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
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.
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.