Rural area roundabout example Credit: Credit: Piedmont Environmental Council

Should roundabouts be used to help slow down traffic on Albemarle rural roads? That question loomed large during a recent discussion of the transportation chapter of the county’s Comprehensive Plan.

In 2005, the Virginia Department of Transportation issued a long-range plan that called for Routes 22 and 231 in northeastern Albemarle to be widened to four lanes to accommodate future traffic volumes. The expansion would be between Cismont and Shadwell.

Staff members at the Piedmont Environmental Council have expressed concern that that would damage the county’s rural character. In April 2010, the nonprofit organization hired consultant Ian Lockwood to suggest alternative ways to increase the road’s capacity and safety.

Lockwood came up with several suggestions, including adding pull-offs for tractors, lowering the surface of the road, using different kinds of pavement and designing distinctive bridges.

Another suggestion was to install roundabouts at key intersections, similar to those located around Middleburg on U.S. 15 and U.S. 50 in Loudoun County.

The PEC wanted Lockwood’s concepts, detailed in a nine-page document identifying seven potential locations for roundabouts, to be included in the Comprehensive Plan.

“That document, as the Planning Commission articulated during its review, presents only a series of conceptual solutions for traffic concerns in that corridor,” said the PEC’s Jeff Werner. “For over two decades, residents of that corridor have expressed concern about traffic safety, primarily about increased truck traffic.”

However, staff recommended against the idea and suggested simply listing it as a resource. The Planning Commission agreed.

“The Planning Commission was persuaded that having this as an example was a good idea for showing how this might be done,” said Elaine Echols, a principal planner with the county.

Echols said staff members do not like to include specific examples in the Comprehensive Plan because that can cause confusion. The plan is intended to be a general guide of county expectations and not a to-do list.

At the work session, former Albemarle Supervisor William “Petie” Craddock asked that the PEC’s examples be completely eliminated from the Comprehensive Plan so that the roundabouts would never be built.

“From past experience on legislative bodies, items that linger tend to be items of reference or benchmarks when the actual situation comes forward for action,” Craddock said.

Craddock also said roundabouts would slow down emergency vehicles, and school buses would take longer to travel their routes.

However, Werner said Lockwood’s recommendations are just concepts and would need further work to proceed.

“Nothing could be pursued without a longer and more thorough public process and that process would be more successful if linked to the Comprehensive Plan,” Werner said.

But several residents said they wanted roundabouts to be completely removed from county documents.

VDOT has explained to many over and over that there’s not enough existing right of way for creating roundabouts or other structures without taking private property,” said Pat Napoleon, a Charlottesville resident who owns property in the corridor.

While VDOT has no current plans to build roundabouts in Albemarle, the agency is building a $3.3 million roundabout at the intersection of U.S 15/29 and Route 299 in the town of Culpeper.

Albemarle County now has 10 roundabouts. Three are in the Hollymead Town Center, three are in the Old Trail development and two are in Forest Lakes-Hollymead. The other two are on Earlysville and Dickerson roads near the Charlottesville Albemarle Airport.

The roundabout at Dickerson and Airport roads opened in 2004 and has resulted in an 85 percent reduction in crashes and a 100 percent reduction in injuries.

Supervisors said they support roundabouts, but agreed to change the way the PEC plan would be referenced in the Comprehensive Plan.

“I don’t like the idea of specifically calling out a corridor and coming up with ideas for it,” said Supervisor Brad Sheffield. He said it was not likely any of the projects would be funded for many years.

Supervisor Ann H. Mallek suggested just using the Earlysville roundabout as an example.

“It took me 10 years of fighting with VDOT to get approval of the roundabout at the airport,” Mallek said. “We were killing someone every single year at that four-way stop, every single year! And we have not had one person hurt in an accident, period, since then.”

Echols will work with the PEC to rewrite the nine-page document to remove specific references to the Route 22 and Route 231 corridor.

Albemarle officials began reviewing the Comprehensive Plan in the spring of 2011 and are expected to adopt the revision sometime in 2015.

“We have been working on this for quite a while and I think we see the ending in place,” Echols said.