Let me set the scene… The Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) has allocated $200 million to build the Charlottesville Bypass and has selected a contractor to move the project forward. Before construction can commence, the state must submit an Environmental Assessment (EA) for final approval by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). But the bypass design included in the review is an outdated VDOT schematic. The most recent conceptual design, prepared by Skanska/Branch Highway in its winning bid, differs in several particulars, most notably the configuration of the southern terminus, where the bypass ties into the U.S. 250 bypass.
Question: Is it possible to conduct a meaningful Environmental Assessment on the basis of a highway design that everyone knows will not be used?
VDOT says it can. States the department’s draft Environmental Assessment:
While certain details of the roadway design may change during the final design process, as they do in any project, and although the nature of such potential changes are not known at this time, the major design features of the project (typical cross-section and corridor location) are not expected to materially change. Nor is the right-of way footprint upon which previous environmental analyses were based expected to change. Therefore, the design upon which the SEIS was based best represents the current project design, and its associated right-of-way footprint best represents the direct impacts footprint of the proposed project, and environmental impacts have been computed accordingly.
But the Southern Environmental Law Center isn’t so sure. Senior Attorney Morgan Butler is especially concerned about Skanska’s radical re-design of the bypass’ southern terminus. Some traffic entering and leaving the bypass could encounter two stoplights. Northbound traffic also would drive up a steep grade immediately upon passing the stoplight, creating a situation in which slow-moving trucks block traffic.
Butler also is concerned how the intersection will handle special events traffic coming out of the University of Virginia. “People have done traffic analysis and … are raising technical points, whether Skanska’s design meets the [Level of Service] required in the RFP,” he says. … “Is this design for the southern terminus workable, or will it lead to more problems?”
VDOT has posted the Environmental Assessment online (you can find it here) and is collecting public input. The EA will be submitted to the FHWA for approval. If FHWA gives the nod — the final step in the years-long approval process — VDOT will schedule an “citizen information meeting” to brief the public on the conceptual design, explains Lou Hatter, VDOT spokesman with the Culpeper District office. Then the department will hold a full-fledged public hearing in which the public can comment on the design. With the benefit of that input, Skanska will commence final design and construction.
“It appears that their strategy is to separate the [Environmental Assessment] and the design,” says Butler. “There will be significant design changes [between the VDOT version and the Skanska version]. Those changes will have environmental impacts and community impacts. … It seems like they’re trying to defer any serious public feedback on the design changes until after the [environmental review] process.”
Yup, that’s what it looks like. In other words, the Charlottesville Bypass is a done deal. All citizens can do now is to influence the project on the margins…. No, they can’t even influence the margins. They can influence the periphery of the margins. No, make that the edge of the periphery of the margins. I sure hope that Bypass designed works out like planned.