Editor's Note
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When I moved to town two years ago, I took it as a good sign that the hullabaloo over the Bypass got so much attention in the media. It showed, I thought, that people here really cared about the way their tax money was spent and that roads, while not very sexy, can make or break a community.

But there’s a fine line between thoughtful resistance to bad planning and privileged Nimby-ism, and the “Save McIntire Park” campaign struck me as fitting into the latter category. Let’s “save” a park that’s underused because you can’t get to it in order to stop a well-designed alternative traffic artery designed with pedestrian access in mind that has the support of planning staff in the city and county. Hmmm.

As a print journalist, I’ve covered battles between pro development and sustainability interests in four states through issues as diverse as waterfront zoning on lakes to new school construction. I even covered a road fight over a cut-through highway in Western North Carolina first named “The Southern Bypass,” before it got renamed “The Southern Connector” to make it more palatable.

Along the way, I’ve learned that state transportation engineers will work hard to solve the problems in front of them, but they need locals (in and out of government) to make sure the problems they’re trying to solve are the right ones. I’ve learned that spendthrift advocates, environmental activists, and eminent domain victims can stop a plan in its tracks, but they have a hard time presenting an alternative solution. I’ve learned that if a project stretches into its second decade of planning, it drifts naturally towards a place of acceptable mediocrity.

And finally, I’ve learned that if the state wants to give you federal money to build a highway, you better find a way to use it, because it won’t come from anywhere else. When we decided to take our last best shot at untangling the Gordian Knot that is the Bypass problem, our assumptions were as follows: Most people are sick of the issue and many don’t understand its sticking points; the current plan is a waste of money; there is still time to ensure the state and federal money goes to a highway plan that helps us become the city we want to be, not a road that imitates a NoVA commuter morass or a Southside detour.

— Giles Morris × Close Editor's Note
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The Road by Graelyn Brashear

Albemarle County’s three-decade fight over the Western Bypass isn’t over yet

Late on the night of Wednesday, June 8, 2011, a few prominent Albemarle County real estate developers and other vocal supporters of the long-stalled plan to build a Route 29 bypass around Charlottesville strolled into Lane Auditorium at the tail end of a marathon meeting of the Board of Supervisors.

Jeff Werner, land-use field officer for the Piedmont Environmental Council, had been in the audience all night, following a five-hour debate over sustainability planning and how to fund it. The new arrivals struck him as odd. It was after 11 p.m. “I thought, ‘Gee, what are they doing here?’” he said.

During a break a few minutes later, Jack Jouett District Representative Dennis Rooker walked to the back of the auditorium. “He came up to his wife and said, ‘Something’s going to happen,’” Werner remembered.

It didn’t take long to find out what. Board Chair Anne Mallek called for any last-minute matters from her colleagues as the meeting was breaking up. Over the bustle of the tired crowd shuffling out of the room, Lindsay Dorrier uttered a few barely audible words.

“I have another matter I wanted to bring up,” he said. “I wanted to bring up the Bypass issue and move to change my vote.”

Over the next 18 minutes, Republicans Duane Snow, Rodney Thomas, and Ken Boyd hustled Dorrier through a series of motions, seconds, and 4-2 majority votes, first disposing of a newly imposed Board rule blocking last-minute additions to the agenda, then re-introducing a measure that had ended in a 3-3 tie the week before, and finally calling for a re-vote: The Board would, in fact, instruct Snow and Thomas—its representatives on the Metropolitan Planning Organization board—to scrap language in the MPO’s Transportation Improvement Plan blocking the allocation of state funds for the construction of a Western Bypass around Charlottesville.

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What happened:

The three Republican board members and Dorrier managed to put the Bypass back on the table with a rushed series of votes shortly before midnight on June 8, 2011.

  1. The Board voted to throw out an existing rule preventing last-minute additions to the agenda.
  2. They re-introduced a resolution on how to instruct their representatives on the MPO board to vote when it came to funding the Western Bypass.
  3. They voted to instruct their MPO representatives to support funding the Bypass.

And like that, one of Virginia’s oldest and most contentious transportation projects, planned for by VDOT for 30 years but dormant for a decade, was yanked back to life in an astonishing act of political jiu jitsu.

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Rooker and Mallek protested, stunned at the defection of their former fellow anti-Bypass Board member.

“I can’t believe I’m sitting on a board that will simply change the rules at the drop of the hat to satisfy—I don’t know what it is to satisfy,” Rooker sputtered.

