A Look at Central Virginia’s Top Transportation Projects

Three transportation projects in the works are expected to make getting in, around and out of Central Virginia much easier. They include the second phase of an ongoing improvement project on Odd Fellows Road, a free downtown bus, and an Amtrak stop in the Town of Bedford.

The Odd Fellows Road project and what’s being called the “Central Business District Circulator” were recently approved by the Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB) using SMART SCALE, a data-driven process that aims to make the best use of the state’s transportation funds.

SMART SCALE, originally called “House Bill 2” or “HB2,” was enacted by law in 2014.

SMART stands for “System for the Management and Allocation of Resources for Transportation.” SCALE refers to how projects are rated based on “improvements to safety, congestion mitigation, accessibility, land use, economic development and the environment.”

Shannon Valentine, the CTB’s Lynchburg-district representative, called what they’re doing with SMART SCALE “historic” and said, “I think it’s an exciting time to be in transportation. Multimodal solutions, objective criteria making our system more predictable and accountable. We’re actually identifying and completing projects.”

Here’s an overview of the three projects:
Odd Fellows Road, Phase II
Phase II of the Odd Fellows Road project includes, among other things, a roundabout at the intersection of Murray Place and Albert Lankford Drive, a new bridge over the Norfolk Southern railroad tracks and a shared-use path.

Phase I, which is currently under way, includes a new interchange on U.S. 460/29 that officials are calling a “new gateway to the city.”

As Paula Jones, communications manager for the Virginia Department of Transportation, described it, Phase II will “complete and complement the current Odd Fellows Road connection and interchange project, thus relieving congestion and providing a better, more-efficient route for truck traffic.”

The $19 million project also will provide an alternate route from Liberty University’s graduate student housing in the Odd Fellows Road area to campus and make getting on and off campus easier for students, faculty, staff and visitors.

“It’s really going to help our folks when they’re trying to get in or out … and create another avenue to get on campus,” Lee Beaumont, senior vice president of auxiliary services at Liberty, said. “This will hopefully address some of the congestion on Candlers Mountain Road and Wards Road, both of which are heavily utilized.”

Beaumont said the shared-use path, which will connect with Liberty’s trail system, will provide additional options for transportation on and off campus. And the road improvements will enable buses—those operated by Liberty and Greater Lynchburg Transit Company (GLTC) — to operate more efficiently.

According to VDOT, work on Phase II is expected to begin in late 2017 or early 2018. The goal is to complete the project during the current six-year plan, which ends in 2022.

“What’s really different is this is the first time we’re identifying projects, funding projects and completing projects in a six-year period,” Valentine said, adding. “We’re responsible—we can answer to you about that — which I think has really benefited this whole process. The transparency is unprecedented.”

Central Business District Circulator
The Central Business District Circulator will provide transportation in Lynchburg’s business center—roughly the downtown area bordered by Fifth, 13th, Court and Jefferson streets. While the exact route has yet to be determined, a diagram submitted with GLTC’s funding request shows one possible route including portions of Main, Jefferson and Court streets.

According to GLTC, which requested $479,348 in state funding for the project, the bus will run from about 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. on weekdays and from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturdays.

The Circulator will not, however, be the trolley used during First Fridays and other downtown events. According to Josh Baker, GLTC’s general manager, “the current trolley is not suited for regular route service” and “needs work that we do not have the funds to complete at this time.”

Instead, GLTC will use a specially decorated bus. “A new bus will be wrapped,” Baker said, referring to a process where vehicles are covered with a decorative, vinyl film. “We plan to do a competition among the community
to name the service and to select from some conceptual designs, or submit their own design.”

Baker also said it will take about a year to activate the service.

According to Rick Youngblood, district planner for VDOT, the project’s target area—which includes streets in close proximity to the proposed route—is home to about 2,000 people. Of these, 62 percent are minorities and 37 percent have incomes below the poverty level.

Youngblood expects people from a wide demographic will use the Circulator, among them millennials and retirees who live in downtown’s 800+ loft apartments and lower income people without vehicles.

Riders also will be able to use the Circulator to access other GLTC buses for transportation beyond downtown. “There are lots of different angles,” Youngblood said. “We’re looking at how this transportation service will be utilized. Millennials, the Grassroots supermarket and restaurants [are] all components coming in to make [downtown] a destination point.”

Bedford Rail Stop
Lynchburg’s Northeast Regional, an Amtrak train that travels to and from Washington, D.C., each day, is being expanded west to Roanoke. Service in the Star City is expected to begin in the fall of 2017. When that happens, some folks hope there’ll be a stop along the way in Bedford.

Susan Martin, president and CEO of the Bedford Area Chamber of Commerce, said people have been “seriously talking” about a Bedford rail stop for two or three years now. This led to a committee being formed to take a “serious look” at whether having a stop was reasonable, along with the formation of the Bedford Franklin Regional Rail Initiative (BFRRI).

The thinking was that people from beyond the Town of Bedford, including the Smith Mountain Lake area and Franklin County, would use the station.

When the BFRRI commissioned a feasibility study, the results were positive. The study predicted the Bedford stop—independent of the boost in riders expected by adding Roanoke—would increase annual ridership by 24 percent or 26,000 people.

These riders are expected to use the train not only to get to D.C., New York, Boston and other northern cities, but also to get to bigger airports in these cities. The stop also is expected to draw tourists and businesses to the area.

“It puts Bedford on the map as a destination for people, not only to come visit but to come here to live and open a business,” Charles Kolakowski, Bedford town manager, said. “The ability for people to have a local train stop, where they can get access to cities up and down the East Coast, is important.”

Before any of that can happen, however, the stop has to be approved by the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation. The DRPT is currently conducting its own feasibility study, which should be completed in late fall.
“We’re doing our due diligence,” Bethany Thomas, the DRPT’s communications and policy manager, said. “We understand it’s something the community wants and, to be honest, there are a lot of communities. If we could put trains … in every community that would be great.

“But we’re talking about slowing down the line when we put in a new stop. It has impacts that go up to the northeast corridor, so our job is to look at the bigger picture and determine whether or not a stop is worth the investment and any sort of disruptions it would have in the rest of the corridor.”

Currently, those west of Lynchburg who want to take the Northeast Regional can utilize a bus service that picks up passengers in Roanoke and Bedford. According to Valentine, who also serves on the DRPT’s rail committee, it’s a popular service. She said it’s “shocking how many people get off the bus and how many are at the rail station every day.”

Due to the popularity of the Northeast Regional, which Valentine said has “exceeded every expectation in ridership and revenue,” a second daily Lynchburg-to-D.C. train will be added in the fall of 2017.

When you include Amtrak’s Crescent line, which originates in New Orleans and stops in Lynchburg, that’s three trains each day providing transportation from Lynchburg to the nation’s capital and beyond.

As Valentine put it, “Lynchburg is becoming a rail hub.”

By Suzanne Ramsey