Bikes and feet: New choices in 20-year 'road' plan

The Route 29 Western Bypass is dead. Long live the money for it.

For less than the price of the road that threatened to move a mountain and divide a community, Central Virginia planners unveiled a 20-year plan that casts alternative transportation as the savior that will lead the region out of gridlock.

The plan– dubbed UnJam 2025– lays out a $241 million wish list of roads, bridges, and other transportation goodies– including about $11 million for pedestrian, bicycle, and transit expansions.

"It's essentially a shopping list," said Harrison Rue as he unveiled the plan Thursday, November 20, at his downtown office.

"This entire 20-year program adds up to less than the cost of the 29 Bypass," said another unveiler, Albemarle Supervisor Dennis Rooker. A third member of the Commission, Greene County economic development administrator Phillip Anns, seemed much less inclined to drive any more nails into the Bypass coffin. He shook up the Bypass-bashers by announcing that the Greene supes will soon make a resolution in favor of a Bypass.

Perhaps he meant an Eastern bypass. If so, he's in luck, as the plan budgets $9 million to study an eastern connector linking Route 250 East to Route 29 North.

In the early 1990s, Charlottesville, Albemarle, UVA, and VDOT threw their support behind a Western bypass stretching from the vicinity of UVA's Darden School to a point just north of the North Fork of the Rivanna River. Although the road gained enough momentum that the state began buying property in a 6.2-mile swath west of Charlottesville, critics would later point out that the chosen path failed to reach north of town far enough to get past the official "growth area" including the airport, UVA's North Fork Research Park, and the recently approved commercial megaplex called Hollymead Town Center.

So what's in store in UnJam? Airport Road will be four-laned with a roundabout at the intersection of Routes 649 and 606. There's $3.2 million to make Georgetown Road friendlier to bikers and walkers. Old Ivy Road gets an extra lane plus sidewalks and bike lanes.

Don't forget $17.5 million to widen Route 29 between Airport Road and the South Fork of the Rivanna River. Or the $8 million subsidy to the operating budget of the local transit systems. Or the approximately $30 million that might fly Greenbrier Drive and Hydraulic Road over Emmet Street.

Where are the new roads? That's what Charles Lily wants to know. A Charlottesville resident for over 50 years whose own personal solution for Route 29 involves building a trucks-only elevated highway, Lily says he's tired of seeing money "wasted" on research. "They pay consultants," says Lily, "but they haven't built any roads."

In truth, there are some new roads in the plan: There's $70 million for the Meadowcreek Parkway, that controversial link between downtown and northern Rio Road. There's nearly $20 million for the Hillsdale Drive Extension. That one, which might rip through the center of that sea of beige and brown stucco known as Seminole Square, was the subject of The Hook's October 9 cover story. And there's $31 million to extend Berkmar Drive farther north to the Hollymead Town Center.

These last two are so-called "parallel connector roads," and they're all the rage these days. Rue says that the Rio Hill Kroger illustrates the wisdom of building them. That Kroger lost its own entrance on Route 29 when Berkmar was extended to its back door. Guess what? Customers figured it out, and sales increased.

It's not all touchy-feely tree hugging down at Rue's office, the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission.

Rue says VDOT and the Federal Highway Administration must approve any major new transportation measure. "We actually have to model it," says Rue, "and show that it will move traffic around."

And lest anyone think foot-commuting is fringey, U.S. Census data released earlier this year revealed that of Virginia cities, Charlottesville's 16.5 percent of commuters who walk to work is second only to Lexington's whopping 26 percent.

Rue says that big transportation improvements in the plan won't necessarily happen, but they have to be in the plan to be considered for funding.

He claims that UnJam 2025 represents the first time urban and rural areas have been studied together in one 20-year plan.

"It's very much an active document," says Rue. "It's a chance to see how the rural area fits with the urban area."

Diane Taylor shows how many cars a fully loaded bus strips from busy streets.