Charlottesville officials recommend steps to “reboot” transportation project management in the city to avoid losing out on future funds

The city of Charlottesville has planned and built most of the transportation infrastructure projects within city limits since 2005. Soon after Deputy City Manager for Operations Sam Sanders took on the role last summer, he noticed there were some performance issues that require a total reboot of the way the city undertakes this work. 

“Some initial assessments when I first arrived here was that the development review process within [the Department of Neighborhood Development Services] needed some attention,” Sanders said. “And in doing that work since I’ve been here I’ve discovered it was more than just that. It was also looking closely as the Public Works / Engineering side of the house.” 

At a meeting of the Charlottesville City Council and the Planning Commission on May 24, Sanders said there was not a lot of institutional knowledge, and that there was a lot of work that needed to be done. First is to improve the city’s relationship with the Virginia Department of Transportation. (view the presentation

“The second being evaluating our financial management of projects with our project managers as well as our budget and finance team, and as well as assessing project management capacity,” Sanders said. 

The city has over $185 million in funds from VDOT that it has been awarded but not yet spent. These include four streetscape projects funded in the first two rounds of the Smart Scale process, five other projects funded in the second two, as well as projects funded through the VDOT revenue-sharing program. That figure also includes the $35.4 million Belmont Bridge project which is now under construction after over a decade of planning. The other projects still face delays.

Sanders said the recommendations would seek a “right-sizing” of what the city can handle. He said Charlottesville could lose projects and make it harder to receive additional funding in the future. 

“A hatchet-approach would have been just to attempt to kill a projects and then try to go forward,” Sanders said. “Tonight’s approach is really a more surgical approach so we can not only get our arms around our challenges and reset budgets and timelines, we’re also attempting to position ourselves for a share of the massive pipeline of infrastructure dollars that are coming in the near future.” 

A list of the $185 million in projects currently in the city’s portfolio (
view the presentation)

City Engineer Jack Dawson detailed all the improvements included in that $185 million, and some of that money came from sources that no longer exist or can’t adequately be traced.

“Lots of our projects have been around for a long time and have sort of outlasted old grant programs, so very specifically the Belmont Bridge,” Dawson said. “That has a little bit of everything thrown in there. So some of the accounting does get trickier.” 

Dawson described the division’s responsibilities, and I’ll briefly mention two of them. 

Transportation planning involves making new designs comply with documents auch as the Streets That Work Plan, the Standards and Design Manual, and the Bike and Pedestrian Master Plan. Another overarching responsibility is for project management, and the list of duties for the Urban Construction Initiative process is extensive. 

“Request for Proposal and selection of consultants and contractors, accounting, grant management, reimbursement processes, consultant oversight, right of way coordination and negotiations and construction management,” Dawson said. “All UCI on those projects.” 

This paragraph corrected after further information:

The city currently has four project managers, and each of them has 8.25 projects under their belt. Seven projects are currently unassigned. A transportation planner has been created in the Department of Neighborhood Development Services and that and other positions in public works are being advertised. The goal is to get the average number of project to 3.3 per manager.

Institutional knowledge at the top level isn’t great which is perhaps understandable in a city with a lot of recent turnover at the executive level. 

For example, Dawson pointed to a project that has the name “Cville Signals” which is currently classified as a revenue-sharing program with funds that came from a previous project. This project has a $3.375 million estimate, but there’s a shortfall of nearly $2.2 million.

“How do we get in such situations?” Dawson said. “That was used to conceive to use money from the leftover Solutions 29 money which, I, I don’t even know what that is, but that’s what they tell me.” 

Route 29 Solutions refers to a series of $230 million in projects that were planned and constructed after the Commonwealth Transportation Board canceled a 6.2 mile western bypass of U.S. 29 that had been a priority of the administration of Governor Bob McDonnell. 

An unfavorable ruling from the federal government as well as a change on the Albemarle Board of Supervisors effectively killed the project in early 2014 and all of the funding was planned through a process known as Route 29 Solutions. This resulted in the completion of:

Leftover funds were recommended for future projects, including one that originally had the title “adaptive traffic signal technology.” The funding was authorized for that purpose by the Commonwealth Transportation Board in June 2014, but Dawson said there’s not a recent analysis of what the project is intended to do. 

