By. Neil Williamson, President
This Sunday’s (3/12) Daily Progress Editorial discusses “Beginning Anew on Hydraulic” painting a rather optimistic picture of the regulatory and political process planned to design, secure funding and build improvements to the Hydraulic and US29 intersection.
But the Editorial forgot Pocahontas.
Please let me explain.
Regular readers are aware of the Free Enterprise Forum’s position opposing the Rio/US29 grade separated interchange. Despite that opposition, we have been impressed with the manner the project was completed. Now the Daily Progress editorial board is comparing the Rio intersection process with Hydraulic:
And the process through which the Rio project was completed did, in fact, contribute to its success. That process can be replicated, regardless of what kind of engineering design it eventually produces.
In fact, it is being replicated. The meeting last week of state and community leaders follows the pattern used in the Rio project: A panel of local elected officials, business owners and citizens is meeting regularly to discuss the Hydraulic venture, provide input and help guide decision-making. Their involvement is aimed at ensuring that local interests are represented in the state’s drive to speed traffic through a congested bottleneck.
What I love most about rivers is you can’t step in the same river twice – The water’s always changing, always flowing
Just prior to the seating of the so called “29 Solutions” panel, there was significant state and federal dollars allocated and a contract awarded to a project (the western bypass) that had enjoyed (4-2) support from Albemarle’s Board of Supervisors and then Republican Governor Robert McDonnell. In November 2013 elections, the balance of power on the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors shifted left and Democratic Governor Terrance McAuliffe was elected. Then in February 2014, the project was effectively prohibited by a letter from the Obama Administration’s Environmental Protection Agency.
Cvillepedia described the situation in the manner:
With the project [Western Bypass] presumed dead, former VDOT commissioner Philip Shucet has recommended alternate uses for at least $200 million that had been allocated to the bypass. The alternatives include $54 million to extend Berkmar Drive across the South Fork Rivanna River, an additional $10 million to further extend Hillsdale Drive Extended to Holiday Lane in Charlottesville, and $81 million to build a grade-separated intersection at Rio Road and U.S. 29. The Commonwealth Transportation Board adopted a new six-year improvement program that included the projects at its meeting on June 18, 2014.  That meant the Western Bypass project was defunded. 
In addition, in a deft politically savvy move, McAuliffe required ALL the Route 29 “solutions” be completed by October 31, 2017 (coincidentally just prior to Election Day 2017).
The Pocahontas lesson that was not lost on Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) contract facilitator Philip Shucet. In the first meeting of The Hydraulic Planning Advisory Panel last week, he highlighted that unlike the previous panel which was considering how to spend a pot of money already allocated to the district the project or projects would have to compete for limited transportation dollars via VDOT’s Smart Scale evaluation program in 2018.
Secretary Layne’s charge to the Hydraulic panel includes this concern as well as hinting at the potential political in fighting at an intersection that is 3/4 in the City of Charlottesville and 1/4 in Albemarle County:
Secretary of Transportation Aubrey Layne’s charge to the Panel:
To provide general advice and input to the City of Charlottesville, Albemarle County, VDOT and the Commonwealth Transportation Board regarding future land use and mobility improvements in the general area near the Hydraulic Road and Rt. 29 intersection.
The Secretary understands that land use decisions are in the hands of the localities, but also emphasizes that decisions to submit a future Smart Scale application for state-funded transportation improvements are also in the hands of the localities.
The multi jurisdictional work (land use, design and funding) of Hydraulic Road will be significantly more involved than the challenges at Rio Road. While we agree that the process will be informed by the work of Rio, we are also reminded that Pocahontas quote is actually derivative of the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus:
No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.
Not only is Hydraulic a very different intersection than Rio,the land use work ahead is different and the funding is nowhere near secure.
Yes the facilitator is the same, as are some of the panel members, but this multi-jurisdictional land use and transportation effort will be a VERY different process and the outcomes (and their timing) are far from certain.
Neil Williamson, President
Neil Williamson is the President of The Free Enterprise Forum, a privately funded public policy organization covering the City of Charlottesville as well as Albemarle, Greene, Fluvanna, Louisa and Nelson County.
