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

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.”

  • RandySalzman

    The comment count from the public hearing: 114 against bypass, 21 in
    favor, 4 questionable. Another tally had it 118 against bypass. After the FHWA
    letter became known, many anti-bypass folks left.

    When anyone brings their brain (and it’s not connected to their personal
    wallet), one realizes three concepts: 1) that this so-called “bypass”
    isn’t; 2) that the two overpasses and Places29 do SO MUCH more good for such
    less cost; 3)that many are confused by the semantic term “bypass.”

    Everyone, from our CTB members to the 91 percent in past public comments to the
    massive difference last night to the five members of the “new” board
    of supervisor to the Albemarle County electorate, ANYONE who does any research
    realizes that this 6.2-mile cut-thru is ONLY for the advertisers in the North
    Charlottesville Business Council and the downstate business interests who have
    been spouting forever that “if only Charlottesville had a bypass,
    18-wheelers could get from Lynchburg to New York quickly and manufacturing will return downstate.”

    Neither of their arguments holds up to any kind of fiscal scrutiny.

    • Wanago Bob

      I find it distasteful that you call anyone who wants the bypass stupid (half a brain). It is this coarsing of debate that turns off so many citizens. As to not being connected to your wallet the 4 new supervisor rewarded those wealthy individual who gave them 10’s of thousands to stop the bypass. To pretend your side has some distaste or distance from big money is laughable and untrue. The anti bypass side is better funded than just about any other cause in this area. Full page ads in the progress, web ads and all the like cost big money and those rich folks want results. You think those rich folks didn’t make that letter from the feds appear yesterday or are you naive to think it was merely a coincidence. You even admit it had the effect of make anti bypass folks leaving. You must think that having 80 more people show up because an expensive turn out campaign is the way we should have all policy decisions made on transportation decisions for county of 120,000- or .0006 percent of the population rule! Big money, big turn out. It the only way to beat the Weldon Cooper study done by the respect UVa research group.

      I like many others want a road that takes us around the 16 lights and core of our business district. I don’t think that given full cost figure that 2 overpass will cost under $200 million thus making them not much cheaper than the bypass. That before any consideration of the absolute hell that that construction would wreak on our commute for many years. What if it’s not cheaper will you be sorry? What if we lose the 250 million and it doesn’t go to our roads. What will you say if 2 years from now we we won’t have any new road on the plan that we didn’t already have from the previous board. Or can’t your whole brain even consider that as a possibility?

      And as to your support of Bypass Truth, what do you say that your group was found to have broken the law and only a democratic Commonwealth Attorney saved you from being prosecuted?

      • RandySalzman

        First of all, I didn’t call you stupid.

        Second, yep, money talks BUT perhaps this time the money was fairly equal. The North Charlottesville Business Council, the Free Enterprise Forum, Paul Wright’s group had put up money, and don’t forget the Chamber. I don’t know who paid what because I’m not connected to the Bypass Truth Page, or CATCO (or the chamber, etc) except that I post often on the Truth Page for the reasons I outlined. I’m a fiscal conservative who recognizes value, and the VDOT data indicates those two overpasses give MUCH more value to all taxpayers than the bypass.

        Third, are you honestly suggesting that somehow someone local — from either side — convinced the FHWA to write their letter yesterday? I think both sides have eagerly been awaiting the FHWA response for over a year. Remember, please, it was expected by Thanksgiving 2012 and neither pro, nor con, bypass people could proceed without it. From a public perspective, we “pro-Places29” people didn’t want it to come yesterday. Please see today’s Daily Progress for why. That letter buried the “public hearing” and if it had come on another day, on TWO SEPARATE DAYS the lead story would have illustrated reasons against this so-called “bypass.”

        Fourth, you ask a lot of “what if” questions which of course have no
        answers. I use facts: According to our MPO’s Long Range Transportation
        Plan, the Rio Road intersection will cost taxpayers $50.6 million and,
        according to the Places 29 plan, the Hydraulic intersection will cost taxpayers $39.4 million. Might they cost more when actually constructed? Sure. But since VDOT has already revealed the ‘re-designed” Southern Terminus for the “bypass,” we know “bypass” costs will climb, according to the Daily Progress editorial page, some $56 million to push the total to $300 million. And VDOT has also announced that the Northern Terminus must be re-designed as well, for more money. Then there’s the Sammons Historic property and, more money. We taxpayers, however, are not being told how much. Since VDOT engineers projected construction
        costs for the bypass at between $297 and $413 million just a few months before Sec Connaughton accepted Skanska’s “design-build” $136 million construction bid, we can be assured that bypass costs will rise dramatically from that first – and fake – construction bid.

        Fifth, your “commute” worries you. Of course, it does. But why should all your fellow taxpayers across the state and the nation – and even future taxpayers like your children – pay because you worry about your commute? A conservative pro-business editor did the only returnon investment study, Mr. Bob, and he could find only $8 million in benefits for the $300+ million costs of the bypass. Would you invest your hard-earned dollars in any business which provided so few benefits for so much cost? Especially would you invest to address your “commute” when VDOT time data reveals, as the Cville put it this summer, “the data indicate that turning just one congested intersection on 29—Rio—into a grade-separated interchange would have a greater impact on delays (and therefore your commute) than the Bypass would.”

        Sixth, there is a plan and it is partially funded. It’s called Places29 and three projects in it are underway (but no dirt turned yet). In two years – if nothing else –, stoplights on U.S. 29 will enjoy “adaptive synchronization,” for example. In Pantops, where they have already been installed, according to VDOT, stops have been decreased by 64 percent. I don’t know if Hilsdale extended, Berkmar and the Best Buy ramp will be finished by then but it won’t be long afterwards.

        Finally, I know nothing about how or even what the DA decided about Supervisor Boyd’s charges against the Bypass Truth Page but I doubt her being a “Democratic Commonwealth Attorney” – to use your words – would have had much to do with it. Republicans, after all, like Jim Rich, like Jim Bacon, like Eric Schmitz are very much opposed to this “bypass” for the fiscally-conservative reasons that I’m opposed.

        Please, Mr. Bob, I am appealing to your reason with research and facts. That illustrates that I do believe you are intelligent. What I ask is that you do some of the research yourself; that you bring your brain to the discussion. Because I think you’re an intelligent person, I believe that if you do the research yourself (and quit trusting Ken Boyd) and look at the facts which are incredibly clear if you take the time to read them – those two overpasses do more for congestion, for safety and for traffic speeds for about one-third the cost than the bypass – you will become even happier than I am that our new board of supervisors and the FHWA appear poised to save us from this massive fiscal irresponsibility.

        • brilliantmindonthemountain

          Talk about adaptive synchronization — it is a fitting description of your response — and your arguments.

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