Hundreds of local residents packed the cafeteria at Jack Jouett Middle School Thursday night for VDOT’s public information forum on its environmental assessment of the long-planned Western Bypass around Charlottesville, lining up to leave written or dictated comments on the controversial project.
By 6pm, there were few parking spots at the school, which lies close to the proposed path for the 6.2-mile road. The entrance was choked with attendees stopping at tables set up by opposition groups that lined the school’s front hallway like so many sideshow acts outside the big top, encouraging people to sign petitions and slap on anti-Bypass stickers.
The majority of those who filed into the main attraction—the poster-and-map-filled cafeteria, where blazer-clad VDOT officials circulated slowly and stenographers took down comments—were there to register their disapproval of the project. (The only pro-bypass attendee this reporter found politely refused to be quoted, even anonymously.)
VDOT spokesman Lou Hatter said the state wants to hear from everybody with an opinion. “This is how we get a better sense of how it’s going to affect those who live and work nearby,” he said.
The public comment process also allows officials to make sure they haven’t missed some important consideration during the course of their environmental study. For instance, he said, another state road project was once temporarily halted after a community meeting just like the one at Jouett when a resident pointed out a VDOT detention basin would have destroyed a historic spring. The road was eventually rerouted around the site, Hatter said.
General opposition gets recorded, too. Once the public input period ends—you can add your voice through October 9 on VDOT’s website—the comments are collected, reviewed, and submitted to the FHWA as part of the environmental assessment. The feds will then make their decision on whether the EA stands within a month.
Anti-bypass advocates from local environmental organizations said that the Federal Highway Administration doesn’t turn a blind eye when lots of locals weigh in during the NEPA process. Still, many in attendance said they were wary of the public comment process.
Lynne Taylor and Stephanie Gulraine, both Crozet residents, said they were unhappy with the Bypass plans, but not hopeful their feelings would register with state and federal officials.
“I’m just not sure how we’re being heard,” said Taylor.
Dropping a piece of paper in a comment box didn’t feel like enough, Gurlaine said. Despite the strong turnout, she said she felt the public had been excluded from the real decision-making.
“It’s so reminiscent of what happened this summer with Teresa Sullivan,” she said, referencing the failed ouster of the UVA president by the University’s Board of Visitors. “I hope there’s going to be more rallies. I feel like there should be more.”
Many of the attendees were county residents who live close to the planned Bypass route. One older man who didn’t want to give his name called the project a “dumb expense” that wouldn’t solve the pressing problem of traffic congestion in and around Charlottesville. He said he, too, felt there was an inevitability about the project now, but he was determined to register his discontent.
“It’s all we have,” he said. “It’s the best bureaucracy has to offer.”