U.S. 29… The Saga Continues

VDOT rendering of proposed Rio Road interchange

VDOT rendering of proposed Rio Road interchange

The battle over the Charlottesville Bypass may be over, but the battle over what to do instead is heating up. After pulling the plug on the super-controversial, $240 million bypass early last year, the McAuliffe administration dusted off a plan to upgrade the U.S. 29 commercial corridor north of Charlottesville by investing in a series of spot improvements, parallel roads and grade-separated interchanges. Now the community is up in arms over the proposal to put an $81 million grade-separated interchange at the intersection with Rio Road.

Last week, “hundreds” of citizens attended an open house meeting to voice their opposition to the interchange, which would eliminate a major bottleneck along the clogged commercial corridor, which also serves as a U.S. highway. (See WVIR’s coverage from last week.)

The most steadfast opposition comes from businesses located near the proposed interchange, whose access to major thoroughfares would be diminished by the new configuration of the Rio Road/U.S. 29 intersection. The businesses have been joined by citizens who worry that construction will cause detours and other inconveniences.

Clearly, there are no perfect, painless solutions. The concerns of those who will be negatively impacted by the project are legitimate. The question is whether those concerns should outweigh the general good stemming from the proposed package of improvements. U.S. 29 is, after all, a U.S. highway, whose primary function is to provide connectivity between cities, not to serve as a local main street.

From what I can glean from local media accounts, pieces of the $200 million corridor improvement package are uncontroversial — a $54 million extension of Berkmar Drive parallel to U.S. 29 and a $51 million widening of U.S. 29 between Hollymeade Town center and Polo Grounds Road. Both projects offer tangible benefits and should go forward.

Here’s the question: Could the $81 million allotted to the Rio Road interchange be invested usefully in other improvements? If so, would the economic return on investment — as measured by congestion mitigated and traffic accidents reduced — come close to the benefits of the Rio Road interchange? If so, perhaps the Virginia Department of Transportation should consider reallocating the funds to other projects. However, if the Rio Road project offers a demonstrably superior return on investment, then VDOT officials should not be dissuaded by the public opposition.

I don’t know the numbers, so I can’t make a judgment. But I do have faith in Philip Shucet, the former VDOT commissioner drafted by the McAuliffe administration to devise a reasonable solution to an intractable problem. If opponents want to make the case that the interchange shouldn’t be built, they should demonstrate how $81 million could be invested to greater effect elsewhere.

Update: Shucet responded to my suggestion that the Rio Road interchange could be hived off from the other improvements: “To make the Berkmar – Hillsdale parallel road network work, you have to grade-separate Rio.  It would be irresponsible to construct Berkmar and Hillsdale and somehow believe that it’s ok to wait and see how Rio fairs in the future. ”

The latest traffic numbers say 107,500 cars, a mix of local traffic and vehicles traveling through the region, will be traveling through the intersection by 2040. The grade-separated interchange (GSI) will allow the through traffic to pass through without conflicting with local traffic.

As for local business’ loss of roadway access, Shucet says, Albemarle Square will lose only one of four points of access, and Fashion Square only one of six. Furthermore, the construction plan limits disruption to 103 days.

— JAB

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3 responses to “U.S. 29… The Saga Continues

  1. I’d certainly be interested in hearing from some folks who actually live in Cville but I do believe that the businesses basically co-opted a major US highway as a business venue – AND were perfectly willing to let taxpayers pay for bypass as long as it preserved their interests so not so much sympathy.

    The fundamental purpose of the road is to move traffic and that includes traffic from outside of Cville trying to get through Cville.

    Are the businesses entitled to preserve their venues because they did get approved ?

    and Jim talks about ROI. What is the ROI of the original Rt 29 when it becomes so degraded from commercial businesses that it no longer can function for it’s original purpose? How do you figure that ROI?

    I see this as a damned if you do and damned if you don’t for VDOT because using tax dollars to buy up existing tax-generating properties for a bypass is money twice lost, taxes to buy the properties and taxes lost from taking those properties off the tax rolls. How do you figure the ROI for that?

    I’m not sure there is any protocol for determining ROI to start with unless Jim knows one… and I would hope he would if he believes there should be an ROI performed.

    In that case – you have three ROIs – the do-nothing base case, the bypass and the upgrade in place… and at this point we don’t even have a protocol for ROI for anything – as far as I know.

    The businesses ? were they really entitled in the first place to consume valuable throughput on 29 to feed their own profits ? How is that ROI determined?

  2. It is my understanding that many of the proponents of the by-pass are supporters of the “Smart 29” group that is opposing the Rio Road interchange.

    Personally, I think this is still a band-aid for a much larger problem. Go take a trip on 29 going north from Charlottesville. Greene County is just as “stroady” as Albemarle is when it comes to 29. And there are plenty of stoplights/developments in other locales as well when you head north. Neither the current efforts nor the proposed by-pass were going to deal with Greene and other localities heading north.

    But it’s also worth noting that 29 was developed in Albemarle/Charlottesville long before “stroading” was a term. Barrack’s Road Shopping Center opened in 1957! And that started the “stroading” of 29 in the area.

  3. Another Cville resident…

    Over 30 years and half dozen studies by VDOT/consultants, research indicates Rio Road intersection has ALWAYS been the key to easing congestion north of Charlottesville. The same people — Ken Boyd, for example — who sprung the infamous against-rules, off-agenda, midnight vote to revive the so-called “bypass” are now-and-again trying to “protect” the bottom lines of a handful of businesses. One of those is a car dealer who got himself placed on the Commonwealth Transportation Board 20 years ago to stop what’s called the ‘3-party’ agreement which began solving congestion by building that Rio overpass. His only CTB accomplishment? Getting the 3-party agreement suspended which was based on the best research and cleared politically because the three parties were Albemarle County (where the overpass would be), Charlottesville (where most of the traffic was headed or originated) and UVA (the largest employer with the most commuters using 29N). About a decade later, the county started a five-year planning process for the 29N corridor and ended up with a unanimous supervisors’ vote saying that the “Places29” projects — which include the Rio overpass — were the best way to address congestion. That’s when the anti-Rio overpass businessmen in, especially the North Charlottesville Business Alliance, began their stealth campaign to resurrect the so-called bypass — which VDOT had already declared all-but useless for dealing with 29 north issues in a series of studies. Bingo: the illegal vote with political blackmail resurrects the bypass. These are the same people fighting the best solution today, although voters overwhelming threw out their candidates in the last election. These businessfolks care more for their bottom lines (but provide no data that construction of the overpass will truly hurt them over the long-term) than they do for their communities and for state taxpayers. Everyone should remember that every study shows that the Rio overpass at $81 million will speed traffic MORE by saving all drivers time than the entire $300+ million so-called “bypass” (which didn’t bypass Cville area’s largest neighborhoods anyway).

    Everyone should remember that these same businesstypes fought an earlier widening of 29N with the same arguments, yet none went out of business and ALL are worth immensely more money today. Kroger, to its credit, after arguing against that widening (as it was losing direct access to 29N) came out and happily reported that both sales and income were up significantly AFTER the widening took place.

    The Shucet commission provided everyone with tons of data, sought out and included the input of the NCharlottesville business community, put everything it did online and out in the open, and came to the basic conclusions of every prior study. Build the Rio grade separated interchange and you do more to benefit Cville area than any other project, or group of projects.

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