A Bridge Too Near

There’s a new wrinkle in the Charlottesville Bypass controversy. The bridge across the Rivanna River may prove to be far more expensive than anyone anticipated.

By James A. Bacon

U.S. 29 north of Charlottesville

The Charlottesville Bypass could cost a lot more than the $197 million approved by the Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB) last week, contends the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) in a statement released earlier today. The preliminary design work for the controversial road project, undertaken years ago, did not take into account the fact that the Bypass would cross the Rivanna River at the same spot as a proposed extension of Berkmar Drive.

SELC based its claim of potential cost overruns on an analysis by Michael J. Wallwork, a professional engineer with Florida-based Alternate Street Design, P.A. Design considerations will be more complex than originally envisioned because the Bypass and the Berkmar extension have to pass through the same chokepoint, threading between U.S. 29, a water treatment plan and a major subdivision. “The three main options … face significant cost, engineering, and other challenges due to the number and length of bridges and under or overpasses needed,” Wallwork wrote. “These challenges underscore the need for careful consideration of the costs and impacts of the proposed Bypass on the planned Berkmar Drive Extended.”

Wallwork’s analysis complicates the decision-making of the Charlottesville-Albemarle Metropolitan Planning Organization, the approval of which is needed for the project to proceed. The report highlights the need for additional information rather than rushing the controversial 29 bypass through the approval process, the SELC argues.

“This is further evidence that the [Albemarle County] Board of Supervisors and MPO are lacking key pieces of information about the bypass and its impacts,” said Morgan Butler, director of SELC’s Charlottesville-Albemarle Project. “The public has been promised that the bypass would help advance Berkmar Drive Extended, a top priority in the county’s Places29 master plan. But today’s report indicates the opposite may be true, even if the two projects share a bridge. Our local leaders need to get a much better grasp on how the bypass would impact Berkmar Drive Extended before they vote on it, not after.”

The MPO is scheduled to meet Wednesday night to address the western bypass issue.

One of the bridge scenarios in the Wallwork report.

The Bypass long existed as a line item in the state’s Six-Year Plan, but no money was allocated to it and nearly everyone had written it off. Partial rights of way, acquired more than a decade ago, are due to revert to the original owners if construction doesn’t get underway by 2012 — effectively killing the project. But the McDonnell administration surprised the project’s foes by resurrecting the Bypass earlier this month, persuading the Albemarle County supervisors to reverse their previous opposition earlier this month and then gaining the approval of the state transportation board last week.

Rodney Thomas and Duane Snow, two of the Albemarle supervisors who voted in favor of the project, also sit on the five-person MPO board. A third member is James Utterback, Culpeper district administrator for the Virginia Department of Transportation, answers ultimately to Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton, who has worked extensively behind the scenes to move the project forward. The two other board members, who serve on Charlottesville City Council, are widely presumed to oppose the Bypass.

Between Thomas, Snow and Utterback, the pro-Bypass forces would seem to have a majority on the MPO board. But there’s a complication. Thomas and Snow say that they switched their opposition to the project only because Connaughton promised them funding for four key U.S. 29 projects – a widening of the highway north of the proposed Bypass terminus; a new ramp at the interchange of U.S. 29 and U.S. 250 (widely referred to as the Best Buy ramp); completion of Hillsdale Drive, a road running parallel to U.S. 29; and the Berkmar extension, another road running parallel to U.S. 29 – in addition to the Bypass.

“When Duane Snow and I started on this, we were called by Sean Connaughton to have a meeting,” Thomas explained. “We were asking for money to widen U.S. 29. He threw the idea of the Bypass on the table. Duane and I looked at each other, ‘Hmm, what’s this?’” Read more.

9 Responses to A Bridge Too Near

  1. Jim Bacon seems to have recently developed an abiding love affair with the Southern Environmental Law Center. While the SELC may be honestly trying to block environmental hazards, I suspect that Bacon is trying only to block progress and the possibility of new taxes. Politics make strange bedfellows.

