Stuck in traffic: A new transportation secretary doesn’t mean the end of the Western Bypass

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

After election day, many who have watched the decades-long saga of the Western Bypass unfold were quick to predict the project would end up dead in the water. They assumed that the changing of the guard in Richmond and a Democratic sweep locally would spell an end to the controversial road project.

But Democratic Governor-elect Terry McAullife has been silent on the controversial road project, and in one of his first major appointment announcements, he selected Republican Aubrey Layne, who voted to fund the Bypass as a member of the Commonwealth Transportation Board, to serve as transportation secretary.

Couple that with the fact that some observers say the state has wiggle room to pay for the project even if it ends up grossly over budget, and the fact that the Federal Highway Administration still hasn’t weighed in on the environmental assessment submitted by VDOT many months ago, and it gets harder to see where the road is going.

Outgoing Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton—largely responsible for bringing the project back to life in 2011 and pushing for a rapid design-build process—has pointedly avoided giving out any real or new information on the status of the planned road, despite repeated requests to do so. Connaughton notably broke his last scheduled interview appointment a week ago, and has not answered queries since.

Virginians in other parts of the state are slowly beginning to pay more attention to a project that, although awarded to corporate giant Skanksa in a controversial construction bid for only $136 million dollars, has by some estimates already consumed more than half a billion dollars in combined hard and soft taxpayer expenses before an inch of roadway has actually been built. Taking into account related costs, like the potential loss of real estate revenues in the area and planning resources expended by VDOT over the last three decades, the actual amount the project has already cost taxpayers in 2013 dollars may be much more.

“VDOT estimated the Bypass cost at $436 million dollars just months before Connaughton accepted Skanska’s $136 million bid knowing the southern terminus design was totally useless,” said transportation analyst and local Bypass opponent Randy Salzman. “It’s a design-build scam and Virginia is beginning to realize why Taxpayers for Common Sense calls this Bypass a semantic lie—one of the nation’s eight worst projects.”

Proponents of the Bypass residing in South-Central Virginia, where the “Lynchburg lobby” has been active for decades in pushing for U.S. 29 improvements, would disagree. Many of them continue to express exasperation that locals in Charlottesville resist the project at every step, and try to divide people along party lines.

Virginians in the powerful D.C. and Tidewater metropolitan areas, however, have taken little notice of the controversy. They have multi-billion dollar projects of their own to worry about—several awarded to Skanska—and largely perceive the problem as a purely local one. Consistent with that thinking, the state’s congressional delegation has not sounded off publicly about the issue, and the national media has ignored it. The major Central Virginia newspaper and watchdog of the bureaucracies pushing the bypass, The Richmond Times-Dispatch, has hardly mentioned it.

All of this seems to indicate that the Bypass truly is perceived as a local issue. But at least one prominent state figure doesn’t believe that is the case.

“The General Assembly and the attorney general should look into this bait and switch method of allocating transportation funds,” former Commonwealth Transportation Board member Jim Rich said a few months ago. Rich was fired for opposing the project, and rejects how its funding was allocated. “Previously, the Virginia General Assembly Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission had uncovered problems with the administration of this so-called Bypass,” he said.

Transportation officials, including some at the Culpeper office where the project will be administrated, have indicated that funds can sometimes be moved around within revenue streams, as the situation dictates, sometimes without going through normal protocols, suggesting by extension that a large contractor like Skanska can afford to take on losses in small projects like the $136 million bypass that are offset by the enormous capital flow on other projects like the new multi-billion dollar Skanska-led tunnel project in Hampton Roads and a project that has corporate watchdogs nervous due to oversight concerns.

Skanska itself has already signaled that the termini on the Bypass are not practical, and that significant funds will be required to “fix” them. Others, including a competing bidder on the project, have stated the same. Simultaneously, VDOT officials are on the record repeatedly stating that Skanska was awarded the $136 million dollar bid in good faith, and that they will need to do the work they contracted to do in good faith. It is difficult to imagine Skanska building the road as they designed it, or without additional money, and people inside and outside of VDOT knew this before the winning bid was accepted.

The Bypass project already has its share of very real human problems—six schools and a historic black cemetery lie close to the planned route or directly in its way, and opponents have raised concerns about threats to the area’s water supply and impacts on UVA’s northern campus. But the most pressing concern of all is about fiscal responsibility and oversight of large-scale transportation initiatives. If it’s an issue for a relatively small local project, it will be a much bigger challenge on larger jobs with huge revenue streams. That will be a major concern to constituents in the D.C. and Tidewater regions, and should be a major concern to officials in Richmond.

The math on the Bypass just doesn’t add up, dollar-wise or politically. The most avid supporters don’t live in the area, the biggest opponents don’t have the political clout at this point to stop it, the contractor and VDOT engineers don’t have the structural solutions to solve the technical problems, and the assumed decision-makers at this point refuse to talk about the environmental assessment or turning ground to actually begin the project. Given the mixed messages, both proponents and opponents of the Bypass are likely to be in for surprises in the coming months, and the signals coming from McAuliffe suggest that local decision-makers will need to apply the same energy Connaughton and McDonnell did in reviving the project if their voice opposing it is to be heard. The changing of the guard in Richmond may only promise more controversy. —Jack Trammel

Jack Trammell is professor at Randolph-Macon College and a long-time columnist for the Washington Times who has written about the Bypass for several publications.

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