COVER- DOA? Who killed the Ruckersville Parkway?

The Ruckersville Parkway appeased neither the western bypass supporters nor its opponents.

Just before Halloween, the specter of the long-dead U.S. 29 western bypass arose from the grave when Attorney General Bob McDonnell issued an opinion that if Central Virginians do not build the bypass, they could be forced to repay $45.5 million in state and federal funds.

That raises the question: why did the short-lived Ruckersville Parkway flat-line, when it seemed to address many of the complaints about the 29 bypass and was cheaper, more environmentally sensitive, and used bypass rights-of-way already purchased?

The parkway had the backing of elder statesman Mitch Van Yahres, a former delegate and staunch opponent of the western bypass. For Van Yahres, now two years later, the Ruckersville Parkway is but a dim memory when the issue of the 29 bypass rears its head again. "I hadn't even thought of it," he says.

Van Yahres understands why his alternative failed: "Not enough backing for it,"  he says. "It was a good idea, but it doesn't fit Places 29."

Indeed, Places 29, a joint project of local governments and planning authorities that describes the long-term vision for the growth and development of the 10.75-mile stretch of road between the 250 bypass and the Greene County line, was the stumbling block for the Ruckersville Parkway. The Albemarle Board of Supervisors rang its death knell on April 5, 2006, when they voted to remove it from Places 29 consideration.

But wasn't this a road that would be triple the length of the western bypass– long faulted for its brevity– and at a much lower cost?

"Certainly there wasn't any political will in Albemarle or in Greene County," says Bern Ewert, who was running for Congress in 2006, shortly after he hatched the Ruckersville Parkway idea. Even its name rankled the folks up in Greene.

The short life of a parkway

The story began one day in December 2004 when Ewert was driving up Earlysville Road, the "back way" to the airport. "I was wondering," he says, "if you could use existing roads."

He took State Road 606– Dickerson Road– in front of the airport toward Chris Greene Lake. It turns to gravel. A bridge goes across the river.

"It's beautiful," Ewert told the Hook two years ago. "It's a natural habitat. One way or another, you can make your way all the way to Ruckersville on this route."

A light bulb went off over Ewert's head.

What about a kinder, gentler alternative to 29, one that's slower and uses existing bridges and roads, one that meanders along natural contours with a bike path rather than one that slices through whatever mountain or neighborhood happens to lie in its path to permit speeds of 60mph, as the western bypass would do?

He pitched the concept to Van Yahres (who was Charlottesville's mayor when Ewert was deputy city manager in the '70s) and architect Gary Okerlund. 

"We batted it around, fought among ourselves, and decided we needed to have some planning money," Van Yahres recalls. 

Ewert's plan for the neighborhood model of roadways started out as a 35- to 45-mph two-lane road designed to ultimately reach four lanes with a bike path.

"It slowed down traffic," he says. That made the project more environmentally sound because it required 90 percent less grading, unlike the 29 bypass, which would have blasted through Stillhouse Mountain with an interstate-size cut. And, notes Ewert, the Ruckersville Parkway could be built incrementally.

Ironically, slow traffic is one factor Harrison Rue of the MPO now points to as a Ruckersville Parkway shortcoming. "We finished a technical analysis," he says. "It takes only 18 minutes to go from Hollymead to 250 under current conditions." He sees the Ruckersville Parkway as a "longer route at a lower speed."

 Cost was another factor parkway proponents thought would work in their favor, particularly in the face of the $270 million-plus bypass, a road that earned the dubious distinction of inclusion on the Taxpayers for Common Sense "Road to Ruin" list of overpriced roads that don't accomplish much.

"In terms of cost, it dramatically– I underline this word– dramatically reduces cost," emphasized Ewert at the time.

Controlled access was another parkway feature– it used reverse frontage roads to get to State Road 743 (Earlysville Road). "That's the most difficult part of the whole process," Ewert conceded. "It's a curvy road, and it's a highly traveled road used by a lot of people."

And in fact, resistance in Earlysville contributed to the parkway's downfall. "All the supervisors were concerned about the citizen opposition," notes Rue. 

"They live in the urban area," says Ewert. "There has to be some pain. They say traffic is getting worse, but instead of trying to solve it, the county looked at emotion." (He points out that his own house is located 50 yards from the 250 bypass.)

Trucks would have been banned from the parkway, another factor that didn't endear the plan to Lynchburg and Danville, cities that have long clamored for a speedy route around Charlottesville.

Blind-sided in Greene

"It's a comprehensive plan," said Ewert of the parkway, "in the sense it recognizes Ruckersville is part of our community. A lot of its development is moving south, and in my opinion, it's going to meet Albemarle."

