesses are gone.
“Lunch used to be our busiest time, but now we’re totally dead,” he said. “People only get an hour for lunch and they don’t want to risk getting stuck in traffic.”
Hulbert said businesses along U.S. 29 likely would undergo a similar experience.
“The consciousness of consumers will shift, and you can you do anything you want to fight it, but the psychology of it is undeniable,” he said. “And we’re talking about years of construction.”
Norfolk-based consultant Philip Shucet, who is leading the U.S. 29 advisory panel, said he understands skepticism about some of the proposals, but “the path to a reasonable solution should not be based on what people are afraid of. A solution has to be affordable and deliverable, and at the end of the day something that improves mobility. For local traffic [and] for through traffic.”
Officials have said the interchanges largely could be built within existing right-of-way, but many larger questions about the scope of the work are unanswered.
Virginia Department of Transportation spokesman Lou Hatter said crews would have to dig 22 feet below existing U.S. 29 to carry the road beneath interchange overpasses, but he could not say specifically how far the so-called depressed lanes might extend. Those details and others – such as what the work what might entail, how long it might take and more precise specifications – were not yet available, he said.
“It is important to stress that we are dealing with concepts at this point so some of the detail you’re asking for is beyond the scope of engineering done to date,” Hatter said when pressed for more information.
Two concepts, with low- and high-cost versions, have emerged from the U.S. 29 advisory meetings. Both approaches are aimed at balancing the needs of local and through traffic: One would accomplish this by diverting motorists to streets running parallel to U.S. 29; the other is an expressway model that would convert the existing median for use by through travelers.
Both high-cost versions call for interchanges at the U.S. 29 intersections with Hydraulic, Rio and Hilton Heights roads and Greenbrier Drive. Much of the attention at meetings, however, has focused on Rio and Hydraulic. The cost for both high-cost versions ranges from $250 million to $350 million and includes additional work, such as reconstructing the U.S. 29-250 interchange. Officials have said grade-separated interchanges could cost $60 million to $70 million apiece, but even those figures are preliminary.
A recently completed interchange that Hatter cited as an example of the type officials are considering here cost $216 million, according to VDOT’s website. However, that work, at U.S. 29 and Linton Hall Road in Gainesville, also included a railroad overpass and a temporary shift of the main artery to allow for construction. Hatter did not provide a breakdown of the costs.
Local officials and business leaders have expressed support for scaled-down versions of the concepts under consideration, which they say would be less disruptive to drivers and commerce.
“Work in and around urban corridors is not new,” Shucet said. “Contractors know how to perform this work. VDOT knows how to deliver it. And it can be accomplished with minimal disruption.”
Tensions between local and out-of-town officials sharpened at the last advisory panel meeting, with Charlottesville-area officials favoring the parallel roads option and Southside representatives expressing support for the throughway options, with interchanges.
All plans incorporate elements of Albemarle County’s Places29 Master Plan. About $92.5 million has been allocated for some Places29 projects, but an additional $43 million is needed to synchronize stoplights, complete the extension of Hillsdale Drive, finish the so-called Best Buy ramp and widen U.S. 29 between Polo Grounds Road and Town Center Drive, Shucet said.
Whatever the panel recommends, it still must clear ordinary approval hurdles. So even if a package of proposals gains the backing of the state’s 17-member transportation board, it still must come back before the area Metropolitan Planning Organization policy board for final approval.
The five voting members of that panel include two Charlottesville city councilors, both of whom have opposed an interchange at Hydraulic Road; two Albemarle County supervisors; and John Lynch, administrator for VDOT’s Culpeper district.
Hatter would not clarify where the direction for Lynch’s vote might come from, and he did not provide policy or procedural guidelines for how VDOT members on policy boards vote.
“That’s a hypothetical question and I’m not going to speculate on what may or may not happen in the future,” Hatter said.
Local Metropolitan Planning Organization Chairwoman Kristin Szakos, a city councilor and outspoken member of the U.S. 29 panel, said she did not want to preempt the process by weighing in on the interchange proposals.
“I will just say that one of the interchanges under consideration, at Rio, is in our long range plan and [Hydraulic] is not,” she said. “It would certainly take a lot of local support to make those happen.”
A VDOT commissioner under former Gov. Mark Warner, Shucet will present the advisory group’s recommendations to the Commonwealth Transportation Board, the panel of gubernatorial appointees who preside over Virginia’s transportation system.
Gov. Terry McAuliffe replaced about a third of the board last week, telling reporters at a Richmond press conference that he wanted members who share his vision.
Among six appointees the governor removed was Mark Peake of Lynchburg, a vocal bypass backer, who said Layne called Tuesday to say McAuliffe “wanted to go in a different direction.”
“I fully understand the governor’s decision to replace me and I don’t have a problem with his decision,” said Peake, whose term would have expired next year. “We are political appointees, we serve at the pleasure of the governor and he can replace us at any time, for any reason, or for no reason.”
The shuffle on the board came a month before its scheduled vote on a $13.1 billion, six-year plan of transportation projects. That will include consideration of the U.S. 29 advisory panel’s suggestions for how best to use $200 million in unspent bypass money.
“I have been a strong supporter of that project, which many of the governor’s supporters in that area are opposed to,” Peake said. “I’ve irritated a lot of people in the Charlottesville area and I’m not surprised at all that [McAuliffe] decided to replace me.”
Warburton, the Meineke shop owner, said he’s been irritated, having listened to talk of fixing U.S. 29 for years.
He said he’s not been contacted by state or local officials about the prospect of losing part of his parking area to an interchange. He attended community meetings about plans in years past, he said, but never felt like his perspective mattered to decision-makers.
“The last meeting I went to years ago was so frustrating I just decided to have a beer and go home,” he said. “Everybody says they want your opinion, but no one’s really listening.”