Albemarle County Supervisor Rodney Thomas takes issue with my characterization in the story, “Gentleman’s Agreement,” of the access-management agreement reached with the Virginia Department of Transportation as a “side deal.” He was so upset by the article that he asked me to never contact him again. I tried to explore how he would describe the understanding but he refused to talk anymore.
For the record, I did not mean to imply anything secret or underhanded by describing the understanding as a “side deal.” I didn’t know how else to describe it. I invite readers to give their reaction. Did I blow it? Was I unfair? If so, I’ll publicly apologize to Mr. Thomas.
By way of context, the original deal was one that Thomas and fellow Albemarle Supervisor Duane Snow reached with Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton: If the two supervisors helped overturn a previous Albemarle County vote to oppose the Charlottesville Bypass, Connaughton would come up with the money to pay for the Bypass and smaller, high-priority projects in the U.S. 29 Corridor (as well as rebuilding the Belmont Bridge in Charlottesville). Thomas and Snow made good on their end of that deal, and Connaughton partly made good on his end, getting Commonwealth Transportation Board approval for the Bypass plus a widening of a stretch of U.S. 29. However, the CTB did not address the status of the other projects.
Before the Bypass project could be approved, Thomas and Snow, who also sat on the regional Metropolitan Planning Organization (Thomas is chairman) had to reverse an earlier MPO vote opposing the Bypass. That was trickier. The Southern Environmental Law Center had put them on the spot by publicly distributing a letter to the Albemarle board asking it to get concrete commitments from Connaughton. “It is essential that the County have clear, firm, and legally enforceable conditions in place as part of any vote to amend the Metropolitan Planning Organization’s transportation plans to allow funding for the bypass,” the letter said.
Whether motivated by the SELC letter or not, Connaughton wrote a letter to the MPO board specifying precisely what he was willing to do to advance the priority road projects, including the Berkmar Drive Extension, the Hillsdale Drive project, the Best Buy ramp and the Belmont Bridge. He also stated his expectation that the MPO would cooperate in curtailing direct access to U.S. 29 by developers and property owners in accordance with the state’s Corridor of Statewide Significance policy. In a Friday interview with me, he described that condition as a “quid pro quo” and expressed his desire to make Charlottesville-Albemarle a “test bed” for the state’s access management policies.
That condition was not part of the original deal with Thomas and Snow, at least not as the two supervisors publicly described it. But Connaughton’s letter was vague about what he expected from the MPO and Albemarle County. Those expectations were clarified, at least to some degree, in a meeting that Thomas had with VDOT Commissioner Gregory Whirley yesterday. Thomas shared those details of the conversation with me, and I wrote the article yesterday.
In my article, I variously described the access-management arrangement as a “side deal,” a “handshake deal,” and an “informal understanding.” What else could you call it? Thomas and VDOT had reached an understanding separate from the original agreement. This one stemmed from the original deal but it was distinct from it and it addressed a totally different topic: access management.
If readers believe that by “side deal” I conveyed the impression that it was reached in secret or was in any way sinister, then I apologize to Mr. Thomas.
It has since occurred to me that Thomas may have participated in the meeting with Whirley in the company of other Albemarle or MPO officials. When I interviewed him, he never mentioned that anyone else was in the meeting with him, so I mentioned only him in the article. Readers may have drawn the conclusion that Thomas met with Whirley alone. A more astute reporter would have clarified that point and also would have made clear whether Thomas was acting in his capacity as an Albemarle supervisor or as chairman of the MPO. I don’t know the answers. For those oversights, I beg readers’ forgiveness.