As feds call for Bypass alternatives, state official says it’s time to consider selling right of way

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The Western Bypass. File image. The Western Bypass. File image.

This story includes reporting from a previous article that ran last Thursday.

The day before a marathon public hearing that wrapped with a local vote to oppose the Western Bypass last Wednesday, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) ended its year-and-a-half-long silence on the project by sending the Virginia Department of Transportation back to the drawing board to examine alternatives.

But it’s the response of newly appointed Virginia Secretary of Transportation Aubrey Layne that may have the biggest impact. He’s given VDOT a month to come up with a plan to move forward with improvements to the congested Route 29 corridor through Albemarle County. And while he insisted that “everything is on the table,” his preference is clear. He doesn’t want to see years of further study, and if the new fix doesn’t require the Bypass right-of-way through Albemarle, the state should consider selling off the land.

“The longer we take to make a decision on that, the more chances there will be that the money will be gone,” Layne said.

The letter, sent to Virginia Department of Transportation Commissioner Charlie Kilpatrick from Irene Rico, a senior FHWA administrator in Richmond, is brief. The message, in short: We’re not convinced this project is worth funding.

“Our legal counsel has advised us to reassess the purpose and need of the project in light of the changes in the Route 29 corridor that have occurred over the past 20 years to determine if it remains appropriate since the need appears to have been expanded well beyond the existing project limits,” the letter reads.

It’s the proverbial other shoe that state and local officials—and everybody watching the Bypass issue—have looked for during the past a year-and-a-half. In August 2012, VDOT submitted its latest draft environmental assessment on the project to the FHWA, which, as controller of the federal purse, has a trump card. The massive document details the impacts and benefits of the project, and the federal agency could have either accepted it and let things move forward, or sent VDOT back to the drawing board to work up an even bigger, more comprehensive review: an additional environmental impact statement (EIS) to replace or add to one that’s been on the books for 20 years.

The FHWA wants the latter—a supplemental EIS, which could take years. But Layne made it clear he and Governor Terry McAuliffe don’t want to wait that long.

“A Bypass alternative, shorter or longer, appears to me to be years in the offing,” Layne said in a phone interview. “So my perspective is fine, that may be a longer-term part of the solution. But there are bound to be things we can do now on existing 29 and roads running parallel to it to help the traffic situation.”

But he also said it’s time to consider recouping some of the $33.7 million the state has already spent on acquiring land to build the Bypass. If the solution VDOT comes up with next doesn’t use the planned right-of-way through Albemarle, “we should look at selling it back,” he said.

Layne said he’s not asking VDOT to deliver specific project proposals by the end of next month, but he does want the state to take a critical look at some of the alternatives that have been proposed for the corridor in the past, including overpasses at high-traffic intersections. Many of those potential improvements are laid out in Places 29, a plan for the corridor developed before the Bypass was brought back to life by local and state Republicans in 2011.

Whatever the ultimate decision, it needs to be made with input from Albemarle and Charlottesville officials, he said. The same sentiment shows up in the FHWA letter, which directs VDOT to “work closely with local representatives to gain their support of the transportation improvement moving forward.”

Those words added clout to the Board of Supervisors’ 5-1 vote last Wednesday to officially oppose the road.

Only Ken Boyd—the Board’s sole Republican and only Bypass backer—voted no. For nearly an hour, he picked the resolution apart. It was largely symbolic, he pointed out, as it included a caveat that the Board doesn’t want the state to defund the project. And he challenged language that summarized decades’ worth of Bypass opposition talking points: that cheaper, better alternatives to alleviating traffic on 29 had been embraced and then abandoned; that the planned road would do little to speed travel time through the corridor; that it would harm the local environment. His fellow supervisors passed the measure anyway.

“I’m disappointed, because I think it’s truly what the majority of people in this community wanted,” Boyd said.

Others had much stronger words.

“I know there are a few families in Charlottesville celebrating this anti-growth decision from the Obama administration, but in fact, this is bad news for the City of Charlottesville and its transportation needs,” said State Senator Steve Newman, the Lynchburg Republican who has long pushed for the Bypass and railed against locals for opposing it.

There’s no question in his mind the feds’ decision to put the Bypass on ice is a carefully timed political move—the letter’s call for local buy-in of a strongly Democratic, anti-Bypass group of elected officials is evidence of that. “You can’t have absorbed the last 22 years and see this snap decision and not recognize politics for what it is,” Newman said.

“I’m hoping I’m wrong, but my guess is in 30 days, we’ll have nibbling-around-the-edges reforms like interchanges, lane widenings, and synchronization of lights,” he said. “But in the end, you’ll have abandonment of the current right-of-way, and you’ll have a couple of small Band-Aids in an effort to fix a pretty major wound in the Charlottesville transportation system.”

Those are just the sorts of alternatives the Board of Supervisors wants VDOT to consider. But Boyd’s not convinced they would be quick fixes. Even with no Bypass, any work on the Route 29 corridor through his county “is going to be a multi-year project,” he said. And he believes that lag could imperil the $244 million the state has set aside to improve the road.

That, at least, is something he and Layne agree on.

“The longer we don’t reach consensus, the more possible it is that those monies will not stay there,” the transportation secretary said. “We don’t have unlimited resources. There are plenty of uses for the money.”