In an e-mail to the Charlottesville Democratic Party, Councilor Kevin Lynch has provided a detailed response to concerns about his and Mayor Maurice Cox’s opposition to the Meadowcreek Parkway, prompted by comments resulting from their recent press release. Lynch reviews the history of the road, its position in the area road network, its benefits and drawbacks, his requirements for the road, the nature of transportation funding, and his objections to the Council proposal that the land for the road be given away to VDOT. Keep reading for the full text of Lynch’s comments.
The misguided Meadowcreek Parkway
I believe that there are many good reasons for not building the Meadowcreek parkway. What about the reasons in favor of building it? The answers that I hear most often are that it will make it easier for people to get in and out of the City, ease congestion on Park Street and open up McIntire Park. Are these answers valid? Lets consider:
Of course we want to make it easy for people to move freely in and out of the City. Downtown Charlottesville is the regional center for culture, arts, entertainment, business and government. Over the past three decades, the City has made a conscious effort to create and sustain a unique and thriving pedestrian environment – from the original decision to close the mall to automobile traffic, the expansion and upgrading of the mall and surrounding area, support of the City’s transit system (including the very successful trolley route), and up to the most recent plans to complete the East end of the Mall with a new transit center, upgraded amphitheater and pedestrian plaza.
The character and success of the Downtown Mall has largely hinged upon the City’s ability to induce people to come downtown while leaving their automobiles somewhere else. This policy has served the City well for three decades with growing success. I intend to continue to support pro pedestrian policy and will try to improve upon our successes with the help and support of the community.
Anyone who has lived in one of the Central City neighborhoods for any length of time knows that the original motivation behind the parkway was not to bring people downtown, but to make it easier to get regional traffic through the City. The original 30 year old plan so often cited by parkway proponents, was to build a four lane highway through the City, all the way to Route 64. This is why historic Ridge Street was widened to 4 lanes South of Main Street. This highway plan was completely contrary to the City’s pedestrian vision for downtown, which is why many City Councilors before Maurice and myself have fought against the Parkway. These are the shoulders upon which we stand.
One of the most troubling aspects of the Parkway is that it helps to perpetuate a hub and spoke transportation pattern in which the City serves as the only available intersection for cross-county and regional commuters. This problem goes beyond the Parkway, but is exacerbated by it. This is not new. Over a decade ago, a group of Central City neighborhood associations, loosely organized under the Charlottesville Federation of Neighborhoods, recognized this and began working together, particularly in response to the 1994 “Southern Charlottesville Transportation And Entrance Corridor Study”. This joint City/County plan recommended removing parking from Ridge Street and Monticello Ave. in order to use all 4 travel lanes. The plan also recommended widening Fontaine Ave and rebuilding the Avon/Monticello intersection. There was talk of removing parking along Avon Street. Traffic counts were predicted to increase substantially in City neighborhoods. Northern neighborhoods quickly realized that they had a compelling interest in helping the Southern neighborhoods. Since then, an effort has been made to protect City neighborhoods from the onslaught of traffic, but the underlying condition remains the same.: The County is exploding to the South, East and North, with City neighborhoods caught in the middle. As long as there are no roads to carry cross-county commuters around the City, the Meadowcreek Parkway provides an irresistible attractor for County commuters to drive through City neighborhoods.
The only neighborhood which originally did not share in the concern was Park Street, which desperately hoped that the Parkway might solve its own terrible traffic problem. Unfortunately, the Parkway will not solve the Park street problem and will, in all likelihood make it worse, as many Park Street neighborhood residents are now beginning to realize.
For the past decade, Park Street residents have been confounded by traffic studies which consistently show Park Street traffic getting worse – not better – after the Parkway is built. This seems counterintuitive, but it is not. The problem is twofold. First, the Parkway will enable a tremendous amount of new development in the Rio Road area. There are at least 1800 new housing units planned for the immediate area, which will result in about 18,000 car trips per day. While Parkway proponents insist that the new housing will be built anyway, this is not true. Rio Road does not have the capacity for major new subdivisions. Hence subdivision site plans have been sitting on the shelf for years and will continue to sit until the Parkway is built.
