Skanska/Branch’s new design for the Charlottesville Bypass shaves tens of millions of dollars off construction costs. But will it move traffic as efficiently as the original design?
by James A. Bacon
Foes of the controversial Charlottesville Bypass could well adopt the famous motto of John Paul Jones when his ship, The Bonhomme Richard, was losing the battle with the HMS Serapis: “I have not yet begun to fight!”
Continued opposition to the Bypass might seem futile now that the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) has identified Skanska/Branch Highways as the low bidder for constructing the highway and the Commonwealth Transportation Board has given final approval for the allocation of funds. But Bypass foes are not prepared to concede defeat. Indeed, like Jones, who closed with the Serapis to engage in hand-to-hand combat, Charlottesville area activists are poring over Skanska’s conceptual design for the bypass to see if it will deliver as promised.
Meanwhile, VDOT has not yet scheduled an informational hearing to solicit input from the public, the Federal Highway Administration has not yet completed a review of the Environmental Impact Assessment, and VDOT has not yet formally awarded the contract to Skanska. Indeed, according to an email from Culpeper transportation district chief Jim Utterback to Albemarle County Supervisor Dennis Rooker, VDOT was not expecting to meet with Skanska until late July. “There are a number of contract items and initial steps moving forward to be reviewed and worked out with them.”
With the goal of influencing the federal EIA findings anti-bypass activists are scrutinizing Skanska’s roadway design, which seemingly solves several issues that would have driven the cost of the project considerably higher than the official $244 million estimate. By reducing the footprint of the southern and northern termini, Skanska’s design saves roughly $36 million in right-of-way acquisition costs. Running the highway at a higher elevation over Stillhouse Mountain also cuts excavation and disposal costs.
But will the new design deliver on the promised travel time savings? after all, the justification of the project is to bypass a congested strip of U.S. 29 north of Charlottesville in order to facilitate inter-city commerce along what the state has designated a “corridor of statewide significance.” The original bypass plans would have supported a 60 mile-per-hour speed limit. Therefore, under normal conditions the trip would take roughly six minutes, 30 seconds, shaving about two minutes and 40 seconds from the average length of each trip on the existing U.S. 29. (See “The Road to Wealth Destruction” to see how the time savings were calculated.)
The new design adds two stoplights and may lower the average travel speed, potentially cutting into the hoped-for time savings. Jeff Werner, transportation and land use planner for the Piedmont Environmental Council, has focused on three key areas: the southern terminus, the elevation over Stillhouse Mountain, and the northern terminus.
Southern terminus. The interchange requires two new stoplights. Northbound traffic will follow the route indicated by the green arrows: exiting U.S. 250 to the right, halting at a stoplight, turning left, crossing U.S. 250 at an 11.4% grade, encountering another stoplight, and then proceeding onto the bypass.
Southbound traffic will have an unobstructed exit from the bypass onto U.S. 250 heading south, but will encounter the same two stoplights when entering Leonard Sandridge Drive leading tothe University of Virginia or heading east to downtown Charlottesville.
The sequencing of the stoplights has not yet been made public. But assuming average cycle times of one minute each and, optimistically, no major back-up during rush hour, it the lights could add a minute or so to northbound trips and some southbound trips.
Stillhouse Mountain. One of the great challenges designing the bypass is crossing Stillhouse Mountain located near the southern terminus. The original plan called for massive rock excavacation and removal in order to keep the grade moderate. Skanska’s engineering solution will reduce excavcation and removal costs by elevating the highway. The incline will be very steep, says Werner.
Roughly one in ten vehicles using the bypass is expected to be a truck. If northbound trucks start from a full stop at the second stoplight, they will labor for hundreds of yards up a steep incline to reach a posted 60 miles-per-hour speed limit. This design change has the potential to add significant travel time for tractor-trailers and the cars caught behind them. Continue reading.