COVER- Big steps: Will Martha Jefferson's leap bring a footbridge?
Martha Jefferson Hospital is planning to complete its move to a new site on Pantops Mountain in 2012, and bicyclist Randy Salzman is very, very worried.
Armed with a county road survey, the freelance transportation planner believes traffic on nearby Free Bridge, which already carries over 50,000 vehicles a day, is about to become gridlock central. While hospital officials downplay that possibility, Salzman, decked out this day in a bright yellow biking shirt, has a vision for a yellow brick road of sorts– a road that that would move people, not cars, over the Rivanna River.
Sweat beads dripping from his forehead, former college professor Salzman pauses in Charlottesville's Riverview Park to outline his vision of a bridge that would transform an existing recreational network into a route for city residents living near the river to get not just to the new Martha Jeff, but also to Pantops shops and offices. For the past two years, Salzman has been pushing for a bicycle and pedestrian bridge connecting city and county trails to provide a use beyond recreation.
It all starts with the Rivanna Trail, a network of narrow paths built by the city and the private Rivanna Trails Foundation.
"They're beautiful walkways," says Salzman, "but they're not being used for transportation."
A bridge for bikes and pedestrians might change all that.
The other bridges
Since around 2003, the idea of crossing the Rivanna with a bike/pedestrian bridge has caught the fancy of planners and engineers. But the site that's garnered the most attention– until now, at least– is a link between Pen and Darden-Towe Parks. Besides the happy symbolism of uniting city and county, such a bridge might allow many park users to abandon the incongruous practice of climbing into a vehicle to reach a park.
While engineering plans for the park-to-park bridge– a planned 600-footer–- have been made by the American Society of Civil Engineers and civil engineering students at UVA, according to retired UVA civil engineering professor David Morris, the $3.5 million project has hit a funding roadblock.
"Between the economy and other more pressing projects, this has been on the back-burner," Morris says.
But city trails planner Chris Gensic says the park-to-park bridge– which could potentially link the parks with the Meadowcreek Parkway trail and connect Route 29 north with Pantops in the future– is now a top priority, although the uncertainty of highway plans complicates its future.
"The wild card is the proposed Eastern Connector," says Gensic. "Do I move forward on a pedestrian bridge if they're going to build a bigger [car] bridge?"
Another priority, he says, is a McIntire Park bicycle/pedestrian bridge that would cross the railroad tracks in the park. "Essentially it's two different parks right now," says Gensic, noting that the McIntire plan was denied federal transportation enhancement money last year.
Not backed with greenbacks
Like the park-to-park bridge, a Pantops-area footbridge could easily cost upwards of $3.5 million, Gensic says, and might even cost more because it requires additional engineering because of its location in the flood plain and the cliffs and creeks surrounding the river.
But Salzman's not finished with big dreams. He thinks it should be constructed to carry transit vehicles like an electric trolley.
"If you're going to build it," he says, "why not build it with as many options as possible?"
Even with the hefty price tags and extra options, Stephen Bach, board member for a group called the Alliance for Community Choice in Transportation (ACCT), says constructing a bicycle and pedestrian bridge could be a wise economic decision.
"Building a bridge like that is going to be less expensive than building another highway or expanding Free Bridge," Bach says. Indeed, for comparison, just the bridge/interchange for the southern end of the planned Meadowcreek Parkway has been estimated at over $30 million, exclusive of land cost.
Funding for alternative transportation might come in part through CHART, the citizen's advisory committee to the area metropolitan planning organization, of which Bach is a member. The organization makes a list of potential projects to receive federal funding every five years and sends it to the advisory board of the Metropolitan Planning Organization, the area's sifter of transportation projects. CHART will finalize its recommendations in the fall of 2009, and although Bach says the first draft has not been written, a Pantops bridge will be considered as the committee looks at the future of transportation.
"What's it going to be like in five years?" asks Bach, noting the high price of gas. "It would make complete sense to look ahead and say we're not going to build for motor vehicles."
But even with verbal support from various community members and officials, the Pantops bridge lacks a different kind of backing.
"It's not a lack of ideas, it's not a lack of support, it's a lack of funding," says Harrison Rue, who recently stepped down as executive director of the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission. "We're not gridlocked," he says, "we're fundlocked."
