Gentlemen’s Agreement

Rodney Thomas. Photo credit: Charlottesville Tomorrow

Albemarle County and VDOT have reached an informal agreement on how to approach access management on U.S 29 north of Charlottesville.

by James A. Bacon

In a side deal forged to grease the skids for  construction of the $200 million Charlottesville Bypass, the chairman of the regional Metropolitan Planning Organization and member of the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors has agreed to limit private property owners from opening new access points to U.S. 29  north of Charlottesville.

The specifics of the handshake deal had not been spelled out until today during a meeting between Rodney S. Thomas and Gregory Whirley, commissioner of the Virginia Department of Transportation. In exchange for Albemarle’s approval of the Charlottesville Bypass, the McDonnell administration has committed to fund or assist four smaller projects on the region’s list of priorities. But that help is contingent upon the county’s commitment to the state’s “access management” strategy for U.S. 29.

In addition to limiting new access to the highway, the County also may buy up “a few driveways” from private property owners, Thomas says, and it will “consider” deleting some median-strip crossovers.

The informal understanding worked out between Thomas and Whirley brought clarity to a side deal that had been worked out between Thomas and Whirley’s boss, Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton in negotiations to gain funding and approval for the Charlottesville Bypass.

Roughly two months ago, Thomas and fellow Albemarle supervisor Duane Snow met with Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton to discuss funding of priority transportation improvements to Charlottesville and Albemarle County. The supervisors were committed to a handful of modest projects, including four in the U.S. 29 corridor and the replacement of the aging Belmont Bridge in Charlottesville. Connaughton floated the idea of funding the Charlottesville Bypass, a mega-project long considered to be unfundable. The supervisors said they would love it as long as the Bypass wasn’t being funded at the expense of the smaller projects. Connaughton gave them the assurances they were looking for.

Thomas and Snow then wrung an endorsement of the Bypass from the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors, reversing its previous opposition. Connaughton next won approval from the Commonwealth Transportation Board, finding the funds from pots of money that did not diminish the Six Year Improvement Plan in which the smaller projects were listed. Indeed, he found money for one of those projects, the widening of a stretch of U.S. 29. Finally, Thomas and Snow, who both sit on the Charlottesville-Albemarle County Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO), reversed that organization’s previous opposition to the Bypass. No more approvals were needed.

While the Bypass project was a “go,” it was not clear to the public what was included in the side deal. In a letter to the MPO board, Connaughton specified the recommendations he would make to the CTB to advance or accelerate the remaining priority projects. (See “Promises, Promises” for details.) Overlooked in the MPO board discussion of the deal and in subsequent press coverage was the fact that Connaughton had attached what he later described as a “quid pro quo” — the region had to get serious about keeping U.S. 29, a Corridor of Statewide Significance, free from curb cuts, traffic lights and other access points that slowed traffic on the highway. (See “Connaughton to Charlottesville: Implement a Plan to Prevent More U.S. 29 Congestion,” for details.)

But Connaughton’s letter did not spell out local obligations with any specificity. And when I talked to Thomas yesterday,  he didn’t have the details either. But he said he would know more after his meeting today.

What emerged from Thomas’ discussion with Whirley could better be described as an informal understanding than a formal agreement. Albemarle, whose previous zoning and design decisions bred the traffic congestion plaguing U.S. 29 today, must restrict future access of developers and property owners to the highway. The county also may have to conduct some remediation, but there is no hard-and-fast agreement. “A few driveways, with some negotiation, may have to be closed up,” Thomas said. The county also will have to “consider deleting some crossovers.” (Crossovers are where intersections cut through the highway median strip.)

“There is no specific proposal or plan. We don’t have to sign anything,” Thomas said. “It would be nice if we could cooperate with VDOT to improve traffic situations rather than make problems for them.”

Likewise, Connaughton’s commitment to advance Albemarle’s transportation priorities is an informal one. Thomas says he believes the transportation secretary will deliver. “I trust Sean Connaughton.”

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This article was reported and written thanks to a sponsorship by the Piedmont Environmental Council.

12 Responses to Gentlemen’s Agreement

  1. I bet Ole Til won’t be happy at this precedent. This makes good sense. A bypass should be a bypass of commercial and residential development.

  2. VDOT should have been enforcing this policy all along… all across the state.

    It could have happened on Kaine and Warners shift but did not. Sometimes it’s hard to know what VDOT does or does not do …relative to what the leadership of the state is.

    sometimes it appears that VDOT operates independently of the Gov and GA.

    but the access management has been ongoing for the last few years.

    we’ve seen it in our area. VDOT has told the locality that several major commercial strip roads will have median cross-overs closed and that side streets and left turns with not get priority time slices on the traffic signals.

    In other words – throughput of the mainline will be protected.

    VDOT is slowly but surely moving in the right direction IMHO.

    And if Bob McDonnell gets credit for it – so be it.

  3. I can’t really tell whether Jim Bacon supports this arrangement or not. Perhaps he is out of “editor mode” and into “reporter mode”.