Throughout, one voice remained measured and cool: the one belonging to the veteran supervisor who, more than anyone else on the dais, had set himself up as a champion of the roadway.

“There’s been a motion and a second, Mr. Rooker,” Ken Boyd said. “You can continue to argue or make a point, but it’s an important enough issue that it needs to be dealt with.”

And like that, one of Virginia’s oldest and most contentious transportation projects, planned for by VDOT for 30 years but dormant for a decade, was yanked back to life in an astonishing act of political jiu jitsu.

Werner, since 1999 a key staffer at PEC, which had previously sued to block the project, watched the whole thing. He had to laugh. He’d been saying a prayer every Sunday for God to send him a local issue to fight on besides the bitterly contested Ragged Mountain Dam.

“Immediately after that meeting, people were like, ‘Hey, you got your wish,’” he said. The joking didn’t last long.

“The next morning, it was clear the decks.”

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The Supervisors

The six board members who were present the night the bypass came back from the dead.

Ken Boyd
Lindsay Dorrier
Anne Mallek
Dennis Rooker
Duane Snow
Rodney Thomas

Lindsay Dorrier

"I have another matter I wanted to bring up. I wanted to bring up the Bypass issue and move to change my vote."

Dennis Rooker

"I can’t believe I’m sitting on a board that will simply change the rules at the drop of the hat to satisfy—I don’t know what it is to satisfy."

Ken Boyd

"There’s been a motion and a second, Mr. Rooker. You can continue to argue or make a point… but it’s an important enough issue that it needs to be dealt with."

Two years after the midnight vote, the project is, once again, in a holding pattern. The Federal Highway Administration, source of a portion of the quarter billion dollars it will take to build the road and a trio of accompanying local transportation improvements to the 29 corridor, is reviewing VDOT’s Environmental Assessment of Virginia Beach-based highway construction team Skanska-Branch’s design for the 6.2-mile road. A thumbs up from the agency will mean VDOT’s proposed solution for alleviating the congestion around Charlottesville’s stretch of the highway—seen by downstate politicians and freight haulers as a costly bottleneck in the state’s central north-south corridor—has ticked all the boxes in the eyes of the federal government: the public was involved, alternative options were considered, and environmental impacts will be mitigated.

It wouldn’t be the first time we’ve come close to seeing the Bypass become reality, but this is as close as we’ve been in the 30-year history of the project. Meanwhile, the political landscape is shifting. Four of the six seats on the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors, the makeup of which has remained almost exactly the same since the fateful 2011 meeting, are up for a vote come November. And more importantly, Governor Bob McDonnell, whose transportation secretary is largely responsible for resuscitating the Bypass as a state funding priority, is nearing the end of his term—under a cloud, no less.

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A history lesson

By the mid 1970s, nearly every city and town along Route 29 had an alternate route for through traffic: Chatham, Lovingston, Lynchburg, Danville, Amherst, Hurt, Altavista, Gretna. But not Charlottesville.

Talk of what to do to speed travel past the thickening, stoplight-riddled suburban corridor—adding lanes? An expressway?—began in 1979. It wasn’t until 1990 that the Commonwealth Transportation Board approved a three-phase plan based on a multi-year VDOT study: first widening; then the construction of overpasses at Hydraulic Road, Greenbrier Drive, and Rio Road; and finally a limited-access bypass that would sprout from the highway near its intersection with 250 and end just south of the South Fork of the Rivanna Reservoir.

A VDOT study completed in 1990 suggested multiple routes for a possible bypass around Charlottesville. The one selected at the time—option 10—was similar to the one on the table today, but with a northern terminus located south of the Rivanna reservoir.

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From the start, the plan had a diverse collection of enemies. Business owners along Route 29 led a revolt against Phase II, believing overpasses at key intersections would isolate them from faster-moving traffic. In 1998, after VDOT extended the planned route further north, PEC and the Piedmont Chapter of the Sierra Club filed a nine-count lawsuit claiming officials had failed to follow regulations as they planned and re-planned the route of the proposed bypass.

The business owners won their fight when grade-separated interchanges were dropped from the development plan. The environmental groups largely lost theirs, getting a delay but not a derailment when a federal judge ordered VDOT to draw up a new Environmental Assessment in 2001.

What’s a grade-separated interchange? An intersection where one road passes over another via a bridge or overpass—as opposed to an at-grade intersection, which uses stoplights to control traffic.

