The state’s transportation panel awarded a $116.7 million contract Wednesday for a trio of U.S. 29 projects, including the controversial Rio Road interchange.
Lane Construction Corp., of Chantilly, and Corman Construction Inc. of Chesterfield, are scheduled to begin construction of the interchange at Rio and U.S. 29 later this year.
The contract also tasks the joint venture with extending Berkmar Drive across the Rivanna River and widening U.S. 29 between Polo Grounds Road and Towncenter Drive. The design-build team is composed primarily of Lane, Corman and engineering firm RK&K of Richmond, state officials said.
The city of Charlottesville is managing plans to extend Hillsdale Drive between Hydraulic and Greenbrier roads, another in the series of projects aimed at unclogging the bustling U.S. 29 corridor through Albemarle County’s retail district.
“I think this is a good solution,” board Chairman and State Secretary of Transportation Aubrey Layne said. “The bid we received was substantially lower than we anticipated the project to cost.”
State transportation officials had projected the total cost of the three projects being handled by Lane-Corman at $185.6 million, $84.3 million of that for the Rio interchange. That cost covered the bulk of the $230 million bundle of projects approved by the board last year in the wake of the feds scuttling plans to build the Western Bypass of U.S. 29.
While other work in the plan has generated little outcry, business leaders and merchants along U.S. 29 have said the interchange poses a threat to their bottom lines. The project would carry Rio over U.S. 29 with two lanes in each direction of the main thoroughfare running beneath the road.
"This isn't he final solution," Layne said, "but it will help congestion from through and local traffic in the corridor."
Wednesday's vote followed a recommendation during a Tuesday board work session from former Virginia Department of Transportation Commissioner Philip A. Shucet, a state-contracted advisor on the projects.
“My belief in the interchange is now stronger than ever,” Shucet said Wednesday afternoon. “By September next year, the road will be in the ground and open to traffic.”
The U.S. 29 underpass beneath Rio will cover 194 feet with retaining walls flanking its approach in either direction for less than 600 feet, he said.
All 39 business entrances on U.S. 29 will remain open during and after interchange construction, Shucet said. Smart29, a local coalition opposed to the project, has said drivers will “lose access forever” to retailers along the U.S. 29 corridor and “visibility” for those businesses will be gone once the retaining walls are built.
County supervisors largely have been unmoved.
“We’re fortunate to be the recipient of such a significant investment from the state,” county Supervisor Diantha McKeel said Wednesday. “It’s money returned to our locality.”
Supervisor Kenneth C. Boyd, the county board’s lone remaining bypass backer, said money has influenced his colleagues’ support for the interchange.
“The [state] waved millions of dollars under the other supervisors’ noses,” Boyd said. “Despite opposition from members of the community, they’ve decided to take the money and run.”
He joined Smart29 representatives Wednesday in presenting 14,000 correspondences he and the coalition said they have received from people opposed to the interchange. Smart29 spokesman Grant Gamble said a survey the group conducted earlier this month through the Richmond-based Conquest Communications Group indicated that only 1 in 5 residents favor the interchange.
“The purpose for the interchange is not supported by data,” Gamble said. “Accidents and traffic in the corridor have been going down in recent years.”
In addition to supervisors Brad Sheffield, Ann H. Mallek and Liz Palmer, Charlottesville Mayor Satyendra Huja and former four-term county Supervisor Sally H. Thomas spoke during the meeting, both expressing support for the interchange.
“All studies that the [regional Metropolitan Planning Organization] did over the last 22 years show that the grade-separated interchange is the only solution that raises the level of service for through and local traffic,” Thomas said. “It’s a logical step."
Boyd said he attended Wednesday’s meeting to ask that the board re-sequence the projects so parallel road networks could be developed before construction of the interchange. He contested VDOT’s traffic projections, saying they are based only on anticipated population growth. Boyd also said traffic volume at the intersection has decreased in recent years as a result of neighborhood planning for mixed-use areas elsewhere in the county.
“I’m disturbed that my colleagues have been ignoring all of this data from our police and VDOT,” he said. “The panels, supervisors, MPO and CTB have been allowed to put a little lipstick on this pig, but it doesn’t change what the [interchange] is: A bad idea for our community.”
Layne said he expects contractors will begin work on the interchange as a project to expand the U.S. 250-U.S. 29 intersection nears completion.
The interchange is scheduled to open by Sept. 2, 2016, and the entire project is scheduled to be finished Dec. 2, 2016. All other projects in the contract are to be finished by Oct. 31, 2017, officials said. Layne said the contractor could incur financial penalties for each day after those deadlines, and incentives of “as much as $10 million” could be offered if the interchange is complete before fall 2016, he said.
“The sooner this gets done, the better,” Layne said.
“There’s a lot of people in the middle of this debate who have been saying ‘just get something done,’” he said.
Shucet’s advisory panel on the projects is scheduled to hold its regular meeting at 2 p.m. Thursday at the Virginia Center for Transportation Innovation and Research. A link to a live stream of the meeting will be available at www.Route29Solutions.org.
This article originally appeared in The Daily Progress.
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