One flaw Ruckersville Parkway advocates saw in the Places 29 planning was that it stops at the Greene County line. While Albemarle County has expanded its so-called "growth area" ever northward, the Ruckersville Parkway actually tries to bypass this built-up area and roll through Greene County. However, that aspect quickly became a liability.

Greene Board of Supervisors Chair Steve Catalano learned about the parkway from a constituent at a meeting.

"It kind of blind-sided the entire board," he told the Hook two years ago. "It was kind of shocking. Not only are they trying to plan our future here in Greene– it's none of [their] business– [they] call it the Ruckersville Parkway." Ouch!

 Greene has taken a lot of steps to avoid making the same mistakes as Albemarle, said Catalano. "We know a lot of residents go to Albemarle to work. We want them to stay here."

He believes swinging a parkway north around Ruckersville would be detrimental; building the western bypass is the way to go, he says.

Clearly, the most serious faux pas by the parkway planners was to appropriate "Ruckersville" as the road's moniker, which Catalano mentioned several times.

"I contend if you're going to study this, and you name it the Ruckersville Parkway, it's common courtesy to have brought us in initially. This is not the best way to start a regional discussion," he said.

"That's a red herring," says Ewert today. "We called, and we didn't get called back. He didn't want to talk."

Ewert called the parkway a "very practical plan," and an opportunity to develop a compromise between the conservation/environmental community, which opposes the 29 bypass, and the business community, which supports it. But neither side endorsed his idea.

The priority for the Chamber of Commerce is the Meadowcreek Parkway connecting downtown with 29 north. Also in the Chamber's top three road projects are the western bypass and the Hillsdale Connector, which extends Hillsdale Avenue down to Hydraulic, another attempt to direct traffic away from 29. The Chamber's spokesman at the time told the Hook that to talk about other roads like the Ruckersville Parkway was to distract from those priorities.

On the environmental side, too, the parkway was seen as a distraction. "We didn't want to see money siphoned off," says Trip Pollard at the Southern Environmental Law Center, which sued to stop the 29 bypass. 

He listed three concerns with the Ruckersville Parkway: Will it open new areas of sprawl into Greene County? How will it affect growth? And will it take money from other projects, such as the Hillsdale Connector or the 29/250 interchange at Hydraulic?

"This could crowd out projects we think are going to help traffic on 29," says Pollard.

Jeff Werner at Piedmont Environmental Council, which opposes the bypass, also was skeptical when the parkway was still being discussed two years ago. 

"Anything that solves 29's problems should be in the growth area," he declared. "Anything in the rural area, we're flat-out opposed to."

Werner wondered how Earlysville Road could even be made limited access. And he noted one problem with the no-truck policy: "The state doesn't give you money to build roads that don't allow trucks."

One endorsement of the Ruckersville Parkway made Werner drop his jaw. "We were floored when we saw Mitch Van Yahres signing off on this," he said.

Van Yahres is a stalwart opponent of the 29 bypass. "I've been opposed because of the way it goes through neighborhoods, its cost, and it's obsolete," he says. 

He supported the parkway proposal, he says, because the environmental impact is lessened by 90 percent. "With low speeds, you can have curves and hills," he says. "This has much less impact since it's not a highway."

Van Yahres likes the fact that the parkway goes into Greene and that it uses rights-of-way already acquired for the bypass. 

"And the university gets a benefit because it puts the overpass at the North Grounds Connector," he says. "This would give them a grade-separated intersection."

There's also a personal parkway perk: "It's an opportunity for roundabouts," says Van Yahres, who's such a fan of the quaint traffic gimmicks that he'd like to see one at almost every intersection. "You know I'd have roundabouts," he says.

The Board of Supervisors favor other plans to take traffic off 29 north: Berkmar Drive Extended from Sam's Club to across the North Fork Rivanna, and the Hillsdale Connector on the east side of 29. Ewert calls Berkmar Drive Extended a "band aid."

And he isn't surprised to see supporters still pushing for the 29 western bypass. "As much as we think we're on an island here in Albemarle, what we do affects the rest of Virginia," he says.  

The bypass that never dies

Van Yahres calls the Attorney General's opinion that Albemarle will be in hock for $45 million if the western bypass isn't built "the same old story we've heard before, that federal funds will have to be paid back." 

State Senator Steve Newman from Lynchburg requested the AG opinion, because he's the one who introduced a bill a few years back that said if the western bypass is not built, the state can ask for repayment of the money already spent and withhold primary transportation funds to the Culpeper transportation district, to which Charlottesville belongs.

