A group formed to evaluate solutions to traffic congestion on Free Bridge spent two hours earlier this week poring over large maps of the Pantops area, brainstorming possible ideas.

Among the out-of-the box concepts presented were building a light rail line, improving driver education about existing alternative routes and finding a way to remove a traffic light at the intersection of High Street and U.S. 250.

“You all have given us some wide-open options and that’s what we asked you do,” said Sarah Rhodes, transportation director for the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission.

The Federal Highway Administration gave the commission a $250,000 grant to test out a new approach to the environmental permitting process.

“This group, hopefully, at the end of this process, will have a series of recommendations to put forward to how to improve congestion on U.S. 250,” Rhodes said.

About 53,000 vehicles a day use Free Bridge and it operates at a failing level of service, according to the Virginia Department of Transportation.

The study comes five years after the city of Charlottesville and Albemarle County tabled consideration of an Eastern Connector that would have created a route between Pantops and northern Albemarle.

There is no active project being considered to replace the bridge or to fulfill the original goals of the Eastern Connector, nor has any funding source been identified.

The Free Bridge group is charged with finding how all potential options would fare in the environmental permitting process.

“It’s meant to make the National Environmental Protection Act and the federal environmental permitting more transparent,” Rhodes said.

If the community decides to proceed with one of the options, Rhodes said a basis for the environmental permitting process will have been developed.

One idea was to eliminate left turns on the west side of Free Bridge by creating an express lane allowing traffic to flow through without stopping.

This could involve overpasses at Route 20 and High Street and access improvements along U.S. 250.

Another suggestion was to build a parking garage near the Luck Stone quarry on U.S. 250 and allow people to use light rail service or a bike trail currently being planned by the county.

“It’s basically an idea to get out of your car at the quarry and have different options to get into town,” said Chris Gensic, the city’s trails planner.

Another option would be to utilize improved signage on Interstate 64 to re-route some trips off city and county streets. Officials said some trips over Free Bridge are caused by traffic following Route 20 through Charlottesville, when taking I-64 between Route 20 and Shadwell would be a more effective route to reach Route 20 North.

“I think you have made an excellent point on this,” said group member Clara Belle Wheeler.

Wheeler’s group suggested ways to try to discourage use of Route 20 north of U.S. 250, which she said is too curvy to handle more traffic. Instead, they encouraged expanding U.S. 33 and U.S. 15 to link Ruckersville, Gordonsville and I-64.

“It would be a true eastern connector,” Wheeler said.

Another option discussed was a second crossing of the Rivanna River south of Free Bridge that would connect South Pantops Boulevard and High Street.

Though members of the City Council have indicated they will not support that option, Rhodes said it should be modeled anyway according to the framework to see where it would fare in the environmental process.

An option to build a road to skirt Pen Park — one of the routes for the suggested Eastern Connector — did not get any support from the group.

The TJPDC is in the process of hiring an engineering firm to assess the feasibility and to produce cost estimates for each of the options. One of the reference materials in the request for proposals is a summary of the 2009 Eastern Connector study.

“We’ve had quite a bit of interest from companies about participating in the project,” Rhodes said. “They will be presenting at the May meeting and the July meeting.”