Cost estimate for Free Bridge Eco-Logical alternatives

Several projects to address traffic congestion on U.S. 250 at Free Bridge received favorable feedback from a group of citizens and local government officials Wednesday.

However, proposals for any significant new roads connecting Pantops to urban areas in Charlottesville and Albemarle County found little support.

The projects are being evaluated by the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission as part of a $250,000 grant from the Federal Highway Administration.

“The Eco-Logical framework tool provides a potentially smoother path through the [National Environmental Protection Act] process through doing good planning prior to the process,” said Wood Hudson, a senior environmental planner with the planning district commission.

To receive federal funds, a transportation project must demonstrate to federal officials that its “purpose and need” is the least environmentally damaging option while still being effective. For example, the highway administration in February told the Virginia Department of Transportation the now-defunct Western Bypass of U.S. 29 likely would not meet this criterion.

The planning district commission created a stakeholder’s group that has identified several projects that would provide additional capacity in the area around the bridge. In 2012, the latest year available, the Virginia Department of Transportation estimated that the highway carried 52,000 vehicles per day on average.

“This was the fifth meeting in a series of seven meetings and at this meeting we had the engineering firm Rinker Design Associates present a final feasibility analysis and cost estimate on all the alternatives,” Hudson said.

One of the concepts is a second bridge constructed above the existing Free Bridge that would allow through traffic to pass through without stopping. The group balked at the $141 million price tag and concluded it would not be worth the expense.

A variation of this concept would replace the left turn lanes from the bridge to East High Street with jughandle intersection. Jughandles, often associated with New Jersey, directs drivers who want to make a left turn to a ramp on the right side of a road.

“This jughandle occurs west of the High Street intersection and uses Landonia Circle for part of it,” said John Giometti, an engineer with Rinker.

Giometti said half of the $9 million estimate would be for right-of-way purchase.

The “Rivanna River Parkway” would be a $70 million new road connecting Route 20 to Rio Road, a concept that had been previously discussed during an Eastern Connector study that was shelved in 2009.

Stakeholders present at the meeting dismissed the option because of the cost and the disruption to parkland in Charlottesville and Albemarle County.

“This one is not going to be one that’s going to get consensus to move forward,” said Frank Dukes, a facilitator with the Institute of Environmental Negotiation.

Another alternative would see a park-and-ride lot constructed at VDOT’s offices on U.S. 250 as well as construction of a new bike and pedestrian trail that would cross the Rivanna near the city’s Riverview Park.

“We do have a plan for that trail now,” said Dan Mahon, Albemarle County’s trails planner. “For me this is not going to relieve traffic, but it’s a great enhancement anyway.”

A $20 million option would increase the number of lanes on Free Bridge to three in each direction. Sidewalks would be removed to make way for vehicles and pedestrian traffic would be routed to a new bike and pedestrian bridge.

In another concept, a new two-lane bridge would connect South Pantops Drive to the city somewhere within the vicinity of East High Street at a cost of about $27 million. This would involve creation of a new road through the Pantops Shopping Center, possibly with a roundabout.

“The Pantops Shopping Center would lose some parking but getting in and out of the shopping center would be easier and could be a benefit to them,” Giometti said.

This option received the support of many at the group, though developer Clara Belle Wheeler said she felt it would be too detrimental to landowners.

The group’s next meeting is set for September. In the meantime, Rinker plans to analyze how each scenario would increase capacity, although it became clear at the meeting that some proposals would not receive support from local officials.

“At this point, no alternative was eliminated from further consideration, but there was strong support for one or two moving forward,” Hudson said.