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VDOT Panel’s Pocahontas Problem

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.

disney pocaThis is where Pocahontas lesson comes in:

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:

Aubrey Layne, Virginia’s Secretary of Transportation, convened a panel in the spring of 2014 to suggest alternatives for money that had been allocated by the Commonwealth Transportation Board.

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. [17] That meant the Western Bypass project was defunded. [5]

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.

Stay tuned.

Respectfully Submitted,

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

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Rio Road GSI, Route29 Solutions, VDOT and Dylan Thomas

By. Neil Williamson, President

rio gsiIn recent weeks, I have said that I believe the Grade Separated Interchange (GSI) at US29 and Rio Road will be built despite the significant, and valid, protestations of those opposing the project.  Based on the current political structure,  the manner this project has been steamrolled through and my personal experience with this process, I believe this project will be fully constructed by late 2016 and the balance of the projects will complete prior to the Gubernatorial Election Day 2017.

Despite this forgone reality, I also believe those who oppose the project must continue their efforts.  For if a project was wrong in its inception, the reality of construction does not change its meaning.  Dylan Thomas wrote about battling the inevitable in his great poem “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night”.

Those with long memories will remember the Free Enterprise Forum speaking in opposition to the Places29 Plan at the Albemarle County Planning Commission.  As this 2009 Charlottesville Tomorrow article outlined:

Twelve of the 14 speakers addressing the commission represented businesses and business organizations.  They spoke in opposition primarily to transportation elements of the plan, specifically grade separation on U.S. 29 at six key interchanges.

Williamson said in an interview that his organization had reached the conclusion that the County shouldn’t even attempt to do land use and transportation planning together and that attempts to do so were “perpetuating the island mentality of the Albemarle-Charlottesville community.”

“I believe Places29 would be better served if it was simply a land use plan,” said Williamson. “Land use should inform transportation decisions, but the transportation decisions should be made in a larger regional context.”

The Planning Commission endorsed the plan 4-2 and sent it to the Board of Supervisors for action.  Prior to the vote on the Places29 Plan we clearly called for a veto

Interestingly as a part of the Places29 discussion that was eventually endorsed (6-0) included [according to a 2011 article by Sean Tubbs of Charlottesville Tomorrow]:

At the request of the board, consideration of grade-separated interchanges at key intersections along U.S. 29 will be delayed for at least five years, until the plan is required by state law to be reviewed. State officials are warning against the total removal of the interchanges from the plan.

“If the interchanges are removed from the Places29 plan, additional traffic modeling and study would need to be done to ensure that current and future land use and recommended improvements to Route 29 support the goals of Places29 and the needs of the regional transportation network,” VDOT spokesman Lou Hatter said in an interview.

Much has changed since the passing of Places29.  The Western Bypass was revived, contracted,  then discouraged by federal action only to be eventually discarded by the newly elected Governor Terry McAuliffe.  The membership of the Albemarle Board of Supervisors changed as well. 

Just this year the community was introduced to Former Commissioner of the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) Philip Shucet who led two panels that never voted but provided important input to the “Route29 Solutions” that will be completed prior to Governor McAuliffe’s last day in office.

don quixoteWith all of this as preface, I was reminded not of Cervantes Don Quixote but of the Welsh Poet Dylan Thomas (no known relation to former Albemarle Supervisor Rodney Thomas).  Thomas clearly understood the realities ahead as he wrote his most famous work.

It is with Thomas’ words that I close this post and proudly support the continued, though perhaps futile, battle to eliminate the Grade Separated Interchange at US29 and Rio Road. 

DO NOT GO GENTLE INTO THAT GOOD NIGHT

Dylan Thomas —

“Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rage at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

Respectfully Submitted,

Neil Williamson, President

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20070731williamson 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

Photo Credit: Route29solutions.com