By. Neil Williamson, President
Even this full throated critic of the Richmond based US29 Projects Steam Roller can see signs of optimism from the latest Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) US29 Project Delivery Advisory Panel (PDAP) meeting. It has yet to be seen if these optimistic indicators are indicative of true community engagement or merely a part of a multimedia VDOT charm offensive. To be clear, no promises have been made and in the end these it may end up simply being window dressing but the Free Enterprise Forum chooses to be positive after attending the panel’s third meeting.
Led by facilitator (and former VDOT Commissioner) Philip Shucet the first two meetings featured long Shucet soliloquies regarding process, agenda item postponements and project goals. On Wednesday, Albemarle County Supervisor
Brad Sheffield Ken Boyd [Correction 09:55 8.11.14-nw]very publicly told Virginia Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne that panel members did not feel as if they were being heard.
The latest meeting (8/7) started much the same fashion with the release of a very aggressive implementation schedule:
Rio Grade Separated Intersection
• Conceptual drawings: Aug 28, 2014 PDAP Meeting
•MOT plan development: Mar – May 2015
•Utility relocation plans: Mar – Apr 2015
•Grading plans: Apr – May 2015
• Roadway and Bridge Reviews: April – June – July 2015
• Approve Construction Plans: Aug 2015
[MOT = Maintenance of Traffic-NW]
After hearing the Rio Interchange schedule, the panel was then updated on the regarding the so called “Best Buy” ramp. Several panel members questioned why a project with 99% of the engineering completed could not be accelerated to minimize the overlap between these significant disruptions of US29.
Henry Weinschenk, a panelist who owns the Express Car Wash on U.S. 29, said he thought it was unrealistic that VDOT could finish the projects before October 2017, given that the Best Buy ramp has been in the planning stages for several years.
“I am somewhat concerned that these projects, which are not fully designed, are moving along at 100 mph,” Weinschenk said. “And this project, which is pretty much done and we know a lot about, it’s going slow. We have a contradiction going on here, and to get some credibility out of VDOT, we need the Best Buy ramp done by the end of 2015.”
Shucet, a very skilled facilitator, seemed interested in the concept and pushed the questions to VDOT technical team members in the room and promised to circle back to that issue in the next meeting.
A member of the panel also questioned what would happen if the bids come in significantly higher than VDOT had estimated. The concern was that perhaps Rio would be completed and the other projects would be cancelled. VDOT representatives suggested their estimates were very conservative and they had a high level of confidence.
Perhaps due to this high level of conservative estimation, another panel member asked about the design for Berkmar Extended. Currently contemplated as a two lane road, with a two lane bridge over the South Fork Rivanna River, the panel member asked if VDOT was being short sighted not building a four lane bridge.
Other panel members requested that a connection between Berkmar and Ashwood Boulevard; or at least the acquisition of right of way. Again, while making no promises Shucet asked the VDOT technical team to make note of the suggestion and come back to the group.
All told, nothing was promised, many items were pushed off to the August 28th meeting but the issues raised by the panel members seem to be headed toward further conversation.
The tenor and attitude of all participants in Thursday’s meeting was more positive and more solution focused. The responsibility to keeping this forward momentum is shared by both the facilitation team and the panel members.
The VDOT multimedia charm offensive continued in Sunday’s (8/10) Daily Progress where Secretary Layne penned an opinion piece that reiterated a position he stated to the Albemarle Board of Supervisors on Wednesday (and will likely say to City Council):
Although the panel was not unanimous in its support for all the projects, there was broad agreement that transportation improvements much move forward. Doing nothing gets us nowhere. We are living with the consequences of our inaction over the years.
It is too early to know if the US29 Projects glass is half empty or half full, but The Free Enterprise Forum choses to think positively. While we remain concerned of falling into the “Don’t Get Fooled Again” trap, perhaps in the end the panel will find The Rolling Stones 1969 hit as their anthem:
Neil Williamson is the President of The Free Enterprise Forum, a public policy organization covering the City of Charlottesville as well as Albemarle, Greene, Fluvanna, Louisa and Nelson County. For more information visit the website www.freeenterpriseforum.org