Part of the funding problem is that local governments currently don't have a good way to raise transportation money. "It's up to the General Assembly to develop a stable transportation funding source or pass a law that would develop a local funding source that isn't based on property," says Rue, noting that gas or sales taxes might be possible solutions.
What happened to Enhancement?
One possible source of funding for novel transportation projects could be the federal Enhancement program. Unveiled in 1991 under the first president Bush, Enhancement funds were supposed to break the roads-only focus of federal funding bills by reserving a portion for projects that enhance intermodal connections and foster alternative transportation systems.
What happened, however, is that many of the Enhancement grants (in the form of state-administered reimbursements) were handed to projects like welcome centers, streetscapes, and well-organized museums. Recent awards, for instance, include $150,000 for landscaping at Montpelier and $300,000 to make over the Pleasant Grove manor house in Fluvanna County.
"These funds have been used for recreation, not transportation," says Salzman.
In the late 1990s, Monticello raked in $3.4 million in Enhancement money for its $6.78-million Thomas Jefferson Parkway project, which included a stone-faced bridge, a 175-acre park, a hiking and biking trail along Route 53, and a pedestrian culvert under Route 53.
"There's no transportation value to it at all," says Salzman.
In 2008, the lone local Enhancement grant was $300,000 for the planned $1.1 million visitor center for the Lewis and Clark Exploratory Center on the banks of the Rivanna River. The "transportation" includes interpretive trails and a ferry. Citing the Rivanna River's history as Port Pireus in the 1820s and '30s, Albemarle County trails planner Dan Mahon defends the award by noting that the Lewis and Clark ferry might be a prototype for a ferry system that could temporarily be set up near Pantops until a bridge is built.
Still, Salzman bristles over the fact that Enhancement money has turned into a funding source that "enhances the public's traveling experience" instead of improving non-motorized transportation.
"This money was passed originally to wean us from foreign oil," says Salzman, "but it actually increases our driving. It's totally absurd."
Alternative and public transportation are essential for the nation to wean itself from the dependence on oil, he believes. "My son went to Iraq," he says. "I don't want my grandsons to go."
In addition to foreign policy, Salzman says America's car culture has damaged the health of young people.
"In over 20 years of teaching college," says Salzman, "I've seen my students get fatter and fatter and less willing to walk up the stairs."
Michael Estes, director of VDOT's Local Assistance Division, contends that foot and wheel-friendly projects will be more heavily weighed in the upcoming selection year. Says Estes, "We're encouraging pedestrian and bicycle bridges."
Salzman thinks it's high time. "There's pressure on VDOT now that might not be there next year," he says.
Applications are due November 1 for funding that will arrive in October of 2009 and require the endorsement of a local MPO– the Charlottesville-Albemarle MPO in this case. Estes says the average grant, that can range from $15,000 to $1 million, is $350,000. Applying for a research grant this year would allow enough time to complete a study to make sure the bridge would be used, Salzman says, and allow proponents to apply for construction money in subsequent years.
While the bridge is in the city's master plan, it is absent from the county's master plan.
"I'm really supportive of the idea, but unfortunately it's not in our Pantops plan," says the county's Mahon. The Pantops plan, updated every five years, was last revised in March.
Without that endorsement, it doesn't look like Salzman's bridge idea will win an Enhancement grant just yet, and the city's Gensic says he plans to seek Enhancement funds for now-higher-priority city projects like the McIntire Park and Darden Towe-Pen Park bridges.
Still, Gensic optimistically says the Pantops bridge could be built in four years. "We'd like to have it when the hospital opens," he says.
Having the bridge in place before the hospital relocates will increase its use, Salzman says, because people are be more receptive to changing their modes of transportation when they're changing their commutes at the same time.
"If it is built in time for when Martha Jefferson employees have to make a transportation change, the odds go up 20 percent that they will make the change to muscle-fueled transportation," says Salzman.
Gensic says he's exploring potential sites for the bridge, which include routes from the new eco-friendly Riverview Bluffs community, from Riverview Park, and along an I-64/railroad route. Before a site is chosen, Gensic says, surrounding residents and engineers will be consulted to determine the best option.