Second, the bulk of the traffic is not using Park Street to get downtown. It is using Park Street to get from points North to points East and South in the County. This is obvious from watching current traffic patterns. The Park street bridge has been closed for months so that Park street cannot be used to get downtown. However this has not reduced the amount of traffic on Park Street North of the 250 bypass. Furthermore, as South Eastern Albemarle and Fluvanna continue to explode, this traffic will get worse. Traffic on the 250 bypass is already congested and is projected to gridlock in the next ten years. Without an alternative way to get from North to East in the County, Park Street will continue to be used as a short cut. Not surprisingly, the only scenario in which the VDOT traffic model shows a decrease of traffic on Park Street is if the Eastern Connector is built.
As to the argument for “opening” up McIntire Park: It is certainly true that access to the Park could be greatly improved. The idea that this can be accomplished by putting a highway through the park is highly suspect. The City already tried this once without much success. The southern edge of the parkland which Mr. McIntire originally gave to the City was taken to build the 250 bypass. While there is a bypass exit for the park ball fields, the bypass can hardly be said to provide access to the park. As regional roads go, the 250 bypass is efficient and attractive, but it is a hard barrier around the Park.
The proposed bicycle and pedestrian paths could certainly help to make McIntire Park more accessible but only if these paths can be reached from City neighborhoods. This will not be possible with the existing intersection design.
Is it possible for the Parkway to provide a net benefit the City?
The Meadowcreek Parkway, in its current incarnation would clearly be a net loss to the quality of life in the City. However there are nearby examples, such as the Yorktown Parkway, Rock Creek Parkway and Mount Vernon Parkway that are assets to their surrounding communities. Is it possible to get there from here? My answer is a very conditional yes. The Parkway can be an asset to the City and the region, but only if the City and County are willing to make significant commitments to mitigate the negative effects. These required commitments will benefit the entire region and insure that no harm is done to the City. However they will require significant political will and leadership by all parties: City, County and VDOT.
Even the Councilors in favor of the parkway recognize that a successful outcome is contingent on a number of conditions being met. Nearly three years ago, City Council voted to allow VDOT to proceed with the Meadowcreek Parkway, subject to 12 ‘crucial’ conditions which were put forward in a letter to VDOT signed by then-Mayor Blake Caravati. Description of these 12 conditions spanned 5 pages, but they can be summarized as follows:
1. Signed for 35mph instead of 45mph
2. Two lanes instead of four, alignment according to recommendations of Reiley report
3. Right of way to be for no more than two travel lanes, bike lanes and pedestrian path
4. bike/ped access required at intersection with 250, tight urban interchange requested
5. Bike lanes on the parkway, shared off road bike pedestrian path to run parallel
6. Combine storm water detention ponds into large pond or lake appropriate to the park
7. At least 50 acres of contiguous park land to re-establish McIntire as regional park
8. No cell towers without joint Council and BOS approval.
9. Limited access from 250 bypass to Rio Rd, no trucks, fencing of right of way
10. Commitment of City, County, VDOT and UVA to regional transportation plan
11. VDOT to work with MPO Meadow Creek Parkway Design Advisory Committee
12. Protect, preserve, and care for the Vietnam War Memorial
While Maurice and myself agree with these conditions, we did not sign the letter because we did not believe it was worded strongly enough to secure the necessary commitments to protect the City’s interest.
The only way to avoid the negative consequences of the Parkway is to exercise the leverage that the City has as an independent city in the Commonwealth. Regrettably, three Councilors appear to no longer believe this. Fortunately, the Virginia State Constitution requires that a super majority (in this case 4/5) vote is necessary for the sale of any park land.
Constitutional problems with the proposed parkway “Easement”
Three members of City Council have asked the City attorney to defend a dubious proposition: That the 4-1 vote requirement in the State Constitution for sale of parkland could be circumvented by turning 9.2 acres of parkland into an “easement”.
The City frequently negotiates easements across City property but we don’t give up underlying control of the property. Running a gas line under a City park or allowing the cable company to string cable over City streets is accomplished with an easement. Turning a golf course and softball field into a highway is a permanent change in use. Once a park has been turned into a roadway, there is no other use for it. The right to use and enjoy it by the original owners is gone. It’s no easement. So starting out, the easement proposition is on a very slippery slope.
The next problem we find in the City attorney’s memo is that the easement can not be made open ended and is limited by the State Constitution to 40 years. The memo cites the case precedent. The City of Richmond could not give a conservation easement by simple majority vote because a conservation easement is supposed to last forever and a majority of Council cannot grant an easement without some time limit. In Charlottesville, three councilors don’t even have the authority to put a conservation easement on the park! Yet three councilors claim the ability to grant an easement to turn 9.2 acres of parkland into a major regional roadway. This is preposterous! What else could we do with a major piece of the road network after 40 years is up? Use it as a skate park? Put the land back into recreational use? I don’t think that anyone can honestly argue that the Parkway, once built, could ever be used for anything else other than a road.