But the real monkey wrench was the language introduced into the MPO’s TIP plan that same year blocking the allocation of state money for a bypass. Despite increasing pressure from downstate politicians, the Democrat-controlled County Board dug in. Land acquisition ground to a halt. VDOT never officially abandoned the project, but it was, for the most part, considered dead in the water.

Along came Sean Connaughton. In the spring of 2011, less than a year after Governor Bob McDonnell appointed him transportation secretary, Connaughton met with Albemarle supervisors and fellow GOP loyalists Thomas and Snow, promising state funding for several other traffic projects—development of parallel roads, more widening of 29—if the county quit blocking the Bypass. Then he called Dorrier, and in what Dorrier described as a half-hour phone conversation, convinced the longtime Democrat to have a change of heart.

Since the turnaround vote that followed, VDOT has kicked the planning process for the Western Bypass into overdrive. Skanska-Branch submitted the lowest bid in a streamlined design-build project last year, and with the release of yet another Environmental Assessment last summer came a flurry of public meetings, press releases from advocacy groups, news stories, hand wringing, and speechifying. And the partisan battle got more entrenched than ever.

Since the turnaround vote that followed, VDOT has kicked the planning process for the Western Bypass into overdrive.

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Point, counterpoint

If you don’t get the Bypass battle, now’s the time to study up. But even for a native Charlottesvillian transportation-geek reporter, it’s hard to understand exactly how a debate over six miles of road could last three decades and snowball into a fight where politics and emotion have seemed to trump logic and reason at every turn.

We could have sought voices planted somewhere in the middle ground. Instead we went for the poles: Ken Boyd and Jeff Werner.

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Jeff Werner

Werner, a Baltimore native, studied forestry at West Virginia University, got his master’s in urban planning at UVA, and worked for more than a decade in construction before coming to PEC.

Since moving here 14 years ago, he has become the organization’s point man on the Bypass, a human filing cabinet containing the project’s long, complicated history—albeit one with a somewhat scattershot organizational system. He can talk about the road for hours at a stretch, staring at whomever’s on the other side of the table over his glasses while he marks up maps and scribbles notes about overpasses and stoplights, and he has almost obsessively—his words—timed every one of his drives on 29 with his stopwatch, his own personal research into perception and reality when it comes to traffic and drive time.

Fiercely practical, cheerfully blunt, occasionally profane, he’s a rarity in this town: An issues guy who is completely earnest. And he thinks the Bypass project is bullshit. Excuse his language.

Ken Boyd

Boyd grew up in D.C., came to Charlottesville by way of a banking job in the early ’80s, and nearly a decade later, started his own financial planning business in town, despite not yet having earned a college degree. The diploma and an MBA came later.

He successfully ran for a seat on the Albemarle County School Board in 1999, and finally the Board of Supervisors in 2003. He’s been the Rivanna representative ever since.

Boyd has built a reputation as a friend to developers and a shrewd and careful politician. He makes a point of noting that in his 10 years on the Board, he has always firmly supported the Bypass. After he lost a primary bid to run for Congress in 2010, he said he wouldn’t run for Supervisor again in 2011. But he did. That election was about the Bypass, he says, and despite being flamed in the press for working quietly behind the scenes to bring the long-dead road back to life, he won.

He’s firm, often rather quiet, never has a bright white hair out of place, and when it comes to the Bypass, he puts his faith in VDOT.

Werner and Boyd, the point is, could not be more different, or think more differently on Albemarle County’s biggest, costliest, oldest policy fight, and these days, they don’t talk much. I proposed a drive: all of us together for two hours in my Honda Fit, exploring the Bypass route and navigating Route 29 traffic.

“It would almost be like getting Jerry Falwell and some arch liberal in the same room together, in the sense that I don’t think there’s any agreement or middle ground,” Werner said. “Not that I’m an arch liberal.”

Boyd’s response: “Sure.”

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The lay of the land

Two opposing views, two hours, 25 miles, and one car.

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We meet in a parking lot off Old Ivy Road on a muggy August morning. Everyone piles into my car, which I’d frantically vacuumed an hour earlier and accessorized with a $1.95 vanilla air freshener. Riding shotgun is Ryan DeRose, whose digital agency Vibethink worked with us on this story, wielding a camera. Visible in my rearview in the cramped back seat is a study in contrasts: Boyd, unflappable in his usual button-down Oxford and expensive tie; Werner in a polo, slightly rumpled khakis, and hiking boots, chatting genially and clutching a giant, rolled-up map of the proposed route, ready to unfurl it at every stop.

