In a locality of over 115,000 people and growing, there are a lot of demands, desires, needs, requests, and more needs for new transportation projects to help people get around in their vehicle, on a bike, or on foot.
For many years, Albemarle County was focused on saving up secondary road funds for what had been called the Meadowcreek Parkway, as well as improvements to both Georgetown Road and Jarmans Gap Road in Crozet. Looming over all of that was the 6.2 mile Western Bypass, a project funded in 2011 that had its money flow to other projects upon its cancellation.
Around this time, Albemarle filled the long vacant position of transportation planner, and that meant there was capacity on staff for someone to work with the Virginia Department of Transportation to secure funding for the next round of projects. A list of transportation projects was developed and is in the process of being updated for 2024.
Kevin McDermott is the deputy director of planning for Albemarle County. On October 4, he asked Supervisors to focus on the process rather than the individual scores for projects as the new list is created.
“I think we could all recognize that the scores are going to change between now and when we have a final list based on this discussion we’re going to have today,” McDermott said.
- Draft 2024 Albemarle County Transportation Priorities Report
- Draft 2024 Transportation Priorities List
- Map of the Draft 2024 priorities
Albemarle last reordered the priority list in 2019. With funding for projects limited and staff time finite, the prioritization process is intended to provide some sense of order to the 130 current project ideas.
“Our transportation projects are identified through Comprehensive Plans, master plans, small area plans, corridor plans, etcetera, etcetera,” McDermott said. “With all of the plans, it’s difficult for the staff and the Board to know what we should be focusing on.”
The process also gives a chance to document progress. Of the ten projects from the 2019 list, half are fully funded, three are partially funded, and the other two will receive new ranks.
“That trend doesn’t stop after the top ten,” McDermott said. “A lot of our top projects up 20 have all been funded so we did really good work on those priorities from last time.”
Albemarle’s prioritization list uses the same methodology for the Smart Scale process used by the Virginia Department of Transportation. Different scores are calculated for how each projects addresses congestion, fulfills land use and economic development goals, improves safety, equity, and environmental factors.
The draft list only contains the top 50 projects out of those 130.
However, this system is not absolute.
“There are a lot of other considerations when deciding to advance the projects that may not be reflected in this ranking,” McDermott said. “We often did go after projects that were further down the list in 2019. This is usually as opportunities present themselves. Certain development may offer an opportunity for us to work with a developer to move forward on a project.”
Under the draft ranking, the top project is one to reconfigure the junction of Fifth Street Extended and Interstate 64. That had been #19 in the previous list.
“This project is really looking to rebuild that interchange,” McDermott said. “It was listed in the Southern and Western Areas Master Plan and then it was also a high priority in the Fifth Street Corridor STARS Study which was completed recently.”
McDermott explained that this project got an 8 for land use and an 8 for economic development because of the construction of many housing units including Southwood as well as many employment opportunities. The project would also add bike and pedestrian facilities.
“It is located within the federally identified Opportunity Zone and there’s a high level of existing employment already in the area with Covenant School, the county office building, Fifth Street Station, and other uses along Fifth Street,” McDermott said.
McDermott said projects that create better situations for non-motorized transport are favored in the county’s prioritization process.
“Bike and pedestrian facilities adds a lot of points in almost every category,” McDermott said. “That’s reflective of the county’s desire to address climate change and to improve land uses.”
Another intersection project is at the nexus of hundreds if not thousands of planned housing units. Improvements to U.S. 29 and Airport Road had been ranked 41 on the 2019 list but has climbed up to number 2 in the current draft.
“With the continued development of the North Fork Research Park and [the University of Virginia’s] proposals for residential development up there, Hollymead Town Center, North Pointe, everything going on in that area rose that priority up quite a bit,” McDermott said.
The third priority under the draft list would be to build a roundabout at the intersection of U.S. 250 and Old Trail Drive. That project was called for in the recent update of the Crozet Master Plan as scores high because of identified safety concerns.
The fourth priority is a shared use path on Old Lynchburg Road that was called for in the Fifth Street study. The fifth priority is an extension of the Berkmar Drive shared use path from Rio Road to Hilton Heights Road. This was identified as a “Catalyst” project in the Rio 29 Small Area Plan.