There are additional objections of a more technical legal nature. Suffice it to say that the 40 year easement doesn’t pass the smell test and I can not imagine how it would pass the constitutional intent test in the Charlottesville Circuit Court.
Conditions for a 4-1 vote to transfer the parkland
There is no good reason for three councilors to resort to this attempt to stretch the law. I have been very specific and consistent about what it would take to get my vote in order to reach the 4-1 vote required by the Constitution. I do think the Parkway could be an asset to the region. But it has to be in the right context. I believe there is wide support for this context, even among environmentalists and others who have successfully fought the parkway thus far.
First, if its going to be called a parkway, then it needs to be set in a park. Not on the leftover steep slopes and bottom land that can’t be developed after the road goes through. We must get back good land, like the softball field and golf course we’re losing. Any replacement land should be the same quality of parkland that Mr. McIntire gave to the City over 80 years ago – rolling hills with scenic views and recreational use – not swamp land. The only undeveloped land that meets this equivalent functional use requirement is the farm land adjacent to Rio Road, which should be added to a greater McIntire Park. This is completely consistent with the County’s DISC plan, which calls for additional recreation amenities in the urban area to complement its infill strategy.
Second, we need a functioning intersection with the 250 bypass. Since the Mayor’s 12/11/00 letter to VDOT, the City and MPO have been asking for VDOT and the CTB to make a commitment to the interchange. It’s been nearly 3 years and that hasn’t happened. We haven’t even got a design funded. The intersection isnt real until there is money in the State six year plan. We need design money in the State six year plan right away and a commitment for the State to come up with the necessary construction funds in the next 6 years.
Third, we must have a solid and adequately funded commitment to a regional network from VDOT and the County. Phase II of the Meadowcreek Parkway (extending the parkway beyond Rio Rd, and North of the Rivanna River) would create a congestion disaster in the City and is not acceptable. Two essential network elements are the eastern connector and southern parkway. We have been talking about these two projects for decades. Each will do more to relieve congestion in the City than the parkway ever will. Before I will vote for sale of McIntire Park land, we must have a commitment from VDOT and the County to remove Phase II of the parkway. We must begin preliminary engineering for the southern parkway in the next year and have a commitment to complete construction in the next six years. We need a location study for the eastern connector funded in the next two years of the six year plan with commitments for future construction funding. And we need to see a serious state and local funding commitment for transit, bike and pedestrian projects
When we have real functionally equivalent parkland, solid commitments to build the interchange, and concrete steps on the regional transportation plan, then I will agree to the transfer of parkland.
The naysayers say there’s no money in the State transportation coffers. We need to raise our expectations and demand our fair share of transportation tax revenue. City residents pay over $12M a year in gasoline tax and the half percent of sales tax that goes to transportation. We only get $5M a year back, half of which goes to maintenance. In the County, these numbers are roughly double. We’re getting back only a small fraction of the transportation taxes we pay.
The main reason the region has been starved for funding by the State for the past 10 years is because the State has been building up funding for the 29 bypass – a quarter billion dollar project. When the 29 bypass was dropped from the six year plan, the money for the project disappeared. It should have been reprogrammed into other projects. We still have a 10 year unmet transportation need which the bypass was supposed to address.
We can make some real improvements to our transportation network if we can get the transportation investment that should have been coming to the City and County over the past decade. These improvements will greatly benefit the region and the rest of the Commonwealth. Not all of the investment should be in roads, but we will need some roads, especially in the urban area of the County. As citizens of this region we need to make sure our local leaders and legislators in the general assembly understand this.
I believe those who elected Maurice and I voted for us to attempt to improve the quality of live for the people of the City of Charlottesville. Amongst other things this means improving transportation efficiency, making the best possible use of our natural resources and ensuring the economic health of our community. These objectives involve difficult compromises and commitments, but are possible to achieve with political will and leadership. Any attempt to grant an easement now is an end run around the Constitution and a premature give-away. I will vote for the Meadowcreek Parkway only when we have secured the commitments to build an excellent parkway which does no harm to City and minimizes the damage to our Central Park. Anything less is a betrayal of the people of Charlottesville and an insult to the legacy of Paul Goodloe McIntire.