As Route 29 projects take shape, some criticize rapid ramp-up

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A conceptual drawing depicting what the intersection of Rio Road and Route 29 could look like with a grade-separated interchange. VDOT will present more details at an August 28 meeting of the Route 29 Project Delivery Advisory Panel in Charlottesville. Image courtesy VDOT A conceptual drawing depicting what the intersection of Rio Road and Route 29 could look like with a grade-separated interchange. VDOT will present more details at an August 28 meeting of the Route 29 Project Delivery Advisory Panel in Charlottesville. Image courtesy VDOT

We don’t know exactly what the Route 29 of the future is going to look like, but we do know changes are coming fast—too fast for some business owners who fear the isolating effects of construction and new traffic patterns.

The latest timeline for the first slate of projects was at the center of the discussion at last week’s meeting of the Route 29 Project Delivery Advisory Panel in Charlottesville, the second of two stakeholder groups led by former Virginia Department of Transportation commissioner Philip Shucet and tasked with vetting plans and potential contractors for an eventual $200 million set of improvements to the congested highway through Albemarle. VDOT is already seeking qualified contractors for the first round of projects—extra lanes, an extension of parallel road Berkmar Drive, and, most controversially, a stoplight-eliminating overpass at Rio Road—and according to Shucet, will be ready to present plans to the public in just under a year.

The idea that a firm could be poised to start digging so soon is unsettling to some of the business owners on the panel.

“I am somewhat concerned that these projects, which are not fully designed, are moving along at 100 mph,” said Henry Weinschenk, a panel member who owns Express Car Wash in Seminole Square.

But like the latter phase of the now-scuttled Western Bypass before it, this is a project package designed for a speedy gestation, employing what’s known as a design-build process.

Traditionally, said VDOT spokesman Lou Hatter, road projects in Virginia have started with in-house engineering at VDOT, followed by a bidding process during which firms compete for the contract, and finally by a build phase. First allowed by the state in 2001, design-build not only outsources the design phase, it allows for a timeline splice, making it possible for a private team of construction and engineering firms to start work on a project before the entire design is complete.

“It can move the project forward quicker, and it can also provide some cost savings,” Hatter said. Contractors vying to win a bid are looking for less expensive ways to build starting in the early design phases, instead of being handed blueprints, “and they may come up with a way to do it that’s less costly than what VDOT would have designed,” Hatter said. 

Design-build has become increasingly popular in recent years, said Shucet, because it rewards efficiency—and can help shave off about a year of time on a project. “It’s about risk transfer,” he said. “When a contractor is in control of risk, he can control the costs, and the generated costs are lower.”

But what some call efficiency, others call hasty corner-cutting, and up until the Federal Highway Administration effectively killed the Bypass early this spring, one of the key criticisms from its opponents was the fast-track status that the design-build process allowed.

Now the shoe is on the other foot, and it’s Route 29 business owners—the majority of whom favored the Bypass but have long railed against the overpasses now planned for the existing highway—who are calling for caution and plenty of public input before groundbreaking. 

Weinschenk said that input will be critical to the survival of businesses affected by redesign and construction.

“We need to find a good strategy so that the traffic in front of existing businesses after construction will still be 80 to 85 percent of what it is today,” he said. “If it turns out to be 5 percent of what it is today, they can kiss themselves goodbye…If the owners are smart, they’ll close before it starts. And the tax base goes with it.”

Peter Borches, president of Carter Myers Automotive and another member of the panel, agreed that businesses need to have a say going forward, and be part of VDOT’s public communication efforts. “There have been too many mistakes already,” he said.

Randy Salzman, a Charlottesville resident and transportation researcher who often spoke out publicly against the Bypass and the design-build process, said he still has qualms about the trend toward handing road design to private companies.

“Politicians want to be able to say, ‘We got rid of bureaucracy,’ so they farm out the bid to people whose motivation is to make more money, not save taxpayer dollars,” he said, and that opens the door to low-ball bids, a lack of public oversight, and bad design.

But that’s not stopping him from getting behind the new projects.

“I completely support Shucet” and the plans for adding lanes, extending side roads, and building overpasses, he said. Many of those Bypass alternatives were already studied by VDOT years ago, he pointed out. “I don’t think it has to be a startover.”

Shucet, in turn, rejects the notion that a shorter timeline and outsourced design impact the public’s ability to weigh in on the latest proposed solution to a decades-old traffic problem.

“Design-build does not remove any opportunities for public input,” he said. “If you have an issue with a project, it’s not because of the procurement process. It’s because you don’t like the project.” 

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