City transportation planners present ideas on Fifth Street

Skepticism of bus lanes, support for roundabout, more data needed on road diet details

On Tuesday, Charlottesville’s elected officials met with the appointed Charlottesville Planning Commission to give feedback on a set of proposals to slow down traffic on Fifth Street Extended. 

Several groups have called upon to Council to take action to increase safety conditions on the roadway following a string of fatal crashes in 2020. 

“Our consultant team and staff have been working for the last couple of months to expedite a design plan to improve transportation safety,” said James Freas, the city’s director of Neighborhood Development Services. 

An overview of the study area (Credit: EPR PC)

The city is working toward an August 1 deadline to submit the projects to the Virginia Department of Transportation for funding through something called the Smart Scale program. Candidate projects from all across Virginia are scored according to how well they will achieve certain outcomes, such as increasing safety and reducing congestion.

For many years, Amanda Poncy was the city’s bike and pedestrian coordinator. She left that position last year to work for EPR PC

“EPR was hired by the city in February to help with the development of that grant application which is due on August 1,” Poncy said. “The segment that we’re looking at is between old Ridge Street and Harris Road. Our scope of work really involved looking at the crash data, conducting a speed study, developing concepts for public review and ultimately arriving at a final feedback that we can really flesh out with cost estimates and better understanding of some of the engineering issues and things like that for the Smart Scale submittal.” 

The roadway has been studied before, including a 2018 study conducted by EPR that resulted in two successful Smart Scale applications. These are for a turn lane on Cherry Avenue as well as multimodal improvements on Ridge Street. (read the 2018 study)

“A third project that involved pedestrian improvements at the Cherry / Ridge intersection was also funded by VDOT outside of that project study but is being lumped into these other two because there is some overlap there,” Poncy said. 

Since that study, there have been a series of fatal crashes and EPR’s work concludes that many of those are related to intersections. All of the fatalities were related to speeding. Poncy said a survey was conducted this spring which yielded over 700 responses. 

“Really the top thing we heard was concern about people’s driving behavior whether it is reckless driving or redlight running,” Poncy said. 

There are several potential solutions, such as a roundabout, a restricted crossing U-turn, and guardrails to prevent people from hitting trees. Another option would be to remove the trees, which Poncy said would go against the spirit of the Streets that Work plan

Restricted crossing U-turns have been used in Virginia. Poncy explains how one would work on Fifth Street. 

“People coming from the side streets, so for example Bailey Road or Old Ridge, they would first make a right turn,” Poncy said. “The median openings that are currently there would be closed for through traffic and people coming out of the side streets would have to make a right hand turn and then go up to the next median opening to go in the direction they wanted to travel.”

Another potential solution is a roundabout at Bailey Road which is the entrance to the Orangedale section of the Fifeville neighborhood. That would likely mean the taking of some property to accommodate the geographic scope.

Conceptual drawings of what one-lane and two-lane roundabouts would look like at Bailey Road

Another overarching concept is to put Fifth Street on a road diet, which would mean reducing travel lanee and giving that space over to wider sidewalks or shared-use paths. Bike lanes could be protected with a physical barrier, but those details have not yet been worked out. 

In one of the scenarios, the road diet would include a dedicated bus-lane in each direction. 

Skepticism of bus lanes, support for roundabout, more data needed on road diet details

After the overview, Commissioners and Councilors had the chance to provide feedback. During their discussion, they appeared to want more detail about what a road diet would entail, expressed support for the single-lane roundabout, and stated concerns about dedicated bus lanes. 

Let’s begin with the Planning Commission’s non-voting representative from the University of Virginia wanted to know if the needs of the emergency health system had been taken into account.

“From the UVA perspective, this is a pretty major corridor for emergency vehicles coming to the hospital,” said Bill Palmer with the Office of the Architect. 

Bill Wuensch of EPR said if the bus lanes were dedicated, they would be available for use by emergency vehicles. 

“Whether it’s an ambulance, fire truck, police, whatever, they would still be able to use and access that bus lane in that single lane option,” Wuencsch said. 

Palmer asked what the Future Land Use map designations were for the roadway and said whatever alternative is selected should anticipate future development. Much of the corridor is designated now as Medium Intensity Residential with other portions as Higher Intensity Residential. 

During the conversation, at least three Councilors were skeptical about reducing capacity by eliminating travel lanes. 

“In plumbing, you’ve got to be careful of going from big to little,” said City Councilor Sena Magill said. 

