A Bump in the Road for the Cville Bypass?

Foes of the Charlottesville Bypass have won an important ally. In an advisory opinion, the Environmental Protection Agency has recommended that the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) consider alternatives to the 6.5-mile bypass of U.S. 29 north of Charlottesville.

Sean Tubbs fleshes out the details in Charlottesville Tomorrow:

“Alternatives analysis is the heart of [the National Environmental Policy Act],” reads an addendum to a letter sent by EPA officials to VDOT in October in response to a draft version of the environmental assessment. “Given the time that has passed since the original study, an alternative that is sensitive to the environmental and social concerns [should] be considered in addition to the preferred bypass.”

VDOT officials are currently revising a 62-page environmental assessment released in late August to consider comments from the public, nonprofit organizations and government agencies. VDOT is expected to send the final environmental assessment to the [Federal Highway Administration] in December.

In their letter, EPA officials argue that many conditions have changed since the last comprehensive Environmental Impact Statement was made in 2003.

“It might be appropriate for the lead agencies to provide an updated or new [supplemental environmental impact statement] to reflect the environmental conditions since the last NEPA document [and] provide an up-to-date alternatives analysis reflecting current status of roadways and land use in the area,” reads an Oct. 9 letter signed by Jeffrey D. Lapp, associate director of EPA’s office of environmental programs.

As part of the environmental assessment, VDOT opted not to conduct an analysis of alternatives that serve the same purpose as the bypass. The EPA said the department should reconsider.

The EPA letter is purely advisory. The decision of whether to accept the Environmental Assessment submitted by VDOT rests with the Federal Highway Administration. But the EPA letter supports the argument offered by local bypass foes.

Bypass supporters dismissed the significance of the EPA letter. “The EPA letter is as surprising as a zebra with stripes [because] the organization has not endorsed any bypass in 20 years,” Neil Williamson with the Free Enterprise Forum told Charlottesville Tomorrow.

Speaking of considering alternatives, Albemarle County supervisors are exploring the alternative of using an integrated traffic signal network to reduce congestion in the U.S. 29 corridor. The installation of such a system on U.S. 29 would require between 23 and 25 signals, according to VDOT. Supervisor Dennis Rooker says that, based on his conversations with Rhythm Engineering, the equipment would cost about $33,000 per intersection. That implies a project cost of roughly $1 million — compared to the $244 million cost of building the bypass. However, VDOT officials warned that the benefits could be limited if the capacity of the U.S. 29 corridor is maxed out. Tubbs has that story here.

Bacon’s bottom line: VDOT never gave serious analysis to the detailed Places 29 plan devised by Charlottesville-area officials as an alternative to the Bypass. That plan proposed separated-grade intersections at Hydraulic and Rio roads, the extension of two parallel roads to divert local traffic, and spot improvements along U.S. 29. That plan itself could be updated and improved by adding an integrated traffic signal network.

For roughly the same cost as the Bypass, it could be argued, Places 29 could provide comparable improvement in travel times — not just for travelers passing through the Charlottesville area but for Charlottesville and Albemarle residents themselves.

– JAB

8 Responses to A Bump in the Road for the Cville Bypass?

  1. Jim:

    Your reporting on this issue has been very one – sided. To hear you tell it, this bypass has no redeeming value at all. I am amazed there are any bypass supporters.

    Bypass supporters?

    How can any such beings exist?

    Jim, to hear you tell it:

    1. No trucks will use the bypass.
    2. Cars using the bypass will crash in inclement weather.
    3. The bypass is unnecessary since there is essentially no traffic congestion on Rt 29.
    4. The bypass will ruin Thomas Jefferson’s vision of how the MBA students should study.
    5. There is an endless array of cheaper alternatives.

    Who is this guy Neil Williamson? Is he crazy? Sean Connaughton? Bob McDonnell? Lunatics? The supervisors who approved the bypass? Are they nuts? The mayors of the towns south of Charlottesville along Rt 29? Are they all insane?

    Do you anticipate that every elected official who supported the bypass will be thrown out of office at the next election? It seems that you must believe that given the litany of terrible aspects to the bypass (see numbers 1. – 5. above).

    However, I am starting to read a certain softening in your tone. Now, Places 29 has “roughly the same cost” and “it could be argued” might “provide comparable improvement in travel times”.

    Hmmmm ….

    Not long ago I recall that there was no problem in travel time since the new traffic light sequencing was introduced. You claimed that only 3 minutes of travel time, on average, would be saved by the bypass. So, Places 29′s travel time savings (being comparable to the bypass) will only save 3 minutes of time. True? I also recall Places 29 once upon a time being much cheaper than the bypass. Now it is roughly comparable.

    If there is no problem, why spend and money – on Places 29 or the bypass?

    If Places 29 costs the same as the bypass – what is the advantage?

    I guess you think that the ” Charlottesville and Albemarle residents” will benefit from travel time reductions of Places 29. But you’ve written that the traffic light sequencing has eliminated all but a tiny bit of the problem. So, why fix something that isn’t broken?

    Once upon a time you drove to Rt 29 and went up and down the road where the bypass would supposedly relieve congestion. You pronounced there to be no problem. Now, you want to spend “roughly comparable amounts” on Places 29?

    Is this just to relieve the backups for people trying to get onto Rt 29?

    If so, the traffic light sequencing didn’t really solve the problem? It just pushed the back up from Rt 29 to the road trying to access Rt 29? If so, shouldn’t the bypass analysis measure the change in those backups? Couldn’t the traffic light sequencing that favors through traffic on Rt 29 be relaxed if there was a bypass available? Would that help “Charlottesville and Albemarle residents” get around better too?

