The soon-to-be-built Charlottesville Bypass provides a lousy economic return on investment. Only government would spend $244 million on a project that yields less than $8 million a year in benefits to the public.
By James A. Bacon
The citizens of Charlottesville and Albemarle County think they have a traffic congestion problem on U.S 29 north of the city. Of course, everybody thinks they have a traffic problem. You should see the intersection of Parham and Patterson near my home in Henrico County around 5:30 p.m. It can take three or four cycles to get through the stop light. And try driving on Interstate 95 in Prince William County. It’s far worse than anything in the Richmond region – you can get stuck in stop-and-go traffic at 6:30 in the morning!
The question is whether the congestion on U.S. 29 north of Charlottesville is so numbingly God-awful compared to all the other traffic hell-holes in Virginia as to warrant a $244 million investment (including sunk expenses) to build a bypass, as the McDonnell administration has decided to do.
For more than a half year now I’ve been writing about the Bypass from a distance, here in Henrico. At times, the controversy seemed remote and abstract. To really understand the controversy, I decided I needed to experience the frustration, the agony and the road rage of driving on U.S. 29 first hand. So, one day in December, using a digital stop watch to track my time, I spent more than an hour driving up and down the congested highway corridor slated for bypass. I wanted to see for myself just how bad things got during rush hour.
It was a regular workday, the University of Virginia was in session and traffic conditions were routine. I set some rules for myself: no lane weaving, no bumper hugging and no gunning through yellow lights to alter the outcome. While I was behaving myself, there would be no cursing, fist shaking or banging on the steering wheel either. I would drive like a normal person.
The results were far from anything I expected.
The stretch of U.S. 29 in question runs through 14 stoplights and is lined with restaurants, shopping malls, office buildings and other development. Although the road is designated a highway of statewide significance — one of Virginia’s three major north-south freight routes — Albemarle County zoned the land around it as a primary growth corridor. Thousands of people use the road to drive to work every day at the University of Virginia and other Charlottesville employment centers.
Figuring that morning rush hour would experience the worst congestion, I picked the period of 7:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. to drive back and forth between Ashwood Boulevard at the proposed northern terminus of the Bypass and the U.S. 250 Bypass underpass to the south. Driving north against the rush hour traffic established a base line: My three trips averaged 7 minutes and 42 seconds. Traffic was smooth flowing throughout, although delays did occur during lengthy stop lights at the Hydraulic and Rio road intersections.
Likewise, I drove south three times with the rush hour traffic. My first trip took the longest. I was surprised at how smoothly traffic moved but I did get hung up at the Rio Road intersection for a long stoplight cycle. Thanks to the synchronized lights, however, I whizzed through the major intersections without a hitch on the next two trips. The average drive time for all three: 7 minutes and 21 seconds – faster than when I was driving against the rush hour tide!
At the end of the exercise, I had one question: Traffic congestion? What traffic congestion? These people know nothing about traffic congestion!! What is all the hoo-ha about?
ROI – No, that’s Not French for “King,” although It Is a Foreign Word in Virginia
A variety of claims have been advanced in favor of building the Bypass. First, there is an economic benefit to reducing the amount of time people lose being stuck in traffic congestion. Second, the project will improve safety, reducing the number of traffic accidents on an accident-prone stretch of road. And third, it will promote economic development – not necessarily in the Charlottesville region but in points south, specifically in Danville and Lynchburg. Building the Bypass around Charlottesville’s congestion hot spot, it could be argued, will reduce truck travel times and improve the competitive posture of manufacturing businesses that use U.S. 29 as a freight corridor.
While the claims are not implausible on their face, no one has subjected them to rigorous study. The Virginia Department of Transportation has never conducted a Return on Investment (ROI) analysis to determine how much economic benefit the commonwealth will derive from its $244 million expenditure, much less how that ROI would compare to alternative transportation improvements. Continue reading.