UVA-commissioned study finds flaws in funded improvements to US 29/250 interchange with Fontaine Avenue

In late 2019, the Charlottesville City Council and the Albemarle Board of Supervisors agreed to end a public body known as the Planning and Coordination Council that met openly with University of Virginia officials to discuss the infrastructure needed for a growing community. 

This was replaced with the closed-door Land Use and Environmental Planning Committee which meets every month. In its first two meetings of this year, the group has talked privately about some of the potential transportation solutions in areas where the University of Virginia has plans to significantly increase its activities. 

These two areas include Ivy Road and Old Ivy Road as well as the Fontaine Research Park. In February, the Virginia Department of Transportation presented a concept for some suggested ways to increase safety at the interchange of Interstate 64 with the U.S. 29/250 bypass.

The Charlottesville Albemarle Metropolitan Planning Organization secured nearly $12.4 million in funding in the fourth Smart Scale round for a project with this description:

“The project will provide alternative intersection/interchange improvement to the Diamond Interchange. Includes: a signalized partial [Westbound] crossover intersection at the [Northbound] Ramp Terminal Intersection with Relocated Left turning movements; a the closure of the [Northbound] 29 to Westbound I-64 Crossover and reroute of the movement through the Fontaine/29 Interchange; and extension of the Shared Use Path through the Interchange.” 

The general location for a Smart Scale funded project to address some of the issues at the Fontaine interchange with U.S. 29 / 250. (view the application)

One of these ideas would have re-routed vehicles on northbound U.S. 29 who wanted to get to westbound I-64. The new movement would have been to go through the Fontaine Avenue interchange and do a U-turn. This would have eliminated the current situation where vehicles cut across southbound traffic on U.S. 29, which put vehicles in danger of collision. 

In March there was a second presentation from the University of Virginia who hired the firm VHB to review VDOT’s work to date. These meetings are not open to the public, but Planning Commissioner Hosea Mitchell attended the meeting and had this account.

“That area will continue to have traffic continue to grow as we continue to build out that area,” Mitchell said. “It will be intensified by the biotech building that is on the way.” 

Mitchell reported that UVA is modeling what a full traffic build-out of Fontaine Research Park will look like in 2025 when a new parking garage is expected to open at Fontaine Research Park. 

“It’s going to be pretty busy out there,” Mitchell said. “They walked us through a pretty in-depth analysis of their data and there’s a little back and forth between UVA’s data and VDOT’s data but we’re working through that. And you guys have the Powerpoint presentation on that.”

And you, the reader, also have that thanks to this report. And I will state again here that I changed the headline for yesterday’s newsletter after being contacted by someone from the media team at VDOT that “shelved” wasn’t quite the right description given that design is still ongoing.

I changed the phrase to “critiqued” because that’s more accurate. Decisions on what gets funded are ratified by local elected officials and the Commonwealth Transportation Board, and not members of the UVA Board of Visitors. The Smart Scale project is in the design phase, and UVA’s hiring of a consultant is a normal attempt to influence what happens in their backyard. That’s part of the process. 

The Fontaine Research Park is now owned directly by the Board of Visitors of UVA after being owned by the University of Virginia Foundation for many years. The Foundation owns hundreds of acres nearby, including a 12.6 acre parcel rezoned by Albemarle County in 2011 for a 100,000 square foot office building that was never built. (Supervisors approve office building for UVA health system, Charlottesville Tomorrow, July 31, 2011)

(image) A map from Albemarle GIS showing land owned by the University of Virginia Foundation, as seen in parcels bordered with yellow. The Fontaine Research Park is in the lower right hand corner (Credit: Albemarle GIS)

None of us members of the public would have been allowed into the March 17 meeting of the Land Use and Environmental Planning Committee, but at least we have the powerpoint. Here’s what we can learn from it:

UVA hired VHB to conduct a supplementary traffic analysis as part of the Fontaine Park Master Plan Traffic Study based on the Smart Scale project that’s in design. 

“The objective was to update the analysis with new 2022 traffic counts, evaluate the roadway performance in 2025 when the Fontaine Parking Deck is anticipated to open, and analyze Fontaine Park buildout with the now funded Fontaine Avenue interchange project,” reads a section of slide 2. 

A goal was to determine what traffic signal timing parameters would be needed at the intersection of Fontaine Avenue and Ray C. Hunt Drive. That’s the sole entrance to the Fontaine Research Park. The study modeled the year 2045 based on anticipated build-out of the park. The analysis found that many of the turning movements would be “significantly congested” by the proposed configuration during morning and afternoon peak hours. 

“Some of the congestion is due to limitations of the funded interchange project, while some is due to capacity constraints along Fontaine Avenue at the Ray C. Hunt Drive signal,” reads page 10 of the VHB presentation. 

The presentation also acknowledged that whoever is awarded the contract to design and build the interchange improvements will conduct their own traffic study. 

“The project can be tweaked in design, but the budget is largely fixed, so design alterations are limited,” the presentation concludes on page 11. 

Slide 6 of the presentation has more details on VHB’s analysis of the Smart Scale project as conceived by VDOT (Credit: VHB / UVA) 

What next? I reported that yesterday, it turns out, with not as much context as I could have. But to send the point home, the latest written update on the county’s transportation priorities dated April 5 states it pretty clearly.

“Recently, stakeholders have expressed concern that the proposed displaced left turn/R-cut interchange does not meet the long-term needs of the rapidly developing area,” reads page 6 of the report. “Albemarle County is working with fellow stakeholders and VDOT to determine next steps for this project.”

Journalism is about asking questions. Which stakeholders? What concern? What are the long-term needs? Whose needs? 

It’s the mission of Charlottesville Community Engagement not only to ask those questions, but also to piece together as much as I can, continuing work I’ve been doing for a while. I am grateful for paid subscriptions that help me keep going, as there’s a lot left to know about. 

More from the Charlottesville Planning Commission meeting in a future installment. 

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 April 13, 2023 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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