    Now, let me indulge in an admitted flight of anti-establishment fancy. I have often railed against “the descendants of Pocahontas”. Many of you may have wondered what mental picture was in my head as I ranted and raved against Virginia’s status quo. Well … it was pretty much this picture –

    http://www.southernenvironment.org/virginia/staff/

  2. The real problem with the bypass bypass (we already have a bypass—this, seriously, will bypass the bypass) is that it doesn’t actually bypass the developed part of town. When this was first proposed, decades ago, its start point was far enough north that it bypassed the whole of the built-up area. But C’ville has sprawled so far north–well into Greene County—that the bypass starts smack in the middle of it all. And without growth restrictions north and south of the bypass, the value of the bypass will quickly be diminished to nothing.

    We’re bypassing the bypass, but not the stuff that people want to bypass. What a ridiculous waste of money.

  3. Waldo:

    Perfect is the enemy of good.

    The lack of growth restrictions is a matter of political will. To use an extreme argument – if sprawl isn’t contained some day, some way – all bypasses will be obsolete. So, why ever build a bypass?

    Bypassing some of the congestion is better than bypassing none of the congestion.

  4. “Bypassing some of the congestion is better than bypassing none of the congestion.”

    Groveton, shame on you for failing to grasp the concept of “alternate opportunity cost.” The $200 million spent on the Bypass (assuming no cost overruns) could be invested in the Places 29 plan that Charlottesville and Albemarle County have been massaging for a decade now. Places 29 is not a pie-in-the-sky idea. All the pieces are in place. The projects are at least as “shovel ready” as the Bypass. Places 29 proponents argue that completing the improvements, including mass transit, called for in the plan would do more to reduce congestion along the 29 corridor at less cost.

    Of course, Connaughton is promising to fund several of the Places 29 projects, but there are a couple of pieces he is leaving out, and there are other projects that could be elevated if the money were available.

    Which alternative gets the most bang for the buck? I don’t know. Either does the McDonnell administration. $200 million is too much money to throw around on a hunch.

  5. Of course, Charlottesville itself crapped up it’s own roads also by kowtowing to business interests over transportation utility.

    That’s the problem in Va. If there was no Transportation Daddy willing to shovel free-money – Charlottesville and other communities in Va would have to take responsibility for their own lousy development policies that essentially rely on the state (other taxpayers) to come in and rescue them.

    Charlottesville has crapped up a road – intended to be a major state connecting road with bad development policies and this is at least part of the problem in my view.

    I have little sympathy for VDOT’s role either. A POX on BOTH!

  6. “..massaging for a decade now”.

    Jim, do you read what you write? The knuckleheads have spent A DECADE “massaging” a plan?

    Finally some non-Cnidaria actually want to do something and you and your friends urge more study?

    You’ve either developed a bad case of analysis paralysis or you have ulterior motives.

    First, you can’t find enough excuses to try to delay the Rail to Dulles project and now a simple bypass that’s been in the works forever troubles you sense of decorum.

    Is this just a case of a Richmonder getting hives over the commonwealth spending money somewhere other than Richmond?

  7. Perfect is the enemy of good.

    The lack of growth restrictions is a matter of political will. To use an extreme argument – if sprawl isn’t contained some day, some way – all bypasses will be obsolete. So, why ever build a bypass?

    Bullshit. This is like offering a kidney to a man who needs a liver transplant. “Hey, don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good!”

  8. Waldo – will the bypass help relieve the present congestion on Rt 29?
    This is a simple question.
    The answer is yes.
    Maybe twenty years wasn’t long enough to study the matter. Maybe another 30 would have added clarity to the situation.
    Meanwhile, you hypothetical patient would have died of liver failure or old age.
    Perfect is the enemy of good.
    Especially after twenty years of analysis paralysis.
    Those who can do, do. Those who can’t, teach. Those who can neither do nor teach, spend their days demanding more decades of analysis.

  9. For what it’s worth Waldo, I think Richmond Sunlight is brilliant. The whole state owes you a “thanks” for that.

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