Photo Credits: Disney
By. Neil Williamson, President
In late September, the Charlottesville Albemarle Metropolitan Planning Organization (CA-MPO) unanimously approved a resolution that read much like a list to the Santa Claus of transportation planning:
NOW THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED, that the Charlottesville-Albemarle MPO Policy Board recommends to the Commonwealth Transportation Board, the Virginia Secretary of Transportation, the City of Charlottesville, Albemarle County and the Charlottesville Albemarle Metropolitan Planning Organization to immediately initiate the process for planning the transportation improvements of the Hydraulic and Route 29 intersection and nearby roadways as identified in the MPO’s Long Range Transportation Plan (2040 LRTP) and to enact and implement the recommendations in coordination with comprehensive land use planning including but not limited to the following:
- Continue the facilitated collaborative panel process to determine a potential range of reasonable options for reducing congestion and improving mobility in the general area of the Hydraulic-US 29 intersection, including the option of doing nothing.
- Request the CTB to combine Hillsdale South and Hydraulic Intersection planning and preliminary engineering budgets into one consolidated planning and preliminary engineering budget.
- Request the CTB to amend the Six Year Improvement Plan (SYIP) to advance funding for small area planning and panel discussions to begin in FY17.
- Request the Secretary of Transportation to authorize the MPO to lead and use transportation financial resources to conduct a small area planning process for the Hydraulic Intersection general area of the City and County, such small area planning to include transparent citizen, business and community engagement.
- Request the Secretary of Transportation to begin the transportation planning process so that adequate information will be available to apply for Smart Scale funding by September, 2018 should a project or projects move forward from the collaborative planning process. Emphasis added- NW
Christmas may have come early for the CA-MPO. On November 3rd, Virginia’s Secretary of Transportation Aubrey Layne, Charlottesville and Albemarle County have received “accelerated” funds for the Hydraulic Road Area Study. In his letter to CA-MPO Executive Director Chip Boyles, Layne wrote:
We look forward to the continued progress and movement, specifically with the Hydraulic Road Area Study, in order to keep Virginia moving through the Charlottesville Area…By leveraging funds between the two current projects (Hydraulic Road and Hillsdale Drive South), we will be able to commit funding in the amount of $1,000,000 for the study in this current fiscal year (FY 2017) with an additional $1,000,000 available on July 1, 2017.
The Free Enterprise Forum sincerely appreciates the forward thinking of the CA-MPO working backwards from the time of the next round of competitive funding; we also have a great deal of angst about the methodology that might or might not be used in creating this “transparent process”. We also understand the a total of $10 million dollars for “preliminary engineering” was included as part of the approved Route 29 Solutions package.
Back in May of 2014, we wrote about Playing Dominos with a the series of interchanges resulting in the US 29 Expressway. We have many of the same concerns we raised in that post:
No one believes that the interchange at Rio is the end, it is like putting in a 4 inch pipe on a 2 inch line, while the water will move freely on the larger connector it really does little good for the overall velocity of the water until you expand the whole line.
It is strategically important to recognize the proposed Shucet Solution is being offered as an all or nothing opportunity with a time deadline. He (and the McAuliffe Administration) knows that is if Domino #1 falls and Domino #2 [Hydraulic] starts to tilt – the eventual expressway will be well on its way to completion.
Once these first two dominos fall, we will start to see the calls for access management and more “grade separated intersections”. The “depressed express lanes” will start at the Wal-Mart at Hilton Heights Road and will logically terminate with a set of flyover exit ramps to 250.Currently the State has found the proper leverage points to “facilitate” a solution on the Charlottesville area. The timing, strategy and tactics they have used have been nothing short of amazing. They held an advisory panel of opinion leaders without a single vote or test for consensus, they truncated the timing of the process to elude the July 1 deadline of HB #2 that requires project prioritization and they are poised to get Charlottesville to give up almost two decades of opposition to the highly disruptive Hydraulic/US29 Interchange.
Chess Master Bobby Fisher once said, “Tactics flow from a superior position”. Even when it is not in the best interest of the community, one must recognize the excellent gamesmanship exhibited by both Shucet and Virginia Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne.
Well played, gentlemen, well played indeed.
We sense gamesmanship is again at work in this acceleration process. With the new “accelerated” funding will the CA-MPO reach out to other major users of US 29 for the panel discussions? Considering three corners of the Hydraulic intersection are n the City of Charlottesville and one is in Albemarle County, who will drive the small area planning? How will the City and County Planning Commissions be engaged? Or will they? Considering the careful wording of the CA-MPO resolution is there any community or political support for another grade separated interchange on US 29?
As usual we have more questions than answers.
Neil Williamson is president of the Free Enterprise Forum, a privately funded non-profit public policy organization focused on local governments in Central Virginia. For more information visit www.freeenterpriseforum.org.