A new bicycle and pedestrian bridge across the Rivanna River between Pantops and Woolen Mills could be placed near the end of East Market Street and connect to property near the former State Farm office, the Charlottesville-Albemarle Metropolitan Planning Organization policy board voted 4-1 Wednesday.
The decision about the bridge moves it one step closer to reality after years of discussion, as construction is still contingent on approval and funding from state. Yet the vote was semi-controversial, as many people had voiced preference for another proposed location near Riverview Park.
The panel voted to support submitting the East Market Street location to the next round of the state’s Smart Scale process, which is the current primary method for funding large-scale transportation projects in Virginia. A 2020 study estimated locating the bridge at the East Market Street site could cost $15.4 million.
The state will release a funding scenario in January, and the Commonwealth Transportation Board will decide final approval in June 2023. Funded projects get put in the state’s six-year improvement program and can take between four to six years to begin.
Another alignment, near Chesapeake Street and Riverview Park in Charlottesville, was also under consideration. That location was the preferred option by the advisory group that consulted on the process, the MPO technical committee and community members who weighed in on a survey and at a community meeting. Both bridges would end at a path near the intersection of Pantops Drive and State Farm Boulevard.
However, the MPO policy board preferred the East Market Street location because it connects two economic centers and is further away from busy Riverview Park. The East Market Street location is expected to be longer and more expensive than the Chesapeake Street location.
Albemarle County Supervisor Ann H. Mallek, Albemarle Supervisor Ned Gallaway and Charlottesville Mayor Lloyd Snook, who are all MPO policy board members, supported the East Market Street location.
“I think it has a lower impact on the residents very much nearby,” Mallek said. “There are things in the Broadway corridor which the county has been planning and working on for several years, including more sidewalk connections and improvement of the connector road, which would also benefit users of the bridge, and yet not be part of our bridge project.”
The former Woolen Mills factory has been redeveloped into the corporate campus for WillowTree Inc., a mobile app and web development company, as well as an event space, restaurant and microbrewery, and the county recently finished an economic revitalization plan along the light industry-zoned Broadway Street.
Snook said the current choice might also help in the application evaluation with the state. He said the state might view the application “more favorably if we could, with a straight face, argue this economic development piece.”
He said neighbors to Riverview Park near the Chesapeake alignment would rather the park be “a more natural kind of experience.”
“The notion of putting the bridge in there, thereby increasing both car traffic and foot traffic and bike traffic and everything else through that area that the neighbors would rather think of as more natural, is a bit jarring to them,” he said.
After Snook spoke in favor of the East Market Street alignment, an audience member via Zoom said “unbelievable.”
At a March 10 special policy board meeting to discuss the project, Annie Sutton, a Woolen Mills neighborhood resident who served on the advisory group, spoke in favor of the East Market Option.
“I believe it solves any number of problems,” she said. “It preserves the natural area of Riverview Park; it creates another badly needed access point to the Rivanna; it’s a simple solution to parking issues; it does not add to already overwhelming traffic in the Woolen Mills; and the alignment with Broadway provides more direct and physically easier pedestrian/bike route to downtown, not to mention the opportunities for economic development along the route.”
City Councilor Brian Pinkston, who is also on the MPO policy board, voted against the alignment, and said he favored the one near Chesapeake Street.
Sean Nelson, Virginia Department of Transportation’s Culpeper District engineer, is the other voting member on the policy board. He did not specify a preference ahead of voting in favor of the East Market Street location.
Over the years, multiple planning documents, including Albemarle’s Pantops Master Plan, Charlottesville’s Bike/Ped Master Plan, and the Rivanna River Area Plan, have called for a pedestrian and bike crossing of the Rivanna River in the vicinity of Riverview Park.
Consultants for the Virginia Department of Transportation completed a feasibility study for a possible pedestrian bridge over the river in the area of Riverview Park in 2020, which identified two potential crossings of the river.
In that 2020 study, the cost estimate for the Chesapeake Street alignment was $11.3 million, and the cost estimate for the East Market Street alignment was $15.4 million.
Last year, the MPO policy board chose the bike and pedestrian crossing of the Rivanna River as one of four projects that will be submitted to the next round of the state’s Smart Scale process.
The state gives submitted projects a benefit score based on safety, congestion mitigation, accessibility, land-use, economic development and environmental quality, which is then divided by the overall amount of funding that is being requested.
The MPO established a framework to select up to two projects of regional interest that would benefit from additional public engagement after concerns over public processes were raised about a project to build a shared-use path in the median of Route 20 that had been submitted as a part of a pre-application for the prior round of Smart Scale. The crossing is one of the projects receiving additional engagement.
A 13-person stakeholder advisory committee met from November to February to discuss the alignments and provide a recommendation to the policy board. Five committee members said at a February meeting that they preferred the Chesapeake Street option, while four preferred East Market Street.
In a public online survey, 833 respondents were asked to rate the two location scenarios using a five star scale based on a map and a set of provided pros/cons. The Chesapeake Street alignment received an average of 3.98 stars, and the East Market Street Alignment received an average of 3.4 stars.
Between a cable-stayed bridge, a standard truss bridge and an arched truss bridge, more online survey respondents preferred a cable-stayed bridge at either location.
Nelson with VDOT said cable-stayed bridges are considered special structures.
“From our stance, if this structure, a cable-stayed bridge, were to be proposed and approved, the department would not like to bear the cost of that additional maintenance for those structures,” he said. “If a cable-stayed bridge is an option that people want, we would look for the locality or the city to come up with some type of agreement to maintain such a structure.”
He said VDOT doesn’t have “any firm data” on maintenance costs, as there aren’t other pedestrian cable-stayed bridges in the state.
The policy board members supported preference for some form of truss-style bridge.
Sandy Shackleford, director of planning and transportation for the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission, said staff will be back in the coming months for a formal resolution of support for all the proposed Smart Scale projects.