There is small talk, a few missed turns (my fault). Werner wants us to get some views of the countryside a mile or so northwest of Route 29 where the southern part of the Bypass, as designed, will arc past St. Anne’s-Belfield School, slice through Stillhouse Mountain, buzz old suburbs and older farms, and curve past Jack Jouett Middle School and Greer Elementary before coming east to run along Rio Road. From there, it will march through the middle of the early-1980s Squirrel Ridge subdivision, parallel a stretch of the reservoir, and rejoin 29 at Ashwood Boulevard, the entrance to Forest Lakes South.

“Left here,” Werner says from the backseat, directing us down Montvue Drive, past attractive but modest homes clustered on a hilltop off Barracks Road. We roll to a stop at the end of Magnolia, and stare down a powerline cut to where the road will run through pasture, elevated on fill from a deep cut through Stillhouse a couple thousand feet away.

There are no impassioned soliloquies on land conservation from Werner, but his point is clear: Kiss this view goodbye.

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The view looking southwest from the top of Stillhouse Mountain. The route of the planned Western Bypass cuts through the side of the hill, a stone’s throw from this spot. Photo: Elli Williams

People aren’t as fired up about the loss of land and houses as they might be, Werner concedes, in part because they’ve been staring at Bypass maps for decades. The shock of seeing a map with a road routed through your neighborhood? “That part already occurred—that pulling off the Band-Aid, so to speak,” he said.

People aren’t as fired up about the loss of land and houses as they might be, Werner concedes, in part because they’ve been staring at Bypass maps for decades.

Some people never cared in the first place, Boyd said, including an old friend of his who lived in Montvue. Others want to rake him over the coals for supporting a project they think will wreck their peace. As we made a U-turn in the parking lot of the Colonnades, a retirement community just up the road, he recalled a less-than-friendly lunchtime meeting there after residents and management demanded an audience to voice their worries about blasting noise and truck traffic.

But that sort of thing comes with the territory as an elected official, he said. No development project is universally appealing.

“This is not unique to this area,” he said. “Every time they go to build a major road, it’s always an uproar that’s going to happen.”

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We stop at Greer Elementary, then at a VDOT-owned lot on on Lambs Road, where a shabby stucco house stands a stone’s throw from what could be a serious kink in the planning process for VDOT: The final resting place of several members of a prominent 19th century African-American family, the Sammons, which lies directly in the path of the Bypass. It’s currently under consideration for entry on the National Historic Register at the request of descendants, and Bypass opponents say there could be other gravesites of similar importance lying in the path of the road. At each stop, the map is unrolled across the hood of the car, and we scrutinize terrain, pick out landmarks, imagine four lanes of traffic vaulting over this road or flying past that soccer field.

Ken Boyd and Jeff Werner survey a property once owned by a prominent African-American family. Members of the Sammons cemetery are buried in the woods just beyond the mid 19th-century house on the site, which is now owned by VDOT. The grave sites lie in the path of the planned Bypass.

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Eventually we get to Ashwood Boulevard, the eventual northern terminus. We’re in the Rivanna District now—Boyd’s turf. Again the map comes out. We crouch over it on the pavement, and study a serious sticking point.

If there’s any spot along the planned route where everybody agrees there are issues, it’s here. Even Boyd accepts that the current design of the northern terminus is flawed: Northbound traffic from the Bypass is dumped out onto Route 29 just before the light at Ashwood, where the highway narrows from three lanes to two. The exit ramp curve has been so compressed by engineers trying to stay within a small footprint that it looks on the plans like a stretch of the Monaco Grand Prix. And this is one of the few spots along the route where VDOT has yet to acquire the land it needs.

The fact that the project has gotten this far with such serious flaws should be a huge red flag, according to Werner.

“What we’ve seen is the CTB, the Secretary of Transportation, determined to make this thing move,” he said. “And once the Federal Highway Administration signs off on this, boom, the state of Virginia gets a big check to move forward. And any avenue left for the community to ask for a real evaluation of this road is over. The state is not going to give it to us. The state has said, we’re building it, we’ve determined it to be right.”

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The fact that the project has gotten this far with such serious flaws should be a huge red flag, according to Werner.

But Boyd says he has more faith than that, and he trusts VDOT’s engineers to figure out a fix.

