Stoplights and driveways will be limited in the U.S. 29 bypass deal.
Some people credit Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton for getting the Western 29 bypass finally approved, but he shrugs off such accolades. "This isn't rocket science," he says.
When Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton told the Metropolitan Planning Organization July 27 which Charlottesville and Albemarle projects he'd recommend funding in addition to the Western U.S. 29 bypass, many may have overlooked his letter's last two paragraphs, in which he laid out what Albemarle is expected to do in return: come up with a plan to limit access on the rest of U.S. 29.
What that means exactly is less certain, but it could include measures that some bypass supporters objected to when bottleneck-avoiding solutions like the grade-separated interchanges were proposed during the so-called "Places 29" planning process.
Both Chamber of Commerce president Tim Hulbert and MPO director Steve Williams see no quid pro quo in Connaughton's letter and say that "access management," as it's called in transportation circles, is neither surprising nor unreasonable.
But Connaughton himself utters the "q" words and says that Albemarle will be a "test bed" for access management as a Corridor of Statewide Significance (of which U.S. 29 is one of 11 VDOT has identified).
"This is all new," Connaughton says in a phone interview. "We've never done this before. How do we put teeth into the designation?"
He lists some ways: limiting curb cuts and traffic lights, better light synchronization, and parallel/service roads.
As for the controversial grade-separated interchanges that raised howls? "I don't know where we'd put them," answers Connaughton, "but it's up for discussion."
"We need to make sure we understand what this means and the people who supported the bypass understand what it means," says Albemarle Supervisor Ann Mallek, who says she was so focused on making sure long-desired projects like an additional lane at the ramp near Best Buy, and the Hillsdale and Berkmar Drive extensions made the list that it took a while to realize there were conditions.
The conditions attached to the flood of money were first reported by Jim Bacon on his public policy website, Bacon's Rebellion.
"I interpreted it as a new condition because I'd never heard it mentioned before," says Bacon. "I talked to Connaughton, and he took me to task for not mentioning it. He said, 'We see this as a test bed.' He used the words 'quid pro quo,'" says Bacon, who quotes Connaughton as saying, "'Charlottesville Albemarle, you want this money for these roads, you've got to clean up your corridor.'"
The exact details of what corridor cleaning means has Mallek uneasy, and she calls framing it as a quid pro quo "threatening." She notes that the idea of limiting access to Route 29 has long provoked "absolute outrage" from the counties north of Charlottesville.
Mallek objects to Connaughton's intervention in bypass approval, something that's supposed to rise from the local level, not come "top down" from the state, and she worries that could jeopardize federal highway dollars.
"As far as I'm concerned," responds Connaughton, "the Albemarle Board of Supervisors voted for it, and the MPO did, so that is local support."
MPO Chair Rodney Thomas downplays any talk of deal-making. "I look forward to cooperating," says Thomas, noting that he has some concern about restricting driveways on future developments. "I don't want to see people who own property have their rights taken away."
The six-years-in-the-making Places 29 was an access management plan that identified 55 driveways to be closed and two grade-separated interchanges, according to Piedmont Environmental Council executive Jeff Werner.
"The business community said that would kill our business," says Werner, adding that the access management plan "did not show up before Connaughton's letter."
The Chamber of Commerce's Hulbert also was involved in the "tortuous" Places 29 process and says the Western Bypass should have been part of the plan all along. As for reducing bottlenecks on the rest of 29, says Hulbert, "VDOT can always say no access. The county doesn't have final say on that."
Connaughton points to benefits to keeping traffic moving on U.S. 29 around Charlottesville.
"One of the reasons your region has not been successful in obtaining funding is the 29 Bypass– it's been the cork in the bottle," says the Secretary. After the state put an initial $50 million into the Bypass only to see the project languish, the state grew hesitant to funnel more funds into such a road-averse region, Connaughton explains.
Projects like the extensions to Berkmar and Hillsdale should help take traffic off U.S. 29. Another reason to get serious about limiting the encroachments that currently bottleneck 29 according to Connaughton: "We want to make sure we aren't back here again."