By Rachel Petterson, contributor
As Harrisonburg prepares for the estimated $10 million project to reroute University Boulevard, the construction is expected to improve traffic flow while adding a walking and biking path — but will also lead to some big changes in that area, including the demolition of eight homes.
City officials on Wednesday held a public meeting to discuss the University Boulevard realignment project. The meeting, held in the City Council Chambers at City Hall, resembled an open house more than a formal meeting as city officials sought to explain the project to small groups of people. They also encouraged people to participate in a survey about the realignment.
The survey available at Wednesday’s meeting is still available online until Sept. 21. Tom Hartman, the city’s director of public works, strongly encouraged the public to participate in the survey, which asks about people’s questions and concerns, as well as how they use the University Boulevard corridor.
Members of the Department of Public Works, as well as a design consultant from VHB that was hired for the project, were there to answer questions from a small, but steady stream of residents. Those who attended could also view the proposed realignment plans that were displayed on boards throughout the room.
It is projected that construction will begin in March or April of 2025 and end by December 2025. The neighborhood around the new road will be more affected by the construction than drivers who use University Boulevard because the current road will still be usable during much of the construction, Hartman said.
Erin Yancey, public works planning manager, said projects like this take so long to complete after they are started because government grants for them cannot be accessed until several years after they are applied for.
The project is being funded half by JMU and half by a Virginia Department of Transportation revenue sharing grant, Hartman said. The projected budget is $10 million.
Concern about homes to be demolished
When asked what feedback the city has already received from residents and businesses, Hartman said some have expressed concerns about eight homes and buildings slated for demolition.
“We have concern … with unfortunately some of the demolitions that have to take place, with some of the residential structures,” Hartment said. These parcels were donated by JMU and are shown on the plans with orange diagonal hashing. They will be donated by JMU next summer, at which point the homes will be removed, as well as utility lines moved as necessary.
The properties set to be demolished are managed by JMU, which Hartman says has assured the city that residents have been given a year’s notice and the properties will be vacated when they are transferred to the city next July.
“They’ve assured us that they’re taking every provision to make sure that everyone’s taken care of that reside in those homes” Hartman said. Because JMU is managing those properties, the city is not directly involved in how those properties are handled at this point.
The Citizen reached out for comment by email and phone to JMU’s spokesperson but did not receive a response.
As for the effects on homes in the surrounding neighborhood, Hartman said there could be disruptions of utilities from time to time.
“There might be small interruptions to their services while we do relocation activities in ‘23 and ‘24,” Hartman said. “But through our utility partners, we’ll make those contacts to let them know of those potential water, power, cable outages while we make those new connections.”
A long time coming
Yancey said rerouting University Boulevard has been discussed long before it became an official proposal more than six years ago.
Hartman added that the need for the rerouting became more pressing once Reservoir Street expanded to four lanes from two.
“We knew that, OK, we get that done — how do we get some of the other arteries to this safely to improve that connectivity so we weren’t gumming up East Market Street and Neff Avenue with everyone trying to load to Reservoir Street? Let’s improve these connections, and University was one of those connections that we wanted to investigate,” he said.
The expansion of Reservoir Street was coupled with a growth in population and businesses around the area.
“We knew that with Reservoir’s capacity, people needed to get there,” Hartman said. “We thought that University was a good ulterior connector, but the way that you had to get around it wasn’t the safest–wasn’t the easiest to do–wasn’t really conducive to wanting to produce that connectivity. So we started mapping out where it could potentially go.”
City officials knew JMU was a potential partner in this project because the road runs along, and in some cases through, the university’s east campus. With JMU’s help, the city began a feasibility study in 2017.
The route presented Wednesday is the preferred route after three or four earlier drafts the city explored with its consultant, VHB, that had outlined different ways of reconfiguring the corridor to connect Port Republic Road to Carrier Drive. The current version takes into account factors such as potential roundabouts and how intrusive the route would be to the surrounding neighborhoods.
Not just a road
Also this week, the city released pictures and videos of the proposed realignment plans.
Yancey says in the video that the proposed plans entail University Boulevard continuing from Forest Hill Road to the existing University Boulevard, which will still intersect with Carrier Drive and continue to Reservoir Street. The realignment would shorten the path between Port Republic Road and Reservoir Street, decrease curves and hills in the road, and promote access to nearby commercial areas without the use of highways.
It also includes the addition of an intersection connecting the new University Boulevard to JMU’s recreation center. Existing bus stops would be relocated on the new alignment.
And the plans include the addition of a shared-use path along the new University Boulevard. This path will be 10 feet wide and is designed for both walking and biking.
The path would not only continue along the new University Boulevard but would also connect to the path currently running along the existing University Boulevard, which would remain even after the road is gone. Furthermore, a sidewalk would be added to the other side of the road, which would continue on to connect to the JMU Arboretum’s paths.
However, these plans are not final.
“We kind of know the line and grade of where we want the road to go,” Hartman said. “We know what the impacts are to all the adjoining property owners.”
The right-of-ways process is the next step, during which the city will officially get permission to use the land needed to build the new road.
Hartman said the meeting Wednesday was to “see if there are any tweaks or changes or amendments we need to make before we move into that final push to get design done.”
Journalism is changing, and that’s why The Citizen is here. We’re independent. We’re local. We pay our contributors, and the money you give goes directly to the reporting. No overhead. No printing costs. Just facts, stories and context. We’re also a proud member of the Virginia Press Association. Thanks for your support.