Route 29 solutions spur community debate

Local small business owners fear negative impact

nsusroute29sign

The Virginia Department of Transportation’s planned highway improvements along the Charlottesville and Albemarle portions of Route 29 — $84 million worth of projects — have sparked a debate in the local community over the impact of the construction.

Collectively called Route 29 Solutions, the Commonwealth approved funding the plan in June 2014, including the redesign of the Route 29/Rio Road intersection as a grade-separated intersection.

Although the grade separation would reduce traffic congestion through the Route 29 corridor, community members have questioned its benefits. Smart29 — a coalition of concerned community members — was formed in response to the planned construction to convey these worries to VDOT.

Smart29 Executive Director Laura Knox said the group worries VDOT is rushing the planning process and giving misleading information to the impacted region.

“There is a very big level of frustration in terms of folks who are just learning about this because it’s such a fast-tracking method [VDOT is] using,” Knox said. “[VDOT has] taken all these projects and bundled them into a package… [and said the package] is all or nothing, which just isn’t true.”

Albemarle County Supervisor Ken Boyd — the sole dissenting voice on the county’s Board of Supervisors — said he sympathized with Knox’s concerns. Boyd said VDOT needs to do more research on the area before beginning a large construction project and adhere more closely to the plan Albemarle had designed.

“Our comprehensive plan says that we are supposed to study [the Route 29/Rio Road] intersection before we go ahead and build it… [but] VDOT says we have to build [the new intersection] first,” Boyd said.

Knox also said he thought the Route 29/Rio Road improvements might actually hinder local drivers through its effort to help commuters.

“[The improvements will cut off] approximately 40 seconds in the morning and 60 seconds in the evening, but only in the express lanes,” Knox said. “The 90 percent that lives here [and don’t use express lanes] will be more inconvenienced.”

However, Brad Sheffield, Rio District representative to the Board of Supervisors, said the Route 29/Rio Road construction will benefit the community, particularly for through-traffic.

“The through-traffic time savings is only one of the many aspects to the improvement,” Sheffield said in an email. “The Rio Road cross traffic will be greatly improved with faster signal times. This is the same with traffic turning on and off Rio Road…These cars will be able to turn onto Rio Road faster and the number of cars queuing (gathering at the red light) will be lessened.”

Sheffield provided a different perspective on VDOT’s short timeline. He said the fast-moving construction process is in the interest of the community, which has expressed impatience with finding traffic solutions.

“The general comment is just get something done because people have seen this corridor be studied, planned, and designed for about 20 years now,” Sheffield said. “I think everybody is quite tired of this, and while they may not fully agree on all the aspects, they just want to see some improvements made.”

Smart29, however, is also concerned over the possible damage construction will inflict on nearby small businesses. Larry Howard, owner of Specialty Guitars near the intersection, said the possible benefits of this new intersection are not worth the risks.

“If you do any kind of historical research on these kinds of projects, any kind of construction of this magnitude would definitely put small businesses like us out of business,” Howard said. “[VDOT is] going to spend $84 million on the project that isn’t going to do anything… [and] will cause more problems in the long run. Whether I had a business here or not, I would have the same opinion…it just doesn’t work.”

Owner of C’Ville Coffee Twan Nguyen said he was similarly concerned with the construction’s effect on small businesses near the intersection, and said the community should be wary of small-business closings.

“Larry will not be able to survive, period — and Larry represents all the small businesses of our community who will not survive,” Nguyen said. “The U.S. 29 Corridor generates 40 percent of the tax revenue for Albemarle County, so the residents that are part of our coalition are concerned that [the tax] will be transferred onto them as real estate tax.”

However, Sheffield said Smart29 and other dissenting groups are manipulating relevant data to sway the community’s opinion against the projects.

“The amount of misinformation that has come from the opposition is kind of unexpected,” Sheffield said. “They’ve manipulated the data to swerve their own agenda, to say the traffic is declining, and the VDOT professionals who actually do this for a living will combat that and say it’s actually increasing at about 1 percent per year.”

Nevertheless, Sheffield acknowledged potential business dangers of the Route 29/Rio Road construction.

“Without a doubt, nobody is arguing that [construction] won’t hurt the small businesses,” Sheffield said. “That’s just a natural part of any community’s growth that these construction projects occur and businesses adapt. The county is trying to find any way it can within its limited resources to help these businesses.”

Knox encouraged the community to participate in the debate surrounding the Route 29/Rio Road construction.

“The most important thing I can tell folks is, if they’re concerned, to come to the Board of Supervisors meeting on Feb. 4 at 6 p.m. at the County Office building,” Knox said.

related stories