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