A bridge too far?
Such a bridge might not need to be built, however– it might already exist in the far southeastern corner of the state. Just outside Galax in mountainous Grayson County, the historic Route 94-J.P. Carrico Memorial truss bridge crosses the New River. VDOT wants to replace it and is willing to pay someone $267,000– what the state might have spent on demolition– to take it away.
"This is the first time we've offered a bridge like this," says VDOT architectural historian Kalli Lucas, noting that the camel-back style of the 913-foot-long structure makes it eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. "That's a rare type in the state of Virginia."
The two-lane bridge, built in 1927 and still considered safe for traffic, according to Lucas, may be ready for removal in the summer of 2012. Gensic has written a letter of interest for the bridge but says the monetary incentive might not offset the moving costs.
Better than the Connector?
The daily traffic count across Free Bridge was 52,000 in 2007, according to county transportation manager Juandiego Wade. A 2003 county traffic study prepared by Wilbur Smith Associates estimated that the hospital's relocation will generate an additional 22,600 trips per day on surrounding roads.
"With these types of numbers, the public will see and feel a difference," Wade says.
But Martha Jefferson officials disagree. Ron Cottrell, the hospital vice president in charge of the move, says the relocation will actually relieve, rather than exacerbate, Free Bridge traffic. He contends that the new site's proximity to I-64, which has far more capacity than any city road, will cause more patients and employees to avoid congested City streets altogether. More employees and patients come from surrounding counties than from the city, Cottrell says, and many already use I-64 to access the current Locust Avenue site.
Nonetheless, Cottrell supports the freelance bicycle/pedestrian bridge idea.
But Kevin Cox doesn't. The local pedestrian activist, although he walks five miles each day to his job at UVA Hospital, considers a multi-million-dollar footbridge a "ludicrous" option.
"The number of people who will walk that far to work at State Farm, Martha Jefferson, or the other businesses at Pantops is very small," says Cox. "Salzman needs to face that reality."
Salzman, however, worries that more traditional approaches to decreasing traffic on Route 250– i.e. another expensive auto bridge– will become more popular if alternative means are not addressed now.
According to documents submitted to the Economic Development Authority of Albemarle County (in order to secure the right to issue up to $195 million in tax-free bonds), the new five-story hospital will have 176 beds and a whopping 456,358 square feet of space.
"When the Free Bridge comes to a halt in 2012," says Salzman, "there will be immense political pressure on everyone to build another [car] bridge."
Already, such an effort is under way in the form of the proposed "Eastern Connector," a controversial road whose steering committee recently recommended a pathway bisecting Pen Park with a new four-lane road and connecting Rio Road near the Charlottesville Albemarle Technical Education Center, crossing the Rivanna on a new bridge, and reaching Route 20 near the Key West neighborhood.
Although Albemarle planner Wade says the Eastern Connector could help alleviate Free Bridge traffic, and although the city and county each recently split the cost of a half-million-dollar study, critics are already decrying the notion of a road through parkland.
One possible way to cross the Rivanna requiring little new asphalt would be a bridge from the end of Market Street to State Farm Boulevard. But if it were to carry cars, such a bridge would clearly run afoul of the Woolen Mills neighborhood, which has already shown its muscle by winning, on March 24, a $5.2 million smell-abatement plan from the nearby Rivanna Water & Sewer Authority.
Charlottesville Mayor David Norris says he can't support a Market-to-State Farm auto link. "It would bring more county through-traffic right through a city neighborhood," says Norris.
How about widening Free Bridge? Free Bridge was enlarged to seven lanes in 1992, according to VDOT spokesperson Lou Hatter, and more lanes might encourage even more through-city traffic, of which Norris is wary.
One option proposed on a local news blog by writer Karl Ackerman would be simply a boat on a wire. "That would allow you to pull yourself (and your bike) across," Ackerman writes on cvillenews.com. Calling it a "lower impact, lower cost alternative," Ackerman notes that such an option "could be fun."
Another option is improving public transportation to Pantops, which CTS director Bill Watterson says would be easier if plans to form a Charlottesville-Albemarle regional transit authority finalize.