Magill added she would support some form of a dedicated bus lane, but said she would be concerned it might be difficult for those vehicles to merge back into traffic on either end. 

“Refining some of those details about the transitions is kind of the next step,” said Jeannie Alexander, another EPR employee who used to work for the city. “Getting into those design details. Yes, you’re right, it’s very important and will be the make or break for many things.”

Charlottesville Mayor Lloyd Snook said he was skeptical about the bus lane concept. The Route 2, Route 3, and Route 6 operated by Charlottesville Area Transit regularly use the corridor. 

“And we’re devoting the largest share of asphalt to something that only takes… 30 vehicles a day,” Snook said. “That strikes me as being a very difficult thing to justify.” 

Snook said he was concerned that constricting Fifth Street would route more vehicles through Bailey Road up to Prospect Avenue, or onto Harris Street through the Fry’s Spring neighborhood. 

Vice Mayor Juandiego Wade used to work as a transportation planner for Albemarle County. He echoed Snook’s concern.

“I know what’s going to happen,” Wade said. “They’re going to filter through the neighborhoods and then we’re going to get calls about complaints of cars speeding in front of Jackson-Via [Elementary School] and in front of Buford [Middle] School because that’s where they’re going to go if they get off of I-64 and see the traffic.” 

Planning Commissioner Jody Lahendro said he was skeptical of many of the options.

“The conclusion I’m coming to is that this is very difficult to come up with one static solution for a road that has various issues,” said Commissioner Jody Lahendro. 

Commissioner Hosea Mitchell was also concerned about the road diet and the potential for congestion. 

“I’m not too geeked out about the two-lane roundabout either,” Mitchell said. “I’ve worked and lived in lots of big cities and those two-lane roundabouts can be confusing. 

Mitchell said he could support a single-lane roundabout but wanted to know more information. He also said he supported the pursuit of low-cost measures such as guardrails and photo enforcement. 

A slide depicting some of the low cost measures that might be used

Planning Commissioner Karim Habbab said he would support some form of a road diet but only if it didn’t lead to too much congestion. He also said he could support a roundabout.

“I know those are great at reducing crashes or the severity of crashes at those intersections and I’m for a roundabout,” Habbab said.  

Commissioner Rory Stolzenberg supported the road diet because he said a change in design would stop the conditions that lead to the three fatal crashes in 2020. 

“In off-hours, Fifth Street becomes a drag strip and it’s just a wide open road, a total straightaway, and people can speed recklessly,” Stolzenberg said. “Yes it’s a small minority of people but road design is how we stop that.” 

Stolzenberg said the road concept needed to be fleshed out further. 

City Councilor Brian Pinkston said he supported studying the road diet and doing a study. That would likely mean a delay in applying for the Smart Scale funds. The next round will be in 2024. 

Magill said she wanted to know more about a road diet would work, and that she could support a single-lane roundabout but not a double one. She also said people need to understand Charlottesville’s geographic role. 

“We cannot get away from the fact that we are the urban center for a large rural community and that’s something we have to plan with,” Magill said. 

Councilor Michael Payne said he supported the roundabout at Bailey Road to break up the speed. 

“You know I think I would lean toward the road diet but I do have concern of us doing with the level of information that we have now,” Payne said. “It does seem that more study and information is needed.” 

Planning Commission Chair Lyle Solla-Yates said he wanted the city to pursue all of the options.

“In general we need to be thinking bigger and more systematically so we can get at these connections about these issues,” Solla-Yates said. 

City traffic engineer Brennan Duncan said he heard the concern about a two-lane roundabout but said unless the number of lanes was reduced through a road diet, that would have to be the case.

“Just for a roundabout, in order to build one for the road we have today, it would have to be a two-lane roundabout,” Duncan said. 

Council will return to this matter at their meeting on June 21.

There are other projects nearby. 

  • Albemarle County and the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission are working on a Smart Scale application for an area south of Harris Road (read those application details)
  • A TJPDC application for something called the Fifth Street Trail hub was successful in the last Smart Scale round and received nearly $10 million in funds (read the application)
  • The city was awarded $8.74 million in Smart Scale Round 4 for Ridge Street improvements (read the application)
  • The city was awarded $6.1 million for the Cherry Avenue turn lane improvements in Smart Scale Round 3 (read the application)

Before you go: The time to write and research of this article is covered by paid subscribers to Charlottesville Community Engagement. In fact, this particular installment comes from the May 27, 2022 edition of the program. To ensure this research can be sustained, please consider becoming a paid subscriber or contributing monthly through Patreon.

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