Harrison Rue (right) briefs the MPO Policy Board on potential pedestrian improvements

Over the past several years, many studies about pedestrian activity on US 29 have been conducted. Harrison Rue took an hour at the September 2007 meeting of the MPO Policy Board to review some of these projects, and to suggest what steps can be taken, in the short-term and long-term, to improve safety on what many have called Albemarle County’s Main Street.

The topic was suggested after a class at the University of Virginia’s School of Architecture worked with the North Charlottesville Business Council to develop low-cost enhancements for pedestrians. Rue said pedestrian activity was a major component of the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission’s Eastern Planning Initiative which began in 2000, as well as VDOT’s 1998 Pedestrian Study, the Hillsdale Drive Safety Study.

“Our regional long-range plan for the MPO really has a lot of focus on pedestrian, bike and transit,” he said, adding that planning for the Regional Transportation Authority would specify projects that would enhance sidewalks and street crossings in order to make it easier for people to use the bus system. “The bottom line is you can’t take the bus if you can’t cross the street to get the bus home.”

Rue’s slideshow presentation showed examples of poor sidewalks at locations across the country, and also offered up potential solutions. He said many people avoid crosswalks at traffic intersections on major highways like US 29, electing instead to cross at mid-block. “It’s easier, quicker and safer if you’re not in the middle of turning traffic.”

Rue suggested using narrow medians to divide traffic in order to provide a refuge for pedestrians crossing the road. This in turn would mean slightly narrower road lanes. He also displayed before and after pictures of a road in University Place, Washington that was redesigned by walkability expert Dan Burden. The center turn lane was removed in favor of a median, and sidewalks and bike lanes were added because utility poles were relocated underground.

This street in University Place, Washington, was redesigned to make it easier for pedestrians to cross

“It’s really integrated with transit, you’ve got mid-block crosswalks and the transit right after, so it’s a good design for people crossing the street,” he said. He suggested this kind of work could work on Rio Road near “Gasoline Alley” and added that Juandiego Wade has included these elements in the Hillsdale Drive redesign slated for construction to begin next year. That redesign will include five pedestrian crossings for Hillsdale Drive, which is home to many senior citizens.

Rue said the US 29 US Pedestrian Study conducted by VDOT in 1998 recommended a lot of ideas that are now being considered as part of other studies, but that most of the major improvements would be implemented as part of the parallel road network to create a series of pedestrian paths, some of which could be built through existing shopping centers. Rue said MPO staff will soon be meeting with the new owners of the Shopper’s World Plaza to discuss how that area could be made more “walkable.”

Any pedestrian improvements made would also be performed to help connect people to transit, especially as transit service is increased in Albemarle County. “It makes no sense to invest in really
cool vehicles if we’re not going to actually get to the bus and cross,” Rue said.

Dennis Rooker pointed out that many of the recommendations made in the US 29 Pedestrian Study were not that expensive, adding that overpasses for pedestrians are likely not cost-effective.

“Obviously what we’re doing now with Places29 is taking this to a different level and tying in the pedestrian study with land use and transportation elements,” he said, adding that if Places29 is adopted, it will need to list specific priority projects. “It may be that we can say the County should allocate half a million a year to implementing some of these pedestrian improvements.”

Rue said the process can take a long time because of all the bureaucratic steps necessary when federal funds are involved. He suggested the process might be sped up if the County applied for VDOT revenue sharing money, and administered certain projects themselves. The City of Charlottesville, for instance, is taking this approach with the Hillsdale Drive safety improvements. “We would still have to follow all the right design guidelines, it’s a federal facility, but we may have more flexibility and an ability to move construction.”

Dennis Rooker said that the County has maximized its revenue sharing, but that VDOT doesn’t match the full amount because there’s not enough money. “For the next seven years, we have projects committed.”

Rue then suggested that there may be new dollars out there, perhaps as part of a new program. “I can’t tell you how many meetings I’ve been in with Federal Highways and VDOT where everyone says safety is our top priority, but we don’t actually match that with the dollars.”

Councilor Kevin Lynch said many of the projects the City has initiated with VDOT revenue sharing have not been pedestrian friendly. He expressed the concern that pedestrian improvements on US 29 might crowd out funding for projects in other areas, such as Hillsdale Drive.

“It’s the 29 crossings that are the big expenses, and I wonder if, and it’s painful to say this, but maybe there’s not a lot of bang for the buck there, and that pedestrians would be better off thinking of 29 similar to the way they think of the Rivanna River,” Lynch said.

Supervisor David Slutzky said there was no way that 29 would become a dividing line. “We’ve got a vision through Places29 for making that corridor more of a cohesive, instead of a divided universe… You can’t just ignore the idea that people have to be able to get across 29, so if it’s an expensive proposition because it is such an important corridor, then it’s an expensive proposition.”

Harrison Rue said some cost estimates would be part of the implementation chapter of the Places29 Master Plan, which will be discussed by the Albemarle County Planning Commission later this fall.

Dennis Rooker suggested some funds may be available if new bodies are created. “When we approved Albemarle Place and Hollymead Town Center was improved, we included language in there, proffers that required them to join Community Development Authority, if one were created… One way of trying to implement these things would be to create a transportation district.”

Sean Tubbs