Construction is underway for $215 million worth of road improvements along the U.S. 29 corridor, but some in the community are wondering when work will begin on other projects planned to address congestion and improve mobility throughout Charlottesville and Albemarle County.
“Now that the Rio Road grade-separated intersection with U.S. 29 is almost done, when will Hydraulic start,” Albemarle County Supervisor Brad Sheffield asked after a recent meeting of an advisory panel that oversees the Route 29 Solutions projects.
Plans for a grade-separated intersection at Hydraulic Road have long been a part of the region’s transportation conversation. They moved one step closer to reality soon after the Western Bypass faded as a viable project.
The Route 29 Solutions projects were selected after a Federal Highway Administration official stated in February 2014 that the agency would not approve the 6.2-mile bypass without further information.
Gov. Terry McAuliffe then convened a panel to determine other ways the millions of dollars for bypass funding could be spent to address congestion and increase mobility in the area.
Replacements for the bypass include the $69 million grade-separated intersection at Rio, a $54.5 million northern extension of Berkmar Drive and the $61.3 million widening of U.S. 29 north of the South Fork of the Rivanna River.
The joint venture of Lane Corman Construction is under contract to design and build all three of those projects and recently opened the Rio Road intersection 46 days ahead of schedule.
VDOT also fully funded the $29.7 million extension of Hillsdale Drive in Charlottesville that is now getting under construction as well as the recently completed “Best Buy ramp.” The Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation is working with Amtrak and railroads on adding a second daily train.
“Rio was something that was more easily defined and something that could be implemented quickly, where Hydraulic required a little additional study,” said Philip Shucet, a former VDOT commissioner who has overseen implementation of the work.
To conduct that study, the Commonwealth Transportation Board also allocated $10 million for preliminary engineering for a potential grade-separated intersection and another $10 million to study a southern extension of Hillsdale Drive.
However, the money for both projects is not scheduled to be available until July 1, 2018.
Three quadrants of the intersection of U.S. 29 and Hydraulic Road are within Charlottesville city limits. The fourth is within Albemarle County and contains the first phase of the Shops at Stonefield.
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In 1990, the city, county and the University of Virginia signed off on a three-party agreement that called for a sequence of transportation improvement to occur before the Western Bypass.
For example, grade-separated intersections on U.S. 29 were to be built after the construction of the John W. Warner Parkway.
Now, parts of the three-party agreement are in place and under construction. Many projects called for in Albemarle County’s Places29 Master Plan are also in the works.
“We’ve got Berkmar Extended underway, we’ve got the widening underway and the 250 Best Buy ramp is complete,” said Morgan Butler, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. “The Hillsdale Drive extension is finally getting off the runway. It’s great to see all this progress.”
Attention is now turning to planning the next set of improvements, though a grade-separated intersection at Hydraulic Road has faced obstacles in the past.
The Charlottesville City Council voted in January 1995 against proceeding with its construction. Then-community development director Satyendra Huja recommended against the project in part because it would hurt local businesses at the expense of through traffic. Councilors agreed.
One area pundit is concerned Charlottesville will continue to oppose a grade-separated intersection.
“The challenge really is that three-fourths of the intersection is owned by Charlottesville, and Charlottesville is clearly dragging its feet on any transportation improvement to this intersection,” said Neil Williamson, of the Free Enterprise Forum.
Williamson points to an informal decision made in late July by the Charlottesville Planning Commission to not rank the Hydraulic area first on a list of areas to study. The city has set aside $50,000 for a small-area plan to be conducted this fiscal year and the commission is studying several locations.
However, City Councilor Kathy Galvin said studying possible improvements for the Hydraulic Road intersection is a priority for her because of the $20 million in funding designated for the preliminary engineering, as well as Hillsdale South.
“It will become a priority for council once they understand the cost of not doing it,” Galvin said.
Galvin said conducting a small-area plan for the Hydraulic and Hillsdale while also evaluating transportation improvements could help the city inform creation of an urban place in the vicinity around the intersection.
“This is another opportunity to create a live, work and play situation close to good public transit,” Galvin said. “The fact that this is primarily within the city limits means it will benefit the city from a fiscal standpoint.”