Since the Route 29 Solutions planning work done in 2014, the city has been through five city managers. None of the City Councilors serving today were elected before 2019. 

And then there’s West Main Street, which started off as a $350,000 study authorized by Council in February 2013 that somehow grew into a $55 million project that has been defunded but still exists. 

Dawson said the current cost of construction is making it more likely that all of these projects will have cost overruns. 

“Now is a horrible time to price these things because there [are] just some construction materials that cannot be found,” Dawson said. 

A look at active Smart Scale projects as of March 1. PE stands for preliminary engineering. RW stands for right of way. CN stands for construction. Listen to Dawson’s presentation for the full details. This predates Council’s decision to defund the project during the recent budget cycle. 

As part of the right-sizing, Dawson recommends several projects be shelved and put on hold and used for future applications. These are:

  • All four phases of the West Main Streetscape
  • The aforementioned signals project 
  • Monticello and Ridge improvements 
  • Harris Road improvements
  • Elliot Street improvements 
  • Preston / Grady project awarded $6.1 million in Smart Scale Round 4

“We took the tack that we want to demonstrate to VDOT that we can complete projects,” Dawson said. 

Dawson said the purpose of the projects would continue to be evaluate The Monticello / Ridge project, for example, would be addressed during the Smart Scale project for Ridge Street.  He said the Department of Neighborhood Development Services will conduct a small area plan for the area of Preston and Grady before reapplying for more funding.

See alsoCouncil moves forward with application for Preston / Grady intersection, July 22, 2022

In all, Dawson said the city will return about $12 million in Smart Scale projects that would be redistributed to other projects in VDOT’s Culpeper District. Dawson said he hopes this funding will be returned back to the city to deal with about $10 million in cost overruns for existing Smart Scale projects.  That decision is ultimately up to the Commonwealth Transportation Board. 

The city will also turn over to VDOT administration of a turn lane on U.S. 250 that will be related to improvements for the interseection at Hydraulic Road and U.S. 29.

“We do as a city like to control our own projects so we can have input on the destiny on those projects and I do think this is a good one to ease the administrative burden on our staff,” Dawson said. 

Keeping the pieces moving

Dawson is also suggesting combining the two existing Smart Scale projects on the Ridge / Fifth Street corridor into one, and adding the project that comes out the ongoing efforts to reformat the four-lane highway that is Fifth Street. 

“While those have three different funding sources, we’re going to hope to combine them into one project and have a project manager that deals with those as one while we manage the finances in triplet to try and minimize overhead from a project management standpoint and maybe bid them all to one consultant,” Dawson said.

That’s the approach VDOT took with both the Route 29 solutions projects as well as a suite of Smart Scale projects that Albemarle County was awarded in the second round. 

On Thursday, the city awarded bids for construction of two related projects on Rose Hill Drive and Rugby Avenue. Vess Excavating of Charlottesville bid $464,823 for the Rose Hill sidewalk project (UPC#108757) and Linco of Waynesboro will build intersection improvements at Rose Hill Drive and Rugby Avenue (UPC#108755). Linco bid $621,691.59. 

Dawson’s boss is Stacy Smalls, the relatively new director of the Public Works Department. He said there needs to be more transparency from the city.

“We would like to present on VDOT project status to Council and the Planning Commission on a yearly basis,” Smalls said. “This incorporates accountability and transparency about our workload [and] the types of projects we are undertaking in what areas of the city we are improving with these particular projects.”  

Smalls said the city will also move to create web pages for each project. 

Council will consider each of these steps officially at future meetings. 

“VDOT is expecting us to move quickly,” Sanders said. “This is very coordinated with them to be able to get action taken by Council to be put in front of the leadership at VDOT so that we can move forward.” 

The pieces will stay in motion, and continue reading and listening to Charlottesville Community Engagement to try to keep track of all the moving parts.

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