With Dems ruling Albemarle, can the Western Bypass be rolled back?

Route 29 North outside Charlottesville. Photo: Jack Looney Route 29 North outside Charlottesville. Photo: Jack Looney

A week after Democrats swept the Albemarle County Supervisors election, focus on the Western Bypass is heating up yet again. In the weeks before the election, a group called the Charlottesville Bypass Truth Coalition stirred controversy by running anti-Bypass ads that pushed for the defeat of Republican Bypass supporters Duane Snow and Rodney Thomas.  Some are now calling Snow’s and Thomas’ ousters a referendum on the controversial road, and a mandate for the Dems, all of whom oppose the Bypass, to reverse course. This far into the project, however, with millions of dollars in public funds already spent, questions remain: Is reversal on the road even possible? If so, how can it be done, and what will it cost the county?

Outgoing supervisor Dennis Rooker, an Independent and a longtime outspoken critic of the planned road, believes the new county Board, coupled with the new state administration, means the Bypass can—and will—be bypassed.

“We’re going to get a more rational appraisal again as to whether the state should invest over $300 million in this project,” he said two days after the election. Rooker and others think the “con” column on a Bypass analysis is now long enough to chill support at the federal level: widely acknowledged design flaws, evidence that traffic impact would be limited, a historic home and cemetery in the road’s path, and now, the public’s firm rejection of pro-Bypass pols.

Sitting Democratic supervisor Anne Mallek agrees with Rooker that the public was never in favor, and she says the election results confirm that.

“Somehow, people seemed to think that in the past four years, the majority of people wanted it, which is clearly not the case,” said Mallek. ”There was an astonishing margin in those races, which shows that people understood what the problem was, which is that we’re willing to spend a huge amount for a miniscule return.”

So who are the Bypass supporters? Certainly, a bunch of them live about an hour south of here.

During his campaign, Governor Bob McDonnell promised Lynchburg legislators, long hungry for a shortcut around Charlottesville, that he’d make the Bypass a priority, and Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton was gung-ho to help him keep that promise before the end of his term.

In April 2011, Connaughton invited the county’s Metropolitan Planning Organization reps Thomas and Snow to meet in Richmond,  where the men agreed on a plan to revive the long dormant project. In exchange for county approval of the Bypass, the state would include funding for some high priority road projects including the Hillsdale Connector, the Best Buy ramp, and the extension of Berkmar Drive.

Two months later, in June, 2011, the four supervisors then serving—Republicans Boyd, Snow, and Thomas and Democrat Lindsay Dorrier—stunned their fellow supervisors Rooker and Anne Mallek by changing a rule on the spot and then holding the so-called “midnight  vote” to approve the Bypass.

Fast forward two and a half years, and the road is still stalled as the federal government reviews the environmental assessment conducted by the Virginia Department of Transportation.

Rooker claims it’s not too late to turn back. The initial steps toward reversing the road, he said, are appointments. First, Governor-elect Terry McAuliffe will appoint a new Secretary of Transportation to replace Connaughton.

“People forget that if you go back to the eight years prior to the time McDonnell was in office you had secretaries of transportation that concluded the project was not a good project for the state to move forward with,” he said.

The new Board—made up of newly elected Dems Brad Sheffield, Liz Palmer, Jane Dittmar, Independent Diantha McKeel, and sitting supes Mallek, a Democrat, and Ken Boyd, the sole Republican—must appoint two new representatives to the Metropolitan Planning Organization to replace outgoing supervisors Thomas and Snow.

After those appointments are made, Rooker acknowledges, the reversal process could get sticky.

“The MPO could remove the project from its transportation plan, and the state would then be in a quandary as to whether it could proceed anyway,” said Rooker in an e-mail, adding that the federal law that governs the state’s right to do so isn’t completely clear.

MPO Program Manager Sarah Rhodes confirms that new MPO board members can block funding for the Bypass by removing it from the Long Range Transportation Plan and the Transportation Improvement Program, the two planning documents that dictate how federal funds are spent locally.

If that happens, it won’t just get sticky, said Rodney Thomas, it could get downright nasty.

“It’s a signed deal, as far as I’m concerned,” he said, suggesting that the government will demand its money be paid back. “It’s really not in our hands—it’s federal government and the state.”

Rooker said the idea that the county could be penalized if it backs out of the Bypass comes from two pieces of legislation passed with support from Lynchburg State Senator Steve Newman.

“If the MPO removed the project unilaterally, these statutes may provide a basis for a penalty against the Culpeper Transportation District and/or the Charlottesville/Albemarle area,” Rooker said. “How much that penalty would be can’t be computed today, as it isn’t clear what the cost to the state would have been.”

Reached in his Lynchburg office, Senator Newman said that the cost could be steep —$50 million, the amount already spent on the project including the purchase of right-of-ways.

Newman sees the Bypass as a rare opportunity, and said rejection could be disastrous.

“There are only a couple of times in a generation that an area like Lynchburg or Charlottesville gets an opportunity to have a major transportation improvement program,” he said, suggesting that if Albemarle County reverses course now on the road, the General Assembly is unlikely to approve any funds for future road projects.

“This is going to be crippling to the people in Charlottesville for many generations to come,” he warned.

Boyd agreed. “All the other dollars for projects that needed improvement are going to go away,” he said.

Rooker scoffed at the claims and said the path toward undoing the Bypass plan is clear, assuming the county and the state agree the road is a bad plan.

“The Bypass doesn’t work as now designed and will require more funding, perhaps substantially more,” said Rooker. “It certainly isn’t clear what would happen if the MPO refused to approve additional funding, which would be a new action.”

Boyd, the lone Republican on a new Board now stacked with Bypass opponents, strikes a conciliatory note and says that despite his concern over the impact of a Bypass reversal, he believes he’ll be able to work effectively with the new Board.

“My own personal experience has been, once we sit down at the table in the county, we throw away political tags and all that and try to concentrate on what’s best for Albemarle and this community,” he said. “I firmly believe that’s how our new supervisors will approach this.”

Mallek, the chair and the senior member of the Board’s new Democratic majority, said she’s ready to tackle the issue.

“I think it’ll be a top priority of discussion, no doubt about it, for all the reasons we’ve been concerned about all along,” she said.