Lewis Grimm of PBS&J

Since December 2006, an

Eastern Connector alignment study

has been underway in conjunction with the firm PBS&J to determine possible routes for a new road to connect the northern section of US 29 in Albemarle County with the growing Pantops area. Albemarle County and the City of Charlottesville each contributed $250,000 to the study, and a

steering committee made up of elected officials and citizens

has been providing direction.

But, as time runs out on the contract, a specific alignment plan has still not been finalized. Yet, at their meeting on February 8, 2008, the Steering Committee directed lead engineer Lewis Grimm of PBS&J to revisit other options that had previously been tabled, as well as to search for potential new alignments to connect Route 20 with Rio Road that don’t affect Pen Park. A bridge connecting the Pantops Shopping center area to the City near East High Street and Meade Avenue and the alignment of the Eastern Connector through Pen Park are both getting further study.

In November,

members of the public overwhelmingly rejected three proposed alternatives when they were presented at two informational meetings

. Two of these potential routes made improvements to existing roads, Proffit Road (Alt 1) and Polo Grounds Road (Alt 2), in order to satisfy the parameters of the study. The third ran the Eastern Connector straight through Pen Park (Alt 3). According to the data presented at those two November meetings, none of these three options would save motorists much time.

So when the steering committee met again in December of last year, they directed PBS&J’s Lewis Grimm to revisit the traffic model upon which those numbers were based. Staff was directed to further analyze traffic patterns to see if the three alternatives for the Eastern connector would alleviate traffic conditions at Free Bridge during times of peak usage.

At their next meeting in February, the steering committee heard updates from Grimm and County staff, but County Transportation Planner Juandiego Wade said he is still working with PBS&J to further study the traffic model results. In the meantime, he suggested that the committee work to refine all possible alternatives, because of the need to produce a report sometime this year.

The traffic model assumes the Eastern Connector will be a two-lane collector road, parts of which would be limited access. Grimm says there is a precedent for a road on the secondary system to be limited access, which means no new driveways. “A lot of it gets down to being a public policy and land use control decision,” Grimm said.

City Planning Commissioner Mike Farruggio said it would be crucial for both localities to set that policy in stone as soon as possible to prevent future decision-makers from allowing driveway cuts on an expensive road. “We want to make it efficient for the next fifty years, and not the next fifteen,” Farrugio said.

Shortly into the meeting, Wade asked the Committee if other alternatives that were previously dismissed should be revisited.

“We know that the public didn’t particularly like [the Pen Park Route (alternative 3)],” he said, pointing out the regulatory hurdles that will have to be overcome to put the road through the park.

Grimm suggested several alternatives could have merit, but stressed to the committee that these were still concepts to be sketched out.

First, reconfigure the Route 20 to Rio Road (Alternative 3) option to show how it might travel on the northern or southern edges of the park. He also showed the committee some preliminary numbers on how adding another bridge over the Rivanna River would affect traffic volume. But he also suggested the possibility of having a four-lane connector, predicting a two-lane road would quickly become congested with high volume.

Grimm spent several minutes showing the cumulative effect of this possibility in addressing congestion on the road network as a whole. He said Free Bridge would continue to have a failing level of service even with the Pen Park route, because it is a “critical link” for many people’s travel paths. Farrugio said the bridge was “super-congested during the peak period” and will continue to be so.

Former City Councilor Kevin Lynch (left) and Supervisor Ken Boyd (right)

Steering Committee member and City Resident John Pfaltz said it would be very hard politically to put four lanes through Pen Park. Albemarle County Board of Supervisors Chairman

Ken Boyd

(Rivanna) pointed out that the community has not accepted the Eastern Connector even as a two-lane road yet.

Former City Councilor Kevin Lynch, who continues to sit on the committee, disagreed with Grimm and said a two-lane road could handle the volume with no problem if it were designed right.

Wade said he thought the Pen Park route was the wrong way to address traffic on Route 250, given that the federal government will have to approve the placement of a highway through a park it helped fund. He threw out the idea of putting money for the road into transit.

“What we really need is that once [westbound motorists on Route 250] get over that bridge is to have more roadway, and that’s going to be next to impossible, so if we know that that traffic is coming from here, trying to get to downtown… maybe the answer is aggressive park and ride or something, I don’t know.”

