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MPO seeks to increase public say in controversial projects

The Charlottesville-Albemarle Metropolitan Planning Organization is considering adopting a new community engagement policy for controversial transportation projects.

An MPO project to build a shared-use path in the median of Route 20 was submitted as a part of a pre-application for Smart Scale — the current primary method for funding large-scale transportation projects in Virginia — raised concerns over the public process. The path was not supported by the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors.

Last week, Chip Boyles, executive director of the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission, said that the MPO staff would like in future to increase public engagement for at least two of the policy board projects each round.

“We’d like to take a look at putting together a policy that will somehow identify what I would call ‘possibly controversial’ projects, bigger projects, larger scale projects that demand more time and community involvement prior to the pre-application period,” he said. “That way, by the time we’re getting to where we are right now, hopefully everybody will at least be knowledgeable of the details of the concept and will have had a chance to provide input.”

Charlottesville, Albemarle County, TJPDC and the MPO may each submit a maximum of four applications for Smart Scale. Boyles said the new policy would only focus on MPO projects.

A project application for the intersection of Preston and Grady avenues had also received push back, but Charlottesville City Council narrowly approved a resolution supporting the city’s applications earlier this month.

The new policy would open the proposals up for more community engagement, Boyles said, but the downsides include that the projects will have to be identified much earlier than they have been in the past, and that the Virginia Department of Transportation may not be able to help with design work.

“We can organize and we can facilitate the discussions, but we aren’t design professionals, so somewhere the funding would have to be found for the design work to look at the concepts,” Boyles said.

Supervisor Ann H. Mallek said that the issue with the shared use path was that the decisions that ruled out other choices of trail locations were made by a group of people “totally out of view and not all county staff, but private advocacy groups involved, and they were making decisions about spending money.”

She said she wants to prevent that from happening again.

“We have a much clearer process, start to finish, of where these various discussions are going to happen, when they’re going to be, have agendas and meeting minutes, and that we do these things officially, so that they don’t get caught behind again” Mallek said.

Kevin McDermott, the principal planner for transportation in Albemarle, told The Daily Progress in May that the shared-use project was developed from a joint regional bike and pedestrian committee’s request. Piedmont Environmental Council was also involved in the proposal.

According to a staff report, the MPO staff can have draft procedures for review at the September MPO Policy Board meeting.


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