On the road again

When the Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB) voted to earmark $230 million for a 6.2-mile Western Bypass in Albemarle County and Charlottesville that’s been stuck in the planning queue for decades, the obvious question was: Why now?

Albemarle Supervisor Rodney Thomas says the MPO “probably wouldn’t support the Bypass” without state funding for local transportation priorities like extensions to Hillsdale and Berkmar drives.

“We were getting very close to the dates when the right of way would be required to be returned or sold back to the former owners,” said state Senator Stephen Newman, whose district includes Bedford and Lynchburg, in a June statement. “This would have killed the Bypass forever.”

However, the Western Bypass also presents Republican Governor Bob McDonnell with an opportunity to curry favor with GOP voters in Virginia’s new 22nd District prior to a November 8 General Election. Formed during the recent redistricting process, the 22nd District includes a number of Newman’s former supporters. According to the Lynchburg News & Advance, 63 percent of voters in No. 22 voted for McDonnell in 2009.

“Republicans really want a new Senate seat in Lynchburg to be held by a Republican,” says Sally Thomas, a former Albemarle County Supervisor and a Democrat. “One way to entice voters in Lynchburg is to say, ‘Look what the Republican Party has done for you.’”

Thomas, who was elected to the Albemarle Board in 1994 on an anti-Bypass campaign, represented the Samuel Miller District unopposed for 15 years. She was succeeded by Duane Snow after she left the board in 2009; Snow is one of four current supervisors to vote in support of the Bypass. Thomas says local transportation projects—namely “parallel roads” like extensions for Hillsdale and Berkmar drives—will provide more realistic solutions to local traffic problems than the Bypass.

Now, state and local officials can leverage funding and transportation priorities against each other. Supervisor Rodney Thomas, a Bypass supporter and one of Albemarle’s two representatives on the five-vote Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) Policy Board, says he feels good about the MPO’s chances to see Berkmar and Hillsdale drives funded. He is similarly optimistic about “accelerating” funding for the Belmont Bridge renovation to Fiscal Year 2014 in the CTB’s Six Year Improvement Program. The CTB agreed to finance the widening of 29N—a $33 million component of the board’s $230 million earmark.

“Right now we’re working on getting another letter of commitment, through the MPO, that those four projects are going to be committed to Albemarle and the city,” says Thomas. He adds that the MPO “probably wouldn’t support the Bypass” without them.

However, Thomas concedes that two additional MPO requests—for investment in rapid transit to 29N and incorporation of the 15-mile Northtown Trail into the Bypass design—are “kind of wishes.”

They may be wishes worth making, according to CTB’s Culpeper representative, James Rich. A former Shell Oil lobbyist and retired attorney, Rich was appointed by Governor McDonnell, whose election Rich supported to the tune of $2,405 in 2009. However, Rich likely isn’t winning over the same voters in District 22: He was the sole dissenting voice in the CTB’s 12-1 Bypass vote.

“The outdated unworkable short Bypass is not something that the taxpayers should have to pay for because it is not cost effective, will drain funds from other projects in the Culpeper District and in the Commonwealth,” says Rich, who adds that McDonnell “never asked me to vote one way or the other.”

“I believe that if dug up from the grave now, it will be shut down later because of fiscal realities,” says Rich. “I fully expect federal funds for transportation could be reduced.”

The MPO will hold a public hearing on Wednesday, July 27, and could vote on the Bypass at the meeting’s end. In the meantime, Rich expresses hope that the MPO will “stick to its guns” and demand funding for Hillsdale, Berkmar and the Belmont Bridge.

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