"One of the special circumstances of the Martha Jefferson situation is that they're going to relocate from being in the city to Albemarle County," says Watterson, noting that Albemarle would bear the burden of the additional costs because it already funds the local contribution portion of CTS Route 10, which currently runs hourly from downtown to Pantops. According to Watterson, doubling the frequency might carry an upfront cost of $500,000-600,000, with an annual operating cost of about $250,000.
For residents to begin using public and alternative transportation, Salzman says, it must well marketed.
"Those of us who care, we have to get the people in the middle on board," says Salzman. "We have to show them ways that they can realistically get around."
Peter Jefferson Place office park– already home to a Hilton hotel and some multi-purpose office buildings– is a rolling landscape, a site which the Martha Jefferson magazine extols as a "hospital built into a hill." While the 88-acre site will have over three miles of its own walking trails, the impending move of the 1,500-employee institution will put a particular strain on those who have grown accustomed to the living around the Locust Avenue site.
Nurse Mary O'Rorke currently foot-commutes about a mile, but she's unsure she'll continue if her only path requires Free Bridge. "I'm still interested in trying to walk," says O'Rorke, "but I want to be safe about it."
Sarah Peaslee, a resident of the Locust Grove neighborhood, works as a nurse at a UVA unit located at Martha Jefferson. She calls the move "elitist" and says money should be put towards staffing rather than toward a new location.
"I don't know how people are going to get to the new one," says Peaslee. (She might not have to fight Free Bridge commuter traffic in 2012 because she hopes to be retired by then.)
"The reality is there was no place to expand," says hospital V-P Cottrell of the old 13-acre site. And Martha Jefferson Cancer Center director Faye Satterly agrees.
"We don't have a choice," she says. "There's no place to go." Still, the move is inconvenient for employees.
"Part of the reason I found my neighborhood attractive is that I could walk to work," says Satterly, who currently covers the six-block distance on foot. She says she might still walk to the new site but admits that the uphill two-mile trek will require a lot more ambition.
"It's not Free Bridge that's the problem," she says. "It's the distance."
Maria Chapel, president of the Martha Jefferson Neighborhood Association, says hospital officials have met with residents to discuss plans for the current site. "They've been very good about keeping us in the loop," she says.
The precise fate of the Locust Avenue buildings has yet to be determined, according to Cottrell, but the site will likely be mixed-use, composed of residential, office, and retail buildings. The hospital is currently in the process of finding a redevelopment partner.
"It's 13 acres, and it's in our neighborhood, so no matter what happens it's going to have an impact," says Chapel.
Despite all the fiscal and other hurdles, Salzman maintains that the hospital's move is a chance for Charlottesville and Albemarle citizens to think long-term about the impact of vehicular transportation.
"Americans are caught in asphalt lines," he says. And changing our transportation habits, he says, will have an impact far beyond Free Bridge. "This is a chance for us in Charlottesville for us to show the United States it can be done."
Third-year UVA student Laura Hoffman was an intern in the Hook newsroom this summer.
Rivanna: A wet and winding boundary
In addition to a City-favored plan to bridge the train tracks that divide McIntire Park, there are two competing visions for bridging the Rivanna– not to mention the car-friendly Eastern Connector.
MAP BY ALLISON SOMERS
A County-commissioned study predicts a Martha Jefferson's relocation will generate an additional 22,600 trips per day on surrounding roads including already seven-laned Free Bridge, shown here.
PHOTO BY WILL WALKER
The non-profit hospital believed it was outgrowing this 13-acre site facing Locust Avenue.
PHOTO BY WILL WALKER
Already, some of MJH's 1,500 employees work on Pantops, at the Outpatient Care Center which opened in 2003.
PHOTO BY WILL WALKER
Salzman has grown frustrated with the use of federal Enhancement funds to prop up museums and tourist centers.
PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO
Could this Grayson County steel truss bridge become Charlottesville's new pedestrian/bike way?
PHOTO COURTESY VDOT
Karl Ackerman envisions a boat tethered to a wire, something like the Hatton Ferry which has traversed the James River near Scottsville since 1870.
FILE PHOTO BY HAWES SPENCER