    I suspect there are two sides to this story. However, it seems like only one side gets told on this blog. Why?

    • A few corrections. As to what I maintain:

      1. No trucks will use the bypass. HEAVY trucks will avoid using the NORTHBOUND lanes of the Bypass, undermining one of the main justifications for the Bypass.
      2. Cars using the bypass will crash in inclement weather. Some southbound cars will face hazardous conditions at the Southern terminus. Absent changes to the most recently published design, that could lead to more accidents.
      3. The bypass is unnecessary since there is essentially no traffic congestion on Rt 29. There is congestion but it is minor compared to many other places in Virginia. Undoubtedly the congestion will get worse as development on the U.S. 29 corridor continues, but the same can be said of many places in Virginia.
      4. The bypass will ruin Thomas Jefferson’s vision of how the MBA students should study. I haven’t gotten into that issue at all.
      5. There is an endless array of cheaper alternatives. No, there is one main alternative, the Places 29 plan, that would cost roughly the same amount as the Bypass but provide time savings for far more people.

      You also asked, “If there is no problem, why spend any money – on Places 29 or the bypass?”

      Good question.

      My argument is that, if you’re going to spend $244 million, you might create more economic value (congestion mitigated) with Places 29. Sadly, no one has done a comparative cost-benefit analysis of the two alternatives.

      One advantage of Places 29 is that improvements could be phased in over time, as needed. With the Bypass, you build it all at once. There’s nothing to be gained from half a Bypass.

      • Jim:

        With all due respect … you don’t write about this as if there is any reason whatsoever to build the bypass. To hear you tell it – it’s not just a bad plan it’s a plan with no redeeming features. Even if some trucks won’t use the bypass going north, some cars will crash and the congestion is minor …

        Why would anybody support this?

        There seems to be quite a few supporters for the bypass.

        What do they say about your “laundry list” of problems?

  2. Say, Jim ….

    Do you remember this post – http://www.baconsrebellion.com/articles/2011/07/bypass.html ?

    Here’s what you had to say back then ….

    “As an alternative, Bypass foes had championed Places 29, a plan to re-develop the U.S. 29 development corridor by making spot road improvements to the highway, building parallel roads to divert local traffic from the main drag, creating more walkable, mixed use places along the corridor, and tying major activity centers together with mass transit. That plan, which has been refined over a decade of community input and negotiation, had broad buy-in from Charlottesville and Albemarle County citizens and leaders. The major improvements to Places 29 will cost an estimated $80 million – less than half the cost of the Bypass.”.

    Uh oh!!!

    We’ve gone from half the cost of the bypass to “roughly comparable costs”. And that was the estimate after 10 years of study? You wrote that column in June, 2011. So, eighteen months ago Places 29 cost $80M but now it costs $200M+?

    How did this happen?

    • I have before me at this moment a document entitled, “List of Places29 Projects involving VDOT funds.” That document outlines improvements recommended for five-year, 6-10-year and 11-20-year time horizons. The total is $327 million over 20 years. But the list is a smorgasbord — some projects are more essential than others.

      So, Places 29 cost estimates very, depending on which road improvements are included and what time horizon is used. Also complicating the situation is the fact that VDOT has committed to funding a number of these projects already, including the Best Buy Ramp, widening U.S. 29 near the polo grounds, and building the Berkmar Drive Extended.

      In my more recent articles, I have stuck to the formulation that the cost of Places 29 is roughly comparable to that of the Bypass. $244 million won’t get you projects like “Dickerson Road Improvements ($11.6 million), or “Intersection Improvements at Ashwood Boulevard” ($14.9 million) but it will get you the most important Places 29 improvements — the interchanges at Rio and Hydraulic plus the Berkmar and Hillsdale Extensions.

      To be honest, I can’t reconstruct what I was thinking when I suggested 18 months ago that $80 million would do the job. So, you can crucify me for my lapsed memory, if you are so inclined.

  3. That column from June, 2011 make for good reading – especially the comments. Here’s one from JoeTHomasWCHV:

    “Places 29 is a land-use plan masquerading as a road plan. It abuses emminent domain to shut down the only commercial area of the community for years at a time while taking over the property rights around them to zone them out. BTW, without an appropriat detour available for traffic on a Constitutionally protected “Post Road.” (US Highway) The traffic on US29 in Albemarle is bad and is hurting the “Main Street” economy on it, but this is like fixing an ingrown toenail by blasting your foot with a shotgun.”.

    Well, we have a new amendment to the Virginia constitution coming in regard to eminent domain. Something about paying for “lost profits”. Will Places29 really “zone out” commercial property? If so, will the new amendment to the Virginia constitution hike the costs even further?

    Jim, how well thought through is this Places29?

  4. Places 29 was very well thought through — but it was thought through before the amendment to the Constitution was passed. If property owners are to be compensated for business loss, as I think they should be, the cost of ROW acquisition could increase significantly. That could alter the economics of Places 29. That issue definitely would have to be revisited before the state committed to a Places 29 alternative.

    That’s what happens when the facts on the ground change — you recalibrate your plans. Unfortunately, no one seems willing to do that with the Bypass.

  5. no updating of land-use and traffic info from years ago

    + no legitimate alternatives analysis – to include Places 29 and synchronization of traffic signals plus separated grades

    = EPA “concerns” = FHWA re-examination

    = SELC Federal NEPA Lawsuit

    = big trouble for VDOT.

    do the job right or get hung out to dry.

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