Eastern Avenue Bridge Cost Estimate Soars to $39.5M

Country transportation planner Jessica Hersh-Ballering explains the breakdown of the newly increased cost of the Eastern Avenue connector. Photo: Albemarle County.

A key piece of planned Crozet infrastructure was discussed at the August 2 Board of Supervisors meeting, and the county’s analysis revealed its prospects to be considerably dimmed. The long-awaited Eastern Avenue “connector” roadway would link the current end of Eastern Ave. (south of Westhall Drive) across Lickinghole Creek to Cory Farm Road and Rt. 250. The 3,000-foot bridge/road would provide a vital alternative conduit for traffic to and from the park and downtown Crozet and would alleviate snarls along Rt. 250 and Crozet Avenue during rush hours. 

The Eastern Ave. connector’s most recent cost estimate, provided by engineering consultant Kimley Horn in their 2021 alignment study, was $21-24 million. Earlier this year, the Virginia Department of Transportation [VDOT] abruptly boosted the estimate to $39.5 million, citing “contingencies and inflation.” At the meeting, Supervisor Ann Mallek, representative for the White Hall District, said she was “crushed.”

“June 8 was when I learned about the unbelievable escalation in cost for the Eastern Avenue Bridge,” said Mallek, referring to a public meeting for the proposed Oak Bluff development during which Crozet United president Eric Schmitz brought up the increase. “When I first started working on this, it was $1.5 million in 2008—this [project] has been on the list since 1992. I’ve spent 16 years of my life trying to navigate all different levels to get something to even be in the county budget, to even be on the vision list at the planning district commission, and I am crushed at where we are right now.”

The county’s plan to pay for the connector has taken advantage of state “Revenue Sharing” funds. These funds are distributed by VDOT with a commitment that the locality match whatever funds are given, and the limit on the state funds per project is $10 million. Albemarle County has already received $8.1 million for this project from Revenue Sharing, and has matched it with county capital funding for a total of $16.2 million. 

County planners were prepared to request another $1.9 million from the state in this year’s Revenue Sharing application (to reach the limit) and match that with county funds (totaling $3.8 million). After that, the project would still be about $4 million short of the total $24 million—a gap the county was likely to kick in at the end of the process. The new estimate of $40 million is a vastly more difficult climb, as it requires a total of $30 million from the county instead of $14 million. 

Ann Mallek, White Hall district representative to the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors. Photo: Lisa Martin.

“There is no way that the county can right now deal with $30 million to build this bridge today,” said Mallek, “and I am sick about that. Hopefully [planning] staff will begin to consider the ability of current Crozet residents to get around when faced with hundreds or thousands more vehicles in [building] applications coming forward. This community was sent 4,000 dwelling units between 2004 and 2008, and 2,500 people is now 9,600 people since 2005. All those rezonings that were passed were based upon this bridge being built.”

Westlake resident and Homeowners Association President Bill O’Malley said that developers, including Riverbend with its proposed 134-unit Oak Bluff project adjacent to Westlake, assume the bridge will be there to handle excess traffic. “I think the pause button should be pressed on any approvals of development above the owner’s by-right designation [one or two units per acre] until the connector is built,” said O’Malley. “Safety is supposed to be a consideration in these up-zonings, and the county should conduct stress testing of the local infrastructure to make sure the area can support the increased density before going ahead.”

O’Malley pointed to the construction projects that have already been approved that will only add to the congestion. “If you look at the Glenbrook and Montclair developments yet to be built, it doesn’t make sense to continue to use the middle density designation [6 to 12 units per acre],” he said. “I’m not an anti-growth person, but the supervisors are using it as a means to grow at ‘no cost’ because we’re in the designated growth area. It’s just not safe. They [may] look back on this and wonder, you know, was that approval what put the area over the edge and got a person killed?” 

At the August 2 meeting, county planners recommended withdrawing the Eastern Ave. connector’s Revenue Sharing application for this cycle. “[$30 million] is a very large proportion of the overall project cost that would fall on the county,” said Jessica Hersh-Ballering, principal planner for transportation, at the BOS meeting. “Staff would like to consider not pursuing this request for Revenue Sharing funding in this round, so that we can explore alternative funding opportunities that might ultimately cost the county less.” Hersh-Ballering raised the possibility that additional funds might be sought through a VDOT Smart Scale application and other sources, but did not present a plan of action.

Mallek said she understood that county staff must be frustrated as well. “I’m sure that staff is feeling the exact same misery because they also have spent years trying to navigate the briar patches and other ways to make this work better,” she said. “What will be incredibly important is that this not go into some dustbin, but actually stay on a very top-of-mind, active level of trying to find alternatives. There have been offers of [public-private] partnerships over the last 15 years that have been ignored, and I hope that they can be rekindled with some staff engagement. There have been offhand comments from VDOT people who say, ‘Well, the county can just do this itself’ … but how we accomplish that is unknown to me.” 

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Lisa Martin joined the Gazette in 2017 and writes about education and local government. She also writes in-depth pieces about division-wide education issues and broader investigative pieces on topics from recycling to development to living with wildlife. Her Coyotes in Crozet story won a 2017 Virginia Press Association “Best in Show” award for the Gazette. Martin has a Ph.D. from the University of Texas, taught college for several years, and writes fiction and poetry. She co-authored a children’s trilogy about two adventuring cats, the Anton and Cecil series, which got rave reviews from the New York Times Book Review, Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly and others.


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