"And that will be a high price for the Culpeper district to pay," says Newman.

The western bypass is still in the plans, although as a formality, and "only for the purpose of finalizing right-of-way acquisition for properties that are currently under litigation," according to the UnJAM 2025 plan for the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission Metropolitan Planning Organization, or MPO in transportation parlance. 

The plan directs that rights-of-way should be used for other projects like Berkmar Drive Extended– or sold to fund other projects.

"In my opinion, it's a very clear violation of the law," says Newman, who's clearly frustrated that Charlottesville won't get with the bypass option long ago agreed to by Danville, Lynchburg, and Culpeper, which all have built their bypasses.

"Charlottesville spent $45 million running people out of their houses and getting rights-of-way," says Newman. "That's an improper use of public funds."

How was the $45.5 million spent? VDOT purchased 35 residences, one commercial building, 237 acres in rights-of-way and 28 acres in easements, for a total of $32.1 million– which came to about 80 percent of the necessary rights-of-way, says VDOT spokesman Lou Hatter. Another $13.4 million went for preliminary engineering and design. The federal contribution to western bypass funds came to $37.8 million

And if the road is never built, "The way the state law reads, if the property is sold, it has to be offered to the original owner at the original sales price," explains Hatter. Another law says if construction isn't started in 20 years, the original owner can ask for the property back at the original price. For the western bypass, that would begin in 2012, according to Hatter.

Newman is weighing his next step, which could include requesting another AG opinion. If Albemarle is in violation of the Code of Virginia, what's the proper venue for addressing that violation?

"That's something I really don't want to do," says Newman. He wonders why a state senator for Lynchburg has to "carry the water" for the western bypass, which he says a Mason-Dixon poll shows that people here want. "It seems the politicians are working against the people of Charlottesville," he says, calling their unwillingness to build the long-ago agreed-to bypass "unfathomable."

Is there even a precedent for taking back money for a road that's never built? 

It's called the "death penalty" in VDOT lingo, says Newman, who believes it once happened in North Carolina. "The governor said to cut off all money to them," he says, but he did not offer any specifics.

"No one has ever done that here to my knowledge," Newman continues, claiming that would-be governor Jerry Kilgore was "ready" to that had he been elected in 2006.

 Governor Tim Kaine's spokesman Gordon Hickey calls it "pure speculation" at this point to answer such a question. "We'll just wait and see what Charlottesville does," he says.

"It's a continuing course of behavior," says the SELC's Pollard about both the statute and the Attorney General's opinion. "The state has held a gun to the head of this community saying 'You must build this road,' when it's supposed to be a cooperative effort."

Most traffic on U.S. 29 is local, says Pollard. "A bypass just won't help. We certainly support improvement to the 29 corridor, and the 29 bypass is a dinosaur that won't help provide any meaningful congestion relief."

SELC favors grade-separated interchanges and a network of secondary streets– although the former raise howls of protest from business owners on U.S. 29 who say interchanges will make it harder for customers to find them.

Places 29 has five priorities that "make the most sense," says Rue. First is adding a second lane south of Hydraulic to the 250 bypass onramp. "Everyone knows that's one of the biggest back-ups," he says.

Second is adding an extra lane and shoulders to U.S. 29 in each direction between the Rivanna River and Proffit Road south of Forest Lakes, another major back-up spot if someone breaks down because there's no place to pull off. Those lanes are already funded for this fiscal year, Rue says.

Hillsdale Drive Extended to connect Rio and Hydraulic roads [see sidebar] is number three, followed by a feasibility study for a Berkmar Drive Extended bridge and additional pull-off lanes on 29.

These plans are unlikely to satisfy our neighbors to the south who want to whiz by Charlottesville. "A road is not a bad thing," says Lynchburg's Newman. "There's nothing environmentally responsible about having stop and go traffic in the middle of Charlottesville. A bypass allows [traffic] to go efficiently at 55 mph, and it's better for the environment."

And two years after proposing the Ruckersville Parkway, Bern Ewert muses, "Every time I drive to Washington, I wonder what it's going to be like in 10 years."

State Senator Steve Newman believes politicians here are ignoring the will of the people by not building the western bypass. He sponsored a law requiring the $45 million spent so far to be repaid if Albemarle doesn't build a bypass.

Bern Ewert still believes the Ruckersville Parkway would have worked.

Take your Parkway and stick it: Greene County Board of Supervisors Chairman Steve Catalano was appalled that Greene wasn't consulted about a road dubbed the "Ruckersville" Parkway.