Meadowcreek-250 interchange alternatives to go before Charlottesville planners

When the Meadowcreek-250 Interchange Steering Committee adjourned from its May meeting, participants left thinking they had informally selected a preference among one of five remaining options for how to design and build the interchange.

But, the consensus was somewhat challenged during the final meeting before their recommendations are presented to the Charlottesville Planning Commission and Charlottesville City Council at a joint public hearing next Tuesday.

20070604250steering City Councilor Kevin Lynch, who serves on the committee, said the purpose of the steering committee is to develop three alternatives to take to City Council. “I think in our last work session, we felt that while our charge was to bring three, there was one that was a clear consensus.” Option C1 was the preferred alternative.

But some members not present at the May meeting expressed concern that Option C1 does not address their concerns over access to McIntire Park, while others thought it might be better to revisit option G1 which would build a signalized diamond interchange.  This traditional interchange design would have the Route 250 bypass passing over the Meadowcreek Parkway.  There would be traffic signals along McIntire Road at the end of the entrance and exit ramps.

Podcast produced by Charlottesville Tomorrow * Player by Odeo

Listen using player above or download the podcast: Download 20070604-250-Steering-Committee.mp3

At the May meeting, the committee member asked the project team to evaluate each of the options using  eleven criteria, including park access, trail system access, environmental impacts, and how the interchange would serve as a gateway to downtown Charlottesville. Project team staff placed this information in a matrix to weigh various impacts, using green to describe a “better opportunity” and red to describe “less opportunity.” When the finer points of this matrix were debated, new questions were raised.

[Download a .PDF of the matrix here]

In Option C1, north-south traffic would travel through a large oval underneath an elevated Route 250, and would also feature a north-south pedestrian and cycle trail along Schenk’s Branch on the east side. Engineering firm RKK, which is coordinating the design, project presented two refinements for how these trails would be oriented – one with an at-grade crossing for walkers and bikers, and the other with an underpass beneath Route 250.

C1crosssections Several committee members raised questions. How safe would the trails be? Would the retaining walls required in the grading process be too large? Would pedestrian bridges and underpasses be too expensive? Could Option G1 be selected instead, which uses a signals to regulate traffic while providing opportunities for pedestrians to cross safely?

Robert Winstead, an alternate member of the committee who did not attend the May meeting, said neither refinement satisfied one of his important concerns.

“I feel like we’ve been really clear about pedestrian access, and we need to think about this not from the average commuter coming down there, but how does my seven-year-old son on his bike get into the park?”

Option A is considered to be a “no-build” scenario, but John Conover said that is a disingenuous term to use. “Option A if you did not have it grade-separated, but used some of the $25 million dollars to improve it, would have a number of greens on it. It may fail in terms of moving cars through the intersection itself, but in every other way could be greatly improved.” He recommended a pedestrian bridge could serve as the gateway that the city is looking for.

Project Manager Owen Peery reminded Conover and the other committee members that federal money may not be available if the selected design does not meet the definition of need as defined by the Federal Highway Administration.

Architect Russell Perry, who was also not at the May meeting, suggested G1 might be a better preference. “If G1 has minimal areas of road, and C1 has moderate areas of road, than G1 is better.” Perry also thought that G1 would presented a better  and safer experience for cyclists and pedestrians.

The large oval in Option C1 was one reason why the peer reviewers expressed a preference for it, because of its ability to create an impressive ‘gateway’ for the city. But John Conover said “The price of having that oval, that pushes it all to the east, and we have less options with the trail.”

Kevin Lynch said Option C1 ranked higher for him because it does not feature traffic signals. “The light does stop the traffic, and it’s safe, but it’s a pain.”

After a long discussion of the matrix, Cheri Lewis: “I think after two days of meetings last month, we made our decision. I think we have a very close second option in G.”

Robert Winstead said he didn’t entirely reject Option C1, but is concerned about the 12-foot retaining walls depicted in the design that uses underpasses and the potential impact on Schenk’s Branch. “C1 has a lot of potential as a roadway and a gateway to the city and I can see how it keeps traffic flowing. But I would certainly say G1 has less impact on Schenk’s Branch, has less impact on the park, it’s better for things other than the road.”

Mike Farrugio, committee member and City Planning Commissioner, said G1 was less desirable to him. “The biggest thing with G1 is you’re talking about traffic lights. And that’s one of the things we’re trying to do away with.”

Project Manager Owen Peery is not a voting member of the steering committee, but he did seek to inspire the committee to retain its preference for C1 because of its potential to create a unique feature for Charlottesville.

“You can pretty much go up and down I-81  and any other Interstate in Virginia and see G1 anywhere else, and if this place is going to be a unique park, different interchange, I think there are still things to solve with C1, but I don’t think G1 provides the type of interchange that you all envisioned when you first started this project.”

Nothing will be decided at next week’s meeting. City Planner Angela Tucker reminded the committee that while the city is administering the project, it must go through certain regulatory hurdles to make sure that the project can still qualify for state and federal funds. The project must comply with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), as well as with environmental guidelines set by the Federal Highway Administration.

An actual selection cannot happen until NEPA assessments are done. Actual design work can’t proceed until VDOT is authorized to begin purchasing the right of way.

Sean Tubbs