But Boyd says he has more faith than that, and he trusts VDOT’s engineers to figure out a fix. “I think that they will listen to us,” he said. “All the communication we’ve had with the state has not been to try and force something down our throat. Just so long as we stay within the NEPA standards Jeff keeps talking about. Everything else in terms of design, costs, and those types of things have always been on the table.”

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Photo: Adam Mohr

Where the rubber hits the road

But it’s what’s not on the table that troubles Werner, and many other Bypass opponents. It’s what the state has decided not to build that highlights the politicization and the problems inherent in the planning process, they say. And it’s here that Werner and Boyd are most diametrically opposed—on the reality, on the fix, and on the future.

The enduring myth of the Bypass project, Werner contends, is that it will significantly ease local traffic congestion on the stretch of Route 29 set to be bypassed. PEC and its allies say that it won’t, not if the intersections at Hydraulic Road and Rio Road remain stoplights instead of grade-separated interchanges with overpasses. And VDOT’s own analyses back them up.

The enduring myth of the Bypass project, Werner contends, is that it will significantly ease local traffic congestion on the stretch of Route 29 set to be bypassed.

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VDOT’s data indicate that grade-separated interchanges would do more to shorten delay times on 29 than the Bypass will.

What we currently have: the delay time for driving 29, with no Western Bypass, and stoplights

What we’re getting: The Western Bypass and stoplights instead of overpasses

The delay time for driving 29, with no Western Bypass, and overpasses instead of stoplights at Rio Road

The delay time for driving 29, with the Western Bypass, and overpasses instead of stoplights at Rio Road

The supplemental traffic studies released along with VDOT’s Environmental Assessment of the Bypass project last year projected delay times on Route 29 through Albemarle in the year 2040 under several possible development outcomes.

We’ve totalled the time VDOT estimates a driver on Route 29 will spend sitting at major intersections—Hydraulic Road, Greenbrier Drive, Rio Road, and Hilton Heights Road—during afternoon rush hour in 2040 under four different scenarios. The data indicate that turning just one congested intersection on 29—Rio—into a grade-separated interchange would have a greater impact on delays than the Bypass would.

I park in front of Jimmy John’s in the shopping center at the southeast corner of the intersection of Rio and 29 and we walk around to an inhospitable stretch of sidewalk, feet from rushing traffic. We’re all sweating through our clothes. The midday crush is approaching, and cars and trucks pile up and flow past, pile up and flow past.

“The bottom line for us is that we have a Bypass that’s not going to resolve this,” Werner says, waving with his rolled-up map at the lanes six deep with cars at the light behind him, “and we’ve got Meadowcreek Parkway and Hillsdale Drive Extended, which were critical projects…and yet all that traffic is going to hit this intersection and still hit the same situation we have now.”

But the Bypass will reduce total traffic volume, Boyd points out, and besides, the state won’t pony up for the grade-separated interchanges, which could cost tens of millions each—at least, not now. Overpasses weren’t among the extra projects offered up in 2011 to “fix” the corridor. “There was no option given to us by the state,” he says. “It wasn’t ‘You can do this, or you can do that.’ It wasn’t on the table. It’s always been the Bypass or nothing.”

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VDOT’s studies show the Bypass will reduce traffic volume.

VDOT analyses also show the Bypass alone won’t do much to reduce delays for those traveling the existing road — for that, we’ll need overpasses.

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Well, not always. The initial three-phase plan proposed by the Commonwealth Transportation Board in 1990 actually prioritized grade-separated interchanges ahead of the Bypass. And Werner and Boyd agree on the facts of what followed: Business owners and commercial landholders along 29 said no, and they ultimately carried the day.

They had good reason to be concerned, says Boyd. They’re afraid eliminating simple left and right turns off the highway would discourage drivers from stopping to shop, and a number of business owners have told him the construction could be a killing thing. “They said when we were widening 29, just the widening project, they lost 40 percent of their business,” he said. “They survived it then, a two-year project, but they’re not sure they could survive it again.”

Werner puts it differently. “The business owners at these four corners, and some down on Hydraulic, have driven this engine. And they don’t want anything but the status quo.”

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What Happened:

The state’s initial three-phase approach to improving the 29 corridor through Charlottesville prioritized overpasses at key intersections ahead of a bypass, but business owners helped scuttle that plan.

