The Charlottesville-Albemarle Metropolitan Planning Organization has begun the process of updating a federally mandated document that lists transportation improvements desired by the community over the next few decades.
“We’re getting closer and closer to scheduling and to kick this process off shortly,” said Chip Boyles, executive director of the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission.
The MPO last adopted a long-range transportation plan in May 2014.
“Every five years, we update the plan and it kind of functions like a Comprehensive Plan for transportation” said Will Cockrell, a planner with the TJPDC.
Cockrell said projects must be in the long-range plan to be considered for federal funds. The final plan does not have to be adopted until May 2019.
“We’re giving ourselves two and a half years to do this process,” Cockrell said.
Cockrell said the scope of work for the update will go before both the Albemarle and Charlottesville planning commissions much earlier in the process than in years past.
“Land use and transportation are two sides of the same coin and you can’t separate them,” Cockrell said. “We want to make sure we have even more emphasis on this this time around.”
Boyles said the Federal Highway Administration will require that more performance measurements be used to determine which projects make their way into the plan.
“They also want to talk about travel in terms of people rather than in terms of cars,” Boyles said. “We don’t have all the details on that yet, but that will be part of the upcoming review.”
The long-range plan is overseen in part by the Citizens Transportation Advisory Committee, a sub-committee of the MPO. Cockrell said there are several vacancies on the body.
Since adoption of the last long-range plan, the Virginia Department of Transportation has begun using a prioritization system known as Smart Scale to rank projects according to factors such as how they address congestion, improve mobility and encourage economic development.
“If [Smart Scale] is going to be a big funding mechanism for our projects, we thought this time around with how we score, prioritize and select them, it would be better to be consistent with it,” Cockrell said.
Scores for the second round of Smart Scale were unveiled to the Commonwealth Transportation Board earlier this month. Five projects in Albemarle and one in Charlottesville qualified for funding through the process this cycle.
One of the projects that did not make the cut was a request for $18.3 million to help pay for a $30 million streetscape for West Main Street in Charlottesville. The project was ranked 10 out of 35 applications made by localities in VDOT’s Culpeper District.
City Councilor Kathy Galvin said she was concerned the West Main Street application was penalized because it did not do enough to relieve congestion.
“An urban corridor like West Main Street is getting dinged for not moving cars fast enough around the corner,” she said.
The West Main project had a “throughput” score of 0.44, which compared with 55.51 for a project to rebuild the intersection of Interstate 64 and U.S. 250 at exit 124.
Galvin said projects designed to make urban areas safer for cyclists and pedestrians are penalized by the Smart Scale mechanism.
“I don’t know how any of that gets factored when the current funding mechanism is only looking at congestion of automobiles,” she said.
John Lynch, the administrator of VDOT’s Culpeper District, disagreed with Galvin’s interpretation.
“If you reduce through mass transit the number of cars on the corridor and that reduces congestion, that’s what it’s measuring,” Lynch said.
The West Main project had the highest “land use” score of any of the 404 projects that were ranked, but that is just one of 14 factors that go into the overall Smart Scale score.
There are two types of funding under Smart Scale. A pool of money is made available to each district and there is a second category for “statewide high priority” projects. The latter goes to projects on major highways and corridors.
There was only around $20 million in district funds available to the region. The total request for the West Main project was $18.3 million and that project was not eligible for the statewide pool of money.
Galvin said she was told the project scored poorly because it will eliminate a right-hand turn lane at the intersection of West Main and Ridge-McIntire Road.
“From a pedestrian standpoint, that is much more dangerous,” Galvin said, adding that the West Main project should have scored higher because of the street’s proximity to the Amtrak station.
In the first round of Smart Scale, Charlottesville received more than $29 million for new streetscapes for High Street, Emmet Street and Fontaine Avenue.
The Commonwealth Transportation Board will adopt a new six-year improvement program at its meeting in June.
“While there is the potential for some movement, I would guess that there will only be a small chance of changes to this,” Boyles said.