CTB briefed on cancellation of Charlottesville Smart Scale projects

The Virginia Department of Transportation has followed through on a plan to help the city of Charlottesville get better about actually building projects for which it has been funded. On Tuesday, officials briefed the Commonwealth Transportation Board on the cancellation of three projects for which the city received funding from the Smart Scale process in the past few years. 

“I’m presenting to you a proposal to cancel three Smart Scale projects,” said Kim Pryor, VDOT’s Director of Infrastructure Investment. “Preston Avenue and Grady Avenue, West Main Street Phase 2 and West Main Street Phase 3.”

Smart Scale is a competitive process where localities submit projects which are then ranked according to how they will address certain criteria, including addressing public safety, congestion, and increasing the potential for economic development. Charlottesville was awarded three such projects in the first round in 2016, one project in 2017, two projects in 2019, and four projects in 2021. 

None of them have gone to construction. 

Sean Nelson is the district engineer for the Virginia Department of Transportation’s Culpeper District. He said one factor in the state’s overall metric on on-time performance relates to how well localities can complete projects. 

“So at the beginning of the year in the Culpeper District, we decided to look at our locally administered program in the city of Charlottesville,” Nelson said. “So since FY2019, on-time delivery has not been above 50 percent and on-budget has averaged around 60 percent for the same time period for the delivery of their program.” 

Nelson said he met with interim City Manager Michael C. Rogers and Deputy City Manager Sam Sanders to explain VDOT’s expectations for the funding the city received to do work. 

“The department showed them that they had a total of 34 projects on their books with a total estimate of $185 million from all funding sources,” Nelson said. “The part that really got their attention was that out of that $185 million they had only spent $11.6 million and some of the projects had been on the books since probably around 2006.” 

Nelson said city leadership recognized the issue and entered into facilitated sessions to figure out how to “right-size” the program. 

The city agreed to hire new staff to handle the projects and agreed to consider canceling seven projects. Another was turned over to VDOT to administer, and three of them went before the Commonwealth Transportation Board yesterday worth $20.6 million. 

“Through this process the real big thing was the acknowledgement, the acknowledgment of the issue, which we were able to get from the city,” Nelson said. “I think we’ve turned the corner here.”

In addition, the city of Charlottesville did not apply for a project through the Smart Scale process in the current cycle. According to Pryor, the city had not even started scoping out the Preston Avenue project so no dollars were spent.  

As for West Main Street, the streetscape was a project that came out of a study ordered by a previous City Council in 2012 that eventually resulted in a nearly $50 million cost estimate. Successive Councils authorized nearly $19 million in bonds as match for Smart Scale and other grant sources, but the current Council moved the local funds to the reconfiguration of City Schools. 

The CTB will vote on the matter at its meeting in October. 

The $20.6 million in funds will go back to the Culpeper District for other projects that might have cost-overruns or toward the fifth round of Smart Scale. The rankings for that list of candidates will be made available in late January. 

The total amount that will go back to VDOT now that Charlottesville City Council canceled the project (Credit: Virginia Department of Transportation) 

In her next presentation, Pryor briefed the CTB on budget increase requests for the Fontaine Avenue Streetscape project awarded to Charlottesville in Round 1 and the Hydraulic Road and Route 29 Improvements awarded to the Charlottesville-Albemarle Metropolitan Planning Organization in Round 4. 

The estimate for the Fontaine Avenue Streetscape climbed from $11.7 million to $17.9 million. Charlottesville is committing an additional $750,000 to the project. 

The estimate for the Hydraulic and 29 project increased by $4.2 million due in part to changes in state law that increases the cost to purchase right of way if businesses lose direct access to the roadway. 

Wayne Coleman, an at-large member of the CTB, questioned the fairness of using this money to cover Charlottesville’s inability to deliver the Fontaine project. 

“I’m sure that Charlottesville and Culper with good faith applied for the Smart Scale funds but back in 2017,” Coleman said. “Are we talking about funds that are set aside and held and now reallocated to a reprioritization later? I’m concerned about others that may have applied for Smart Scale but didn’t get any funding and we have these stagnant projects that aren’t being acted on.” 

Darrell Byers, the Culpeper District representative on the CTB, said Charlottesville now realizes they were not able to manage the amount of projects received. Since the city was awarded the funding for Fontaine, there have been several city managers and all of the City Councilors are new. He said the new leadership understands what needs to happen next. 

“They realize that they just were not able to manage what was given out in Smart Scale,” Byers said. 

The next meeting of the CTB is on October 25 and October 26.


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 September 22, 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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