  1. 1990: Commonwealth Transportation Board approves three-phase plan for Route 29’s Charlottesville stretch: widen the road; build overpasses at Hydraulic Road, Greenbriar Drive, and Rio Road; and finally, build a bypass.
  2. 1994: During public comment on Phase II, thousands of people, many of them from the business community, go on the record with complaints and concerns about negative impacts of bypass construction.
  3. 1995: CTB terminates plan to build overpasses; steers money toward bypass land acquisition.
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But the grade-separated interchanges are not happening, Boyd says again. The state agreed to fund several extra projects to alleviate congestion on the corridor, he points out, “and before that, we had nothing for any of it. We didn’t have any money.”

“I think that’s a question for the General Assembly,” Werner replies. “I mean, clearly they found a quarter billion for a bypass. So for them to turn around say well, we didn’t have any money, I don’t quite understand that.”

“Well, I think the reason they found the money is because it’s supported by what’s at stake,” Boyd says. For the first time, a little irritation is showing in both of them.

“I think it was supported through some strong-arming of the administration,” Werner shoots back. “This is the decision for the community. The Bypass will not fix the congestion that’s perceived on this road, and it doesn’t leave any money to make those repairs at a later date. People hear bypass and they immediately believe it’s a solution.”

Minutes later, we’re back in the car with the AC turned all the way up, and in the rearview, I can see them facing each other across the back seat, engrossed in a new topic: the city’s preoccupation with through traffic and trucks on its roads. They sound almost cheerful.

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Who’s affected? An overpass at Rio Road might move Route 29 traffic through the massive intersection far more quickly, but Boyd contends it could affect access to the businesses clustered around the interchange—not just during construction, but permanently, if new exit and entrance ramps go in. So which businesses could be directly affected?

Pushing the alternative: The argument for overpasses isn’t new. Bypass opponents have long touted them as the right solution for improving congestion on Route 29, and for a time in the years when the new road was considered off the table, it looked like a grade-separated interchange at Rio Road might actually happen. An overpass at the intersection was included in the Places29 Master Plan, a guide to land use and development in Northern Albemarle drawn up in the 2000s, until business owners and developers successfully pushed for its removal from the plan. Anti-bypass advocates like the Southern Environmental Law Center want to make sure people don’t forget that eliminating stoplights at 29’s slowest intersections was once a viable idea. The Charlottesville-based group’s GO 29 video, released last year, plays up the role overpasses could play in lowering delay times for drivers.

Anatomy of an argument

A few weeks before the drive, when I sat down with Werner and Boyd in turn, I asked them how we got here—how a highway became Albemarle County’s biggest political argument, why there’s so little common ground, and why they’ve stuck to their guns.

It’s easy to explain it as a fight between slow-growth and pro-growth, environmentalists and developers, NIMBYism and build, baby, build. Charlottesville and Albemarle have drawn those same battle lines over and over again on countless issues.

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But for Boyd and Werner, who have been as close to the controversy as anyone, it’s not so simple.

Part of the problem of driving home a message of the Bypass as a flawed project, Werner said, is that while the price tag of $240 million isn’t pocket change, it’s not so big that it shocks. “A donor could write the check for this,” he said. “So it doesn’t bite into the media. It doesn’t grab people as a road to nowhere.”

And there’s the fact that those who don’t want the road don’t want it for different reasons.

“With the Forest Lakes folks, you have issues that are really local to Forest Lakes,” he said. “They’re not zeroed into what’s it going to look like from St. Anne’s, or how it will affect the woods behind the Darden School.” Same goes for those at the other end of the Bypass route. What do they care about access to Ashwood Boulevard? “So there’s no one theme that’s easy to deliver, but proponents can say, ‘It’s a bypass!’”

Werner considers himself a planner more than an environmentalist. He’s pushed for pro-growth plans, and the arguments he marshals against the road are on the merits of its design, the influence of politics. But he’s a public voice at an environmental advocacy organization, one of three that has fought the Bypass. It’s hard to avoid being branded as obstructionist, NIMBY-minded treehuggers.

“We’ve become a world of bullet points and sound bites, and as soon as you hear environmental anything, it’s ‘Well, you just must be anti,’” Werner said.

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“We’ve become a world of bullet points and sound bites, and as soon as you hear environmental anything, it’s ‘Well, you just must be anti,’” he said.

For all that, he understands the power of a sweeping vista in Jefferson country to make his point. A few hundred people settle in new homes in Albemarle County yearly looking for that, he said. Yes, they need roads. But what’s the point if the big draw of rural beauty just outside the city is lost?

