Route 29 projects even further accelerated

The man in charge of overseeing the implementation of $230 million worth of projects to help improve mobility on the U.S. 29 corridor said Thursday that his team has produced concepts that will be successful.

“Everything is pointing in the direction of me being more convinced that this can be executed well within the time constraints that we have established,” said Philip A. Shucet, a former commissioner of the Virginia Department of Transportation.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe and state Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne have set an October 2017 deadline for VDOT to complete three major projects.

They are: the $54 million extension of Berkmar Drive across the South Fork Rivanna River, the $51 million widening of U.S 29 between Polo Grounds Road and Hollymead Town Center and an $81 million project to build a grade-separated interchange at U.S. 29 and Rio Road.

Shucet and his technical team presented drawings to the Project Delivery Advisory Panel that show the physical boundaries of where the projects will be constructed.

Many of the panelists said they were satisfied by the proposals.

“I’ve had my doubts about this project since the first time I heard of it, but these drawings have been very, very helpful to have,” said Chuck Lebo, a manager of several commercial developments on U.S. 29.

The bulk of Thursday’s meeting was spent going over the schematics for the Rio Road interchange, a project that has been opposed for many years by some members of the business community.

VDOT engineers evaluated 14 different alternatives for how the interchange might be configured, but only the one shown to the panel was determined by engineers to be feasible.

“You’ve heard some rumors that there are going to be massive right-of-way impacts,” said VDOT engineer David Covington. “Not a single parking space will be taken as a result of this project.”

Covington described the Rio Road concept as a “tight urban diamond” that would be built over the site of the current four lanes of U.S. 29.

“This is a depression of U.S. 29 beneath Rio Road,” Covington said. “There’s about 2,000 feet of retaining walls.”

In all, the through lanes will travel between 22 feet and 24 feet below Rio Road.

Local traffic would stay at the existing grade on U.S. 29 and at the intersection with Rio Road. Pedestrians and cyclists would have to use a series of crosswalks to get across U.S. 29. New U-turn lanes also woudl be created.

“The U-turns are something that really help us improve the operation of the intersection,” Covington said.

The structure that will support the underpass and Rio Road will be built off-site using pre-cast segments, officials said.

“If they can be lifted and placed by a crane and set in place very quickly, the bridge can be constructed very quickly,” Covington said.

The underpass also will include enough of a shoulder on both sides for vehicles to pull off if there is an emergency, he said.

All three projects are expected be designed and constructed by one firm.

Five construction teams submitted qualifications by a 4 p.m. Tuesday deadline. The Commonwealth Transportation Board is expected to award contracts in February.

The hearings for the widening and interchange projects were to be held in November, and the hearing for Berkmar was to be conducted next summer. Now, the design public hearings for all three projects is scheduled for Oct. 14.

VDOT now expects the $17.2 million “Best Buy ramp” project at U.S. 29 and the U.S. 250 Bypass to be completed by no later than May 2016. That is a week before the selected design-build contractor will be allowed to begin construction within the Rio Road interchange. The ramp project is expected to be advertised for construction in November, according to a VDOT database.

When Berkmar Drive Extended is built, VDOT will acquire enough property to build a four-lane road, but Shucet said existing traffic volumes can only justify initial construction of two lanes. The bridge across the Rivanna River also will be built as a two-lane bridge, creating a need for a second span in the future if the road is widened.

There has been talk about extending Ashwood Boulevard to the new portion of Berkmar Drive. Shucet said that connector would have to be approved by the Charlottesville Albemarle Metropolitan Planning Authority first, but he would recommend the CTB fund if the MPO supports it.

At least one panel member insisted Berkmar should be connected to U.S 29 directly as part of this process.

“The whole idea of this project is to increase mobility and take some traffic off of U.S. 29,” said Henry Weinschenk, owner of the Express Car Wash. “This would be a good opportunity to take traffic from a highly residential area.”

When the panel was told the widening of U.S. 29 might not include multi-use paths previously called for in the Places29 Plan, several members asked for VDOT and Shucet to take another look.

“There will be sidewalks on both the east and the west side of the Route 29 widening project,” Shucet said.

“I imagine most of us would say that that a multi-use path would be more preferred,” said Albemarle Supervisor Brad Sheffield. “I can’t imagine too many people walking this stretch of 29 to get to Hollymead.”

Shucet agreed to reconsider the issue, but Covington said a multi-use path needs to be further away from the highway, and there are potential right-of-way conflicts.

There are three alignment proposals for Berkmar Drive Extended, each of which takes a slightly different route to connect with Hollymead Town Center. A location hearing is slated for 5 p.m. Sept. 18 at the DoubleTree Hotel.

“We are planning to construct a two-lane roadway while acquiring enough right-of-way to expand that roadway in the future,” Covington said. “We are including on-street bike lanes in each direction, a 10-foot wide shared-use path on the east side for the entire length, and a sidewalk on the west side.”

The bridge that crosses the Rivanna will be 900 feet long and will also cross Rio Mills Road. Covington estimated it will cost between $10 million and $15 million.

The panel plans to hold its next meeting at 2 p.m. Sept. 11 in VDOT’s Center for Transportation Innovation and Research in Albemarle County.

Rio Road concept