“We have a lot of new residential development going on along Berkmar and also non-residential development on the east side of Berkmar,” McDermott said.
McDermott asked Supervisors if they had any feedback. The Supervisor for Jack Jouett said her district may not have any high scoring projects due to one factor.
“Part of the issue that I have in the Jouett District is that we’re so developed that we don’t have very many development projects going on,” McKeel said.
McKeel pointed out that a new apartment complex is under construction on Hydraulic Road and she wanted to know how that could factor into efforts for transportation projects. She also made a pitch for putting an emphasis on the accessibility and equity category.
“Obviously with my high, dense, diverse area in the urban ring I’m really interested in getting people to jobs, to grocery stores, to the drug stores and kids walking to school,” McKeel said.
McDermott said the Office of Equity and Inclusion would be consulted during the process and Director Jesse Brookins would review the list. He said the county has identified underserved parts of the community and that is also taken into consideration.
Supervisor Ann Mallek represents the White Hall District which includes Crozet. She expressed concern that the prioritization list is pushing older projects to the bottom.
“Projects which have been in the process for 15 or 20 years and finally get to the top of the sidewalk list for example and are now off entirely,” Mallek said. “Where does any of that earlier evaluation that ‘yes, this is needed, yes this is an older neighborhood full of naturally occurring affordable housing with no sidewalks, etc. How does that get reflected in here going forward?”
McDermott said the county is also seeking to expand existing sidewalk networks.
“For example, one of the projects in the Crozet area is the Tabor/High Street/Park sidewalks and the fact that that is sort of the first step I think in building out that network because that’s where you get from downtown and the park and the existing sidewalk network to try and get into those neighborhoods, I think that’s why that one came out higher than others,” McDermott said.
“But it’s number 51,” Mallek said, adding that funding for that project had recently been reallocated elsewhere in the county.
McDermott said the county will continue to work on the project even with the lower ranking.
“That’s a project that we have had some discussions with some of the developers in the area on helping us with to reduce the costs so I think there is still a lot of feasibility in moving forward with that one,” McDermott said.
Supervisor Jim Andrews is in his second year as a member of the Board and observed that the priority list is more of an organizational device than a strict set of rules for what will be done.
“I think it’s misplaced for us to look at this too much as a ranking but more as a recognition of where the strengths are for these and where the weaknesses might be,” Andrews said.
Andrews supported a comment McDermott had made during the presentation that some of the 130 projects might be combined over time. For instance, a project to upgrade the intersection of Hydraulic Road, Lambs Road, and Whitewood Road near Albemarle High School has the draft designation of 6a because it tied with several other projects with the same score.
There’s also 20a which would make it easier to walk to AHS and the rest of the Lambs Lane campus as well as a “second-tier” project to build a new loop road to support the campus.
Supervisor Ned Gallaway said he saw all of those as one project.
“There’s no way we do that intersection without that loop road,” Gallaway said. “There’s no solving that section without that loop road so we just have to build that loop road. There’s no solving that intersection without that loop road. So we just have to to build that part of the project and I think you need to rescore that one or start thinking of other things project wise that aren’t so much itemized or so dissected into smaller projects.”
Gallaway said several projects on Rio Road could also be assembled to make one project.
This latest reordering comes at a time when the Commonwealth Transportation Board is considering changes to the Smart Scale process that had been created in the mid 2010’s.
“Since February, the CTB has been engaged in a holistic review of our nationally recognized,
data-driven process for prioritizing multimodal transportation investments to determine if
SMART SCALE is meeting its goal,” reads an October 17, 2023 presentation to the CTB.
Changes could include increasing the weight that economic development plays and reducing the number of applications localities could submit. A virtual town hall will be held on October 31.
Gallaway said the changes to Smart Scale don’t really affect Albemarle’s internal process.
“Our transportation priorities are going to remain the same no matter what the hell they do with Smart Scale,” Gallaway said. “Smart Scale is a funding system, a funding stream. We just have to know how best to get that funding through Smart Scale.”
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