The final project in what’s known as Route29 Solutions is making its way through the last steps of the planning process. Last week, the Charlottesville-Albemarle Metropolitan Planning Organization Policy Board got an update on the status for a future project that includes five separate components at the intersection of U.S. 29 and Hydraulic Road.
“We’ve kind of gotten to a situation right now where we’re over budget based on updated estimates and some of the things that we’ve looked at it,” said Sean Nelson, the administrator of the Virginia Department of Transportation’s Culpeper District.
Ideas to improve traffic conditions at this intersection have been discussed for years, including the US-29-Hydraulic-250 Bypass Intersections Study from the early 2000’s. There are books that could be written about why projects get selected, but while planners ponder, engineers keep monitoring conditions.
“Currently there are poor operations and congestion that exist in the area, particularly during peak hour conditions,” said Hal Jones, a project manager with the Virginia Department of Transportation. “There are few places that currently cross safely U.S. 29 in this area so this is one of the reasons we’re working on the project.”
The project has a $24 million cost estimate and is moving to the procurement stage, which is when VDOT will put the project out to bid for someone else to build it. To get there, they have to spend a lot of time and money getting the plans ready for someone else to construct it. However, in this climate, the project is more expensive than originally thought.
“Our estimate exceeds our budget and next month in September [at the Commonwealth Transportation Board] meeting we’re planning to ask for additional funds,” Jones said.
To step back a bit, the Route 29 Solutions was a package of projects that were funded after a Western Bypass of U.S. 29 in Albemarle County lost support from the state and federal government..
At the time, the Smart Scale process that funds most highway construction projects in Virginia did not exist and the money was used locally for other projects that were in the Long Range Transportation Plan. Some of the funding was leftover and the balance was put toward a suite of projects funded in the fourth round of Smart Scale. Jones explains one of the components.
“The main idea here was to increase green time, signal time, for north and southbound traffic by removing Hydraulic left hand turns onto 29,’ Jones said. “We also added a protected at-grade crossing for pedestrians with signals.”
The second element is a Green-T intersection at Angus Road to keep some lanes on northbound U.S. 29 to continuously flow. The third element is a pedestrian bridge that would connect Stonefield with the Seminole Square Shopping Center.
“Element D shows a roundabout at Hillsdale and Hydraulic intersection and Element E shows an extended shared-use path and improvements at Michie and Brandywine Drive, restricting left turns from those streets,” Jones said.
A design public hearing was held in May, followed by meetings with business stakeholders who might be affected. Some slight changes have been made since then. One of the changes at the roundabout to provide better access to Charlottesville’s middle Kroger.
Back to the shortfall.
“So, the question that’s kind of been posed to the MPO is would there be an appetite to remove one of the elements to ensure that we get the biggest benefit out of the other elements in the project,” Nelson said. “And the one element that we’ve been looking to remove is the Green-T.”
Nelson said that could be built in the future, but there are also concerns from business owners in that area.
One City Councilor supported this proposal.
“I think that it’s a reasonable compromise,” said Brian Pinkston. “I think getting the other pieces done certainly takes us a long, long way to making that set of intersections much more useful.”
Charlottesville Mayor Lloyd Snook agreed, as did Albemarle Supervisors Ann Mallek and Ned Gallaway. Gallaway said not moving forward with the Green-T might give more time to figure out how to solve another problem. As CBS19’s Carly SImon reported earlier this year, there are three chicken-themed restaurants on one block of southbound U.S. 29.
“I guess the only comment I would add in addition as we think to that in the future and as I know some of you have had conversations about figuring out what to do with ‘chicken row’ and some of the issues that we’re dealing with for all the people trying to get Cane sauce and what have you,” Gallaway said. “But it is a real issue so it’s something that those businesses will need some help on that side the Green-T doesn’t necessarily go to address.”
Supervisor Mallek agreed this is a problem that counterbalances infrastructure intended to improve southbound traffic flow on U.S. 29, a statewide corridor of significance.
“You cannot go anywhere when two of the lanes on the west side are completely full of people sitting,” Mallek said. “It’s incredibly dangerous. People call me all the time and complain bitterly.”
Nelson said VDOT is aware of the issue.
Mallek also asked about the status of a project to coordinate traffic signals on Emmet Street south of the U.S. 29 / U.S. 250 interchange. In June, the City Council officially killed an older project as a way of rebooting the city’s work with VDOT, but Nelson said it is on his agency’s to-do list.
“We are going to be working with the city regarding what upgrades are needed to ensure we have a synchronized system through there so our operations people on our side of the house will be meeting with the city at some point in the future to try to figure out what we need to do to get those upgrades in and what type of funding stream can we use to make those types of improvements,” Nelson said.
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