Bypass’ last gasp? Federal Highway Administration, supes deal heavy blows to project

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Bypass opponents—and a few supporters—packed Lane Auditorium Wednesday, February 19, for a public hearing on the project. Photo: Graelyn Brashear Bypass opponents—and a few supporters—packed Lane Auditorium Wednesday, February 19, for a public hearing on the project. Photo: Graelyn Brashear

Wednesday was a big day for Bypass opponents.

For weeks, all eyes had been on the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors, whose new left-leaning, anti-Bypass majority voted to hold a public hearing yesterday on the controversial road. But the seven-hour meeting and the board’s ultimate vote to pass a resolution opposing the Bypass were upstaged by the news of a letter from a Federal Highway Administration official that effectively halts the project.

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.

After news of the letter broke (NBC29 had the story first locally, and Charlottesville Tomorrow followed up with a detailed look), Albemarle County Administrator Tom Foley read it aloud to supervisors and the crowd of hundreds gathered in Lane Auditorium at the County Office Building.

“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.

A little background: State and local officials—and everybody watching the Bypass issue—have been waiting for something like this for a year and a half. In August 2012, VDOT submitted its latest draft environmental assessment on the project to FHWA, which, as controller of the federal purse, has a trump card. The massive EA document details the impacts and benefits of the project, and the federal agency could either accept it and let things move forward, or send VDOT back to the drawing board to work up an even bigger, more comprehensive review: a new environmental impact statement to replace or add to one that’s been on the books for 20 years.

FHWA wants the latter. It’s not entirely clear what VDOT’s next steps will be—the agency’s lawyers are likely vigorously tackling that question. But the feds’ request for more justification could set the project back years, and their tone implies they’re not looking favorably on it.

“A supplemental EIS would allow both FHWA and VDOT to take a fresh look at the needs that exist in the Route 29 corridor and develop a solution that is supported by the public and localities in general,” reads Irene Rico’s letter. “Additionally, we encourage you to work closely with local representatives to gain their support of the transportation improvement moving forward.”

Those local representatives responded last night with a 5-1 vote to officially oppose the road. The supervisors’ decision came after the vast majority of speakers during the six hours of public comment spoke up against the Bypass. But the resolution, drafted by Jouett District Representative Diantha McKeel two days before the meeting, didn’t exactly sail through.

“Just about every single ‘whereas’ here, I’ve got a problem with,” said Ken Boyd, the board’s only Republican, and, now, its sole supporter of the road. For nearly an hour, he picked the resolution apart, challenging 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.

“We’re not asking for termination of the Western Bypass,” said Board Chair Jane Dittmar.

In fact, McKeel’s resolution ends by clearly stating that, because a provision of Virginia’s state code could stick Albemarle with the bill for part of the unfinished project if the county asks VDOT to kill it. Dittmar said the point of the resolution was to ask Governor Terry McAuliffe, Secretary of Transportation Aubrey Layne, and the Commonwealth Transportation Board to use the $244 million set aside for the Bypass for other projects.

“We are saying there are certain aspects to improving 29 congestion and safety that are critical [and] need to be funded,” she said. “And the last thing in the world we want to do is lose money that is allocated to the Western Bypass.”

For Dennis Rooker, the longtime Jouett District representative on the Board who decided not to run again in 2012, Wednesday’s meeting offered some satisfying symmetry. Rooker was a tireless Bypass opponent in his years as an elected official, and was outraged in 2011 when Republicans—including the still-sitting Boyd—engineered a revival of the Bypass with an unexpected late-night vote to change the county’s stance and fund the project.

“I’m very happy that this board has corrected what I think is a three-year mistake, and I’m very happy that the Federal Highway Administration has weighed in on this,” said Rooker, who acknowledged that he had a hand in helping McKeel draft her resolution. The FHWA letter “supports everything this board had been saying before June 2011, and they are recognizing that this is not a project the federal government or the state should be investing their money in.”

And whether or not the Board of Supervisors has the regulatory power to stop the Bypass on its own, he said, what happened in Lane Auditorium Wednesday mattered as a new formulation of local government priorities.

“I think it will have an effect on the ultimate decision,” he said. “This is a first part to telling [the FHWA] that this board made a mistake in June of 2011, and that they really agree with the assessment in the Federal Highway Administration’s letter that there are more effective, less environmentally damaging, and more cost effective solutions.”