    Despite severe mistrust of politicians at all levels, I think this represents progress. Traffic congestion will be reduced by the bypass. The plan may be far from perfect but it will have an effect. Local government acknowledges the curb cuts as a major contributor to the problem. Further, they pledge to address the problem – prospectively and (to some extent) in retrospect.

    This agreement has the “force of promise” rather than the force of law. However, the decision has been made and forward progress is underway.

  4. Groveton, I was in “reporter” mode. Just the facts, ma’am.

  5. in terms of top-down govt and roads of “significance” – look at how the Feds do Interstates – and then imagine handing that system over to the State to determine access policy.

    Developers would truly run amok unless VDOT took the same tough policy approach that the Feds take.

    If you think NoVa traffic is bad right now – imagine putting more “curb cuts” on I-95, I-66, etc… per developer hopes and wishes.

    Does Virginia and VDOT have the right to tell Charlottesville what to do about roads in their jurisdiction ?

    If you think they do.. then do you also support the same approach in NoVa, Lynchburg and Richmond?

    What’s the consistent view here with regard to the rights of the state verses the right of the locality when it comes to roads?

  6. Mr. Bacon,
    I believe that Mr. Rodney Thomas is chair of the MPO, not chair of the Albemarle Board of Supervisors. Ms. Ann Mallek is chair of BOS,
    Duane Snow is vice-chair, and therefore if tradition continues, will be chair next year.
    I think that not only development on 29N needs to be limited, it
    has to be PREVENTED on the new bypass if it’s built. That’s an issue that concerns me, given this BOS proclivities.

  7. a word about the new “bypass” road in South Central Va around Lynchburg and to the NC border.

    They “look” like interstate roads in terms of the width of the r/w corridor, divided 4-lane with ample shoulders, etc…

    …. but if you look closely – you’ll see that VDOT has allowed a few at-grade access points… along the road interchanges only.

    … crossover medians are rare …..

    so here’s my curiosity……

    what law or regulation allows VDOT to not allow a curb-cut on a road?

    or more to the point.. what law allows VDOT to make such a determination – as opposed to being required by law to allow any curb cut that is requested?

    the answer to that question is a key issue with regard to the proposed bypass in Charlottesville…. in my mind…

    because.. as sure as night turns to day – the developers are already scoping out the development “opportunities” along the planned route.

  8. Larry:

    Whoever owns the budget needs to own the responsibility for land use decision which directly affect transportation. Notice I said directly. Curb cuts in a planned or newly built road directly affect transportation on that road. Outside of Arlington and Henrico Counties, all jurisdictions in Virginia have their roads maintained by VDOT. Therefore, they should be subject to VDOT strictures.

    Candidly, I would like to see the funding of transportation and the responsibility for transportation delegated to the localities in a fair and sensible way. However, until that’s done, VDOT should have the right to regulate curb cuts on the bypass.

  9. how about interstate highways? if we do away with the federal control of the federal gas tax and let the state and localities use that money directly – would those localities be able to change the interstate highway access management policies?

    Should Charlottesville be able to NOT provide reasonable ways for non-Charlottesville traveling public to go through Charlottesville or is that the traveling public’s problem?

    I still find it ironic and amusing that at the same time Lynchburg has been in a snit about Charlottesville. they have pretty much the same exact issue in their town – for those folks trying to just get through Lynchburg.

    so what should the policy be?

    Should the State and the Feds continue to levy a gas tax and “control” the budget and policy or should all of it devolve to the locality and things like the interstate system just degrade into locally-controlled infrastructure even more difficult to get through than now?

    HINT: this is a sneaky question about the purpose of state and federal government!

    where do you folks come down on the role of the State and Feds in local land-use decisions that have impacts on intra and interstate transportation?

  10. Land use and transportation. Right now, the Tysons landowners are in discussion with Fairfax County and VDOT over whether some of the new grid of streets can be private roads or must they be public roads. The landowners want to control some roads in order to be able to close them for events (marketing, community, etc.) and to build underground parking below the streets. VDOT wants to keep control so that they can be ensured the roads will be properly maintained and meet all standards. I’m not sure what Fairfax County wants. It is a very interesting debate.
    Land use and transportation need to be connected with the same entity responsible for local roads and land use decisions. I would think, however, that there still need to be some state standards so that regional traffic can still move or at least try to move.

  11. we have developers down our way who want to have private streets in their developments… but they are fine with having them built, operated and maintained to VDOT standards.

    there are some problems to that approach when it comes to things like the mail, school buses, and public safety vehicles. The police do not “patrol” private roads and property on private roads unless dispatched per call.

    I don’t think I am opposed to this… though perhaps there are some other downsides that once I realize them may change my mind.

    On our trip west…. we noted with much interest that several bridges over the Columbia River are private toll bridges.. and NOT maintained to modern standards… as they are not wide enough to allow a tractor trailer to pass by in the opposite lane… No EZ Pass either… pay real money…

    A private development “could” also set up tolling with transponders provided to people who live / work in the development and hefty tolls charged for those who do not (operated much like some paid parking is in that once you visit you can obtain a pass).

    I’m not sure how Metro facilities could be located such that access to them was only through private streets… but the idea that it might cost money to just get to the subway for non-residents/workers would likely be controversial.

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