Mike Farruggio later would suggest that this idea be worked into an alternative to be studied.

That prompted Grimm to show more data showing how different permutations add to relief in other parts of the network, and that one aspect would only contribute to the eventual solution.

“I think the concept of a linkage of Rio Road and Route 20 is a viable concept. The question is, are there other alternative alignments besides this generic one that could have similar results in terms of improving the transportation system’s operation, but without having those significant impacts on the park?” asked Grimm. Grimm pointed out that the best time for a community to plan other network changes is at a time when one major project such as the Eastern Connector.

Lynch said it was safe to say that Alternatives 1 or 2 are not prudent alternatives because they do not address the traffic issue.

Farruggio wanted to know what concepts were still on the table. “Are we still talking about trying to widen 250? Are we still talking about trying to bring a bridge?” he asked.

Mark Graham, the County’s Director of Community Development, said Route 250 would still be congested as a result of the Pen Park route. “And for me, that was still a primary part of the purpose of this whole study,” he said. Graham said the Pen Park route could be considered as the foundation for a greater solution, which could involve another bridge or not. “Maybe we look at more of a longer term approach to this,” he said.

Lynch said that he felt he could outline the City’s position, even though he is no longer a Councilor.

“Once you have some commitment by the County to build some roads outside of the City, [the Eastern Connector,] the Southern Parkway, the Fontaine/Sunset Connector, then I think you’ll see some willingness to go back and say ‘Okay, what about that bridge from Meade Avenue and High Street to Pantops?’”

But Wade said an effort should be made to build the best possible road. “I don’t think we should just build a road because it’s our turn if it doesn’t address the problem,” he said.

Boyd pointed out that the County has been making efforts to build its share of the regional road network, but some of the most effective choices involve building connections to the city, such as bridge south of Free Bridge.

“I still believe that’s a critical piece of alleviating the pressure on Route 250. And Kevin, we are building roads. We’ve got proffer for a road from Peter Jefferson Place all the way down to Pantops Shopping Center. We’ve also made some preliminary expansions with Pantops Shopping Center people, I think they’re probably at least willing to talk to us about some renovation there, and how they’d like to bring it right up to the river…” He said the study had to at least model the possibility so that its effect on traffic congestion would be known.

Lynch said he would be willing to consider the bridge, if the County commits to Alternative 3, which he said could get federal approval if the argument was framed properly.

“I do not see that as a road through the park, the park already has a road through it, with a three-lane facility. I see that as a bridge over the golf course which is at the end of the road. It’s basically a bridge project, it’s not a road project,” Lynch said. When Farruggio disagreed with Lynch’s assessment that the access road is a real road, the former City Councilor responded: “But that’s how you get projects done, you describe them on the terms that you want them to be described and not by the terms that your opponents

want them to be described.”

Towards the end of the meeting, Wade asked for specific directions to send to Grimm. Boyd said he wanted more analysis of the effects of a southern bridge that would extend the County’s new parallel road into the City. “Whether or not we carry it forward… I think it’s valuable information.”

Farruggio said the Committee had a responsibility to look at it, and also offered the suggestion of looking at efforts to stop cars from coming into the City all together, by providing a parking garage with a transit center. Albemarle County Planning Commissioner Cal Morris (Rivanna) said he wanted more information on the southern bridge, as well as more information on boosting capacity on Route 250 on Free Bridge and beyond. Grimm pointed out that it was important to take political realities into effect before evaluating too many of these options in too much detail.

Lynch also pointed out that neither the state or federal government was likely to give the region hundreds of millions of dollars to spend on transportation projects that only address local issues.

Grimm was also tasked to see if there are any potential alignments to connect Route 20 with Rio Road that do not take the Pen Park route. Alternative 3 will also be reconfigured to see what would happen if improvements were made to Route 250 as well as a southern bridge.

Grimm said he would follow up via e-mail with the various descriptions that he thought he heard from the steering committee members.

A transit-oriented option will also be formulated, but Grimm said: “If you really expect to see a significant reduction in the number of people who drive themselves to work or shop or whatever in downtown Charlottesville, free parking has to totally disappear, and the price of parking you provide has to go up significantly.”

Sean Tubbs

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