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But will the eventual improvement be a grade-separated intersection like at Rio Road?
The Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission conducted a major study of the U.S. 29 and U.S. 250 intersection in the early 2000s. Some concepts included in the study included Hillsdale and the Best Buy ramp.
That study recommended an eventual grade-separated interchange at Hydraulic.
“A grade separation of the intersection is necessary to meet the long-term traffic projections,” reads the September 2004 study. “A single-point urban interchange configuration with U.S. 29 under Hydraulic is recommended.”
Such an intersection, known by the acronym SPUI, was designed as part of the zoning application for Albemarle Place, a mixed-use development that would become known as Stonefield. This design has a smaller impact than the one that went before council in 1995, and right-of-way has been re-served in the county.
“We actually have a transportation plan that has a design for a grade-separated intersection, and that’s what the land reservation on the Stonefield improvement is about,” said Mark Graham, Albemarle County’s director of community development.
“We actually have a transportation plan that has a design for a grade-separated intersection, and that’s what the land reservation on the Stonefield improvement is about." -Mark Graham, Albemarle County’s director of community development.
However, the stated purpose for the preliminary engineering for the Hydraulic Road intersection does not use the words “grade-separated.”
“Improvement of this intersection will address geometric and operational deficiencies in the existing intersection,” reads a description of the planned project on the Route 29 Solutions website. “[It] will also improve the ability of the intersection and the nearby network to handle the increased volume of traffic and the variety of transportation modes, including pedestrians, bicyclists and mass transit that use the intersection.”
Butler said Hydraulic is the most congested intersection in the area and he wants the preliminary engineering to move forward as soon as possible. However, he said the most recent SPUI design is not necessarily what will go forward.
“There’s been so many changes since that time and I don’t envision VDOT would come in and put that on the table,” Butler said. “This will be a community process where there will be different solutions and alternatives assessed and the impacts and benefits and drawbacks of each will be compared.”
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Funding for construction and possible right-of-way purchase will need to qualify under a new VDOT funding process known as Smart Scale.
“We are in the era of Smart Scale, and for a project to move forward it would have to go through that ranking process and a series of people would make a decision,” Shucet said.
Shucet said many questions need to be answered through the preliminary engineering process.
“If the right people were to decide that it should move forward, is that a grade-separated intersection? Is it some other configuration?” he asked. “Quite frankly, it’s those questions that lead to it being programmed for preliminary engineering only.”
Supervisor Sheffield said he hopes more will become known about the timeline for when planning work could begin.
“I think we better get our ducks in a row fairly quickly about when that is going to start, mainly so we can communicate that to the state so that money doesn’t disappear,” Sheffield said. “If we put enough pressure on the timeline, I think the state will get moving on whoever is going to do the engineering.”
Williamson is concerned that improvements for through-traffic on U.S. 29 will not work unless Hydraulic is also converted to a grade-separated intersection.
“I am concerned that if you do the work you’ve done at Rio and with North 29 and you don’t do the work at Hydraulic, you have put a four-inch pipe on a two-inch line,” Williamson said. “You’ve eliminated three stop lights and you’ve ruined the transportation throughput for the transportation net-work.”
A representative from the Lynchburg Regional Business Alliance wants to ensure that whatever happens at Hydraulic does not impede through-traffic.
“It is my hope that the U.S. 29 corridor will be a safe and easy route for north and south traffic,” said Christine Kennedy, chief operating officer at the alliance, adding that future development must be discouraged along the roadway throughout the state.
“Zoning, planning and development must include service roads, grade-separated interchanges, as well as limiting the stoplights on a national highway,” Kennedy said.
The MPO Policy Board is expected to further discuss the future of the Hydraulic Road intersection at its meeting in September.
Want to see more stories
How did this series happen?
This story is part of our new initiative to get our readers directly involved in our reporting.
We call it #CvilleCurious.
First we asked you what innovation story you wanted us to investigate.
Then you voted on your top choice.
The question submitted by an anonymous reader received the most votes!
He/She asked: Now that Rio-US29 Interchange is almost complete, will we build one at Hydraulic-US29?
Our reporter Sean Tubbs spoke to this reader and that started him down the path of telling this story.