Go east, young fan: UVA connects with less fuss

One of the advantages of building a road on your own property and having large donors pay for it is that it streamlines the approval process. Unlike the Hillsdale Connector, which has been on the books for years and whose steering committee is still wrangling over which of several routes it will take, UVA's North Grounds Connector has been approved by the Virginia Department of Transportation and is good to go.

The North Grounds Connector will tie into the U.S. 29/250 bypass and funnel eastbound traffic to and from UVA's new $128 million John Paul Jones arena under construction across from U-Hall.

The connector is "an odd road" because "it's being built with private money on UVA property," says VDOT spokesman Jim Jennings.

Another unusual aspect of the road: It favors those traveling east. Motorists heading west on the 29/250 bypass won't be able to use it, nor will those who try leave the North Grounds and go west– at least for now.

UVA landscape architect Mary Hughes calls the connector in its current form an "interim plan." Originally, the road was to be tied to the quashed western 29 bypass and would have used overpasses for the interchange.

Two things happened to change the plans from a complicated overpass to an at-grade intersection that's more like a city street, according to Hughes.

"One, the university made building the arena a priority and set the goal of opening it in 2006," she says. "And two, at the same moment, the lawsuit filed on the western bypass ground to a halt. It became obvious to us we wouldn't be able to have the connector built for the arena."

That's when the "right in, right out" $4 million plan came about that foregoes overpasses in favor of sticking to land UVA owns around Darden and the North Grounds Rec Center.

"Our only concern with the North Grounds Connector is if it were used as a vehicle for making the bypass inevitable," says Deborah Murray, the Southern Environmental Law Center attorney who filed suit against VDOT. While the SELC ultimately lost that on appeal, most wags agree with Murray that without any funds accumulating for its construction, the bypass is "delayed indefinitely."

The at-grade interchange initially was opposed by the Metropolitan Planning Organization, which wanted an overpass.

The MPO also feared UVA would try to put a stoplight on the U.S. 29/250 bypass. "At our last meeting, we removed our opposition with the understanding, the promise, that the university would not ever try to make it a full intersection, cut the median, and put in a light," says MPO member and Albemarle Supervisor Sally Thomas.

And was there any concern about an exit that discriminates against those going west?

"People who live here will find it very helpful," says Thomas. "People from Waynesboro who come here for games are going to find it confusing, but they'll figure it out."