Road map: Why the route to Bypass alternatives won’t be easy

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

If not a Bypass, then what?

That’s the question being put to a committee of local and statewide elected officials, business leaders, and environmental advocates tasked with advising the Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB) on how best to spend the $244 million allocated for the scrapped Western Bypass around Charlottesville. The advisory panel of 10 meets for the first time in Charlottesville this week, and has seven weeks to put differences aside and offer some solutions to a traffic conundrum that locals have bickered over for decades.

Aubrey Layne, Governor Terry McAuliffe’s transportation secretary, delivered the charge at last week’s monthly meeting of the CTB in Richmond. It had been a month since the Federal Highway Administration effectively froze the Bypass project with a letter indicating it wouldn’t approve funding for the road as planned. Layne made it clear that the governor’s office isn’t interested in the further study that a new, longer route around Charlottesville would require.

“A Bypass alternative, shorter or longer, appears to me to be years in the offing,” Layne said in an interview last month, and that’s too long. Eventually, a road might be a solution, he said, “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.”

The specifics could get sticky.

The committee brings together people who for decades have been on very different sides of the debate over how best to fix the north-south traffic jam in Charlottesville-Albemarle. Divisive as the Bypass was, it also shoved some of those parties into united camps.

Groups representing businesses on Route 29 and lawmakers from Virginia’s Southside communities liked the Bypass for different reasons: It was both a way to steer through traffic around the city and retain the highway as an “urban boulevard” with easy access to shopping centers. Environmental groups and a number of local elected officials—past and present—found common ground with the argument that the proposed road’s design fell short of truly bypassing ever-increasing development here.

But with the Bypass off the table, former allies may find themselves facing off over the one alternative most agree would significantly speed travel time through the corridor: grade-separated interchanges, or overpasses, to replace stoplights at key intersections, particularly at Hydraulic and Rio roads.

The overpasses have been a central part of the argument against the Bypass for years. The Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) has long pointed out that state data shows eliminating stoplights at a few intersections on Route 29 would do more to speed traffic through the corridor than the Bypass alone.

Lynchburg Mayor Michael Gillette, whose political allies in state government have railed against Charlottesville and Albemarle’s opposition to the road, acknowledged that he and other Southside officials see the stop-and-go issue as a big one.

“The more stoplights you put in, the more breaks in traffic you have,” Gillette said. “Route 29 really should be a limited access way, and it’s not.”

“There’s no question that once the interchanges would be built, traffic would move much quicker through our main commercial boulevard,” said Timothy Hulbert, director of the Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce. That’s good from a transportation perspective, he said, but it would be “incredibly destructive” to many businesses. Some would be cut off from traffic completely during the construction of overpasses, and a faster speed limit would discourage shopping traffic long-term, he said, negatively impacting a powerful economic engine.

In that argument, he has an ally in Charlottesville City Councilor Kristin Szakos, a Democrat who sits on the area’s Metropolitan Planning Organization and has publicly opposed the Bypass. City leaders have a real problem with the idea of a grade-separated interchange at Hydraulic, she said, because it would “put up a wall that cuts off prime real estate for city businesses.”

Thursday’s meeting will see them—or at least, somebody making their points—at the same table: Szakos, an SELC attorney, a staffer from Gillette’s office, a representative from the Chamber, and several others. They have 55 days to find some common ground.

For his part, senior SELC attorney Trip Pollard thinks there’s plenty of it. He maintains the overpasses are still an option that should be considered long-term, but there are other ways to fix the 29 corridor that aren’t as controversial or as costly. Some have already won widespread approval and are in the works: The so-called “Best Buy ramp,” which would ease a bottleneck at the intersection of the Route 250 Bypass and Route 29; widening of the highway; and extensions of Hillsdale and Berkmar drives, which are expected to siphon off some local north-south traffic. Pollard said he wants to see discussion of a few more options, like traffic light synchronization and, eventually, expansion of public transit.

“If we could get agreement on a few of those base projects, that would be a huge step forward,” he said.

Hulbert said the Chamber supports a lot of those projects—specifically, the ramp and the extension of the frontage roads—and while he said the group will come into the committee with “open minds,” he’s got an eye on the calendar.

“This is an incredibly ambitious schedule to try to get something done in less than six weeks that our community has been trying to get done for decades,” said Hulbert. A meeting of the minds sounds good, he said, “but you can’t agree for the sake of agreeing. You’ve got to agree on something.”

Szakos, too, questioned the feasibility of finding solutions in seven weeks. When it comes to quick fixes, “there aren’t a lot of options, and we really have to take a step back,” she said. She’d like to see the committee fix its gaze on long-term and potentially big-budget transportation projects—even if it means the B word.

“An eastern bypass is something that’s been on and off the table, but needs to be back on,” she said.

Whatever the committee decides to pitch, the decision on what to fund rests with the members of the CTB, who could technically pick an option nobody in Charlottesville and Albemarle wants: None of the above. Layne emphasized that point in last week’s meeting.

“Ultimately, it will be this board’s decision on what to do with the money,” he said. And his message to those grappling with the task of suggesting how to spend it: Don’t dream too big.

“You want a 20-mile bypass—that won’t happen,” he said.