“If we don’t give people a reason to live here…” he trailed off.

Boyd understands the not-in-my-backyard argument. Before he was a supervisor, he was active in the homeowner’s association of his neighborhood of Key West, which lay directly in the path of one of the original potential designs for the northern terminus of the Bypass.

“I went to all the meetings way back then,” Boyd said. “I’d heard the discussion. Nobody wanted it in their backyard, including us.”

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“I went to all the meetings way back then,” he said. “I’d heard the discussion. Nobody wanted it in their backyard, including us.”

But he believes in the project, and believes in the need. He has an office in North Carolina, and for decades has driven up and down the length of Route 29 in two states. Charlottesville sticks out like a sore thumb, and everyone has taken note, including those holding the purse strings.

“I’ve watched our state money for secondary roads dwindle from $4 to $5 million a year down to last year, when our six-year plan had $300,000 a year,” he said. “You can’t do anything with $300,000 a year.”

There are plenty of factors at play there, he said—the economy is a big one, as is the gridlock that plagued Richmond’s debate over state transportation funds—but the fact that the area is seen as incapable of cooperating long enough to fix its own problems is no small part of it.

“I’ve talked to legislators who said, ‘Why would we want to give you any money? All you do is squabble and argue over it, and you never do anything good with it, and here’s a statewide project that we wanted done and you refused to do that,’” Boyd said. But already, that’s changing.

“Since we have agreed to do this and we’ve started moving forward with it at a snail’s pace, the money’s started to open up, and our budget’s moving up,” he said. “Part of that’s due to the transportation bill that passed. But it’s also as much to do with an attitude change from the people in this community that we’re moving ahead with building a road that was important to them.”

We work with them, he said, and they’ll work with us.

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The route ahead

Locally, there’s a sense of inevitability around the Bypass. When asked about their position on the project, candidates for the Board of Supervisors preface their statements with “it’s out of our hands at this point, but—.” And as the Metropolitan Planning Organization continues crafting its 2040 Long Range Transportation, a 30-year document that prioritizes future infrastructure development and dictates what roads, bridges, and bike paths will get funded in the decades to come, it’s operating on the assumption that the Bypass will get built, and soon.

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The creation of the area’s Long Range Transportation Plan is a critical planning process that results in a fiscally constrained project list for the next 20 to 30 years’ worth of transportation spending—meaning federal funding can’t be allocated to projects unless they’re on the LRTP list, and the list can’t include projects that the MPO believes won’t get funded. The first public meeting on the 2040 LRTP is Wednesday, August 28.

But this saga isn’t over.

By the time I pull into the lot where we’d parked at the start of our drive and climb out of my car for the last time, it’s well past noon, and sweltering. But Werner and Boyd stand in the sun for a few minutes more, because I have one more question for my traveling companions: In 10 years, will we be standing near the southern end of a Bypass? Or will the project be pushing 50 years old, still unbuilt?

“I’ve vacillated on that,” Werner said. The fact that the Federal Highway Administration still has the Environmental Assessment says the agency is being very careful with its response, he said, and Virginia officials are very aware of the fact that they’re going to have a new boss in five months.

And then there’s the cost. Skanska Branch’s price is only going to be good for so long, he said. And when the price goes up, what then?

There’s a pause, then: “I’d say 70-30,” Werner says—with his money on indefinite delays.

“I think it’s going to get built,” Boyd says. “I think the commitment’s been made, it’s there, they want to do it.” But it hasn’t cleared every hurdle, and there’s a clue that the project is carrying with it a cloud of partisan discord. Typically, said Boyd, it’s the Richmond District of the Federal Highway Administration that makes the call on state-level projects, but the Bypass has been kicked up to Washington.

And if that’s the view of those closest to the issue—that it’s less than a done deal, and getting an upgrade to a much larger political arena—then it’s time to take a good look at how we got here, and join the conversation about where we go next.

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Photo: Jack Looney

Speak up

Got an opinion yet? Good. VDOT’s formal public comment periods on the Bypass’ local impact might be over, but local discussion about the future of the project—and about how best to use state dollars on local infrastructure—shouldn’t be.

Answer the questions about the Western Bypass and the transportation planning process below. Your responses will help draw a new public opinion map on one of the most contentious issues in county history, which we’ll analyze and offer up for perusal in the weeks to come.

It’s about time you joined the conversation.

A C-VILLE Weekly article in collaboration with Vibethink
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