A Bypass Built for Trucks… that Trucks Won’t Use

by James A. Bacon

The McDonnell administration’s justification for the $244 million Charlottesville Bypass is to preserve the integrity of U.S. 29 for freight traffic. Only one problem: Heavy trucks traveling north won’t be able to use it, according to an analysis published by the Charlottesville-Albemarle Transportation Coalition.

This cross-section shows the varying grades of the bottleneck at the Charlottesville Bypass’s southern terminus. Note: Height and distance measures are on different scales. Graphic credit: CATCO.

What’s more, the bypass will be unusable for some southbound trucks in snow, ice and perhaps even rain, says author Bob Humphris, a retired University of Virginia engineer who interviewed four trucking companies for the white paper, “A Tale of Two Roads.”

The crux of the problem is that the winner of the design-build contract, Skanska/Branch, made major changes to the original Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) design in order to shave costs, submit the low bid and bring the project under the $244 million set aside by the state. Skanska’s conceptual design shrank the footprint of the southern terminus, where the bypass ties into the U.S. 250 Bypass, eliminating the need to build three bridges and shortening the length of the on-off ramps. Those changes, says Humphris, reduced costs by $20 million or more.

But Skanska created problems with the new design. North-bound trucks serving manufacturing operations in Lynchburg, Danville and elsewhere would exit U.S. 250 onto a ramp onto Leonard Sandridge Road, which is classified as a Local Street System road, and encounter a stoplight. Then they would turn left and encounter another stoplight before entering the bypass.

VDOT recommends the addition of truck-climbing lanes for this stretch of Interstate 64 near Afton Mountain. The incline has half the slope of the steepest grade at the proposed southern terminus of the Charlottesville Bypass. Photo credit: News Virginian.

Humphris showed the plans to four trucking operations: UPS in Charlottesville, and to Estes Express, Lawrence Transportation System and Wilson Trucking in the Waynesboro-Fishersville area. None of these companies were aware of the new design, he says. UPS said that its light trucks would not be affected. But the other three told him that the operation of heavy trucks would be so impaired that they would route the trucks elsewhere.

Northbound trucks would encounter two problems. First, they could not make the tight left turn at the first stoplight unless they were in the right-hand land, and they would create a safety hazard by cutting off cars in the left-hand lane. Second, the incline after the first stoplight is exceedingly steep, with a grade of 11.36% — roughly twice the grade of the Interstate highway up nearby Afton Mountain, where truck speeds routinely fall below the posted speed limit.

Wrote Humphris: “Starting from a stopped position and trying to accelerate up the 162 [feet] of an 11.36% grade, and then another 163 [feet] of a 4.26% grade to the second stoplight takes a considerably longer time compared to automobiles — and quite likely two cycles of the stoplights would be required.”

The same steep incline would pose a hazard for south-bound heavy trucks in inclement driving conditions. “Bad, icy weather would be horrendous coming down that grade,” Humphris says.

Someone needs to inform the Danville and Lynchburg Chambers of Commerce, which lobbied heavily for the bypass project as a lifeline for their manufacturing-intensive economies, Humphris says. “To come off a highway of national significance onto the local street system defeats the purpose of the whole thing.”

Another set of problems arises from the re-design of the southern terminus, which arguably breaks an understanding reached in the 1990s with the University of Virginia by encroaching upon UVa’s northern grounds. University officials asked then that “every possible aesthetic measure [be] taken to preserve and enhance the University’s considerable investment in the setting and appearance of its new Darden School of Business and the Law School, including visual buffering … as well as acoustic buffering using sound walls faced with materials compatible with those historically in use at the university.”

Randy Salzman, a transportation writer who has closely tracked the U.S. 29 Bypass procurement process, says that the landscaping and acoustic buffering are missing from Skanska’s conceptual design — another trick the contractor used to trim costs from its bid. “Once construction begins,” he writes, “there must be major change orders.”

In correspondence to a UVa professor, he continues:

Skanska and bypass promoters realize that Darden and UVA will demand changes, which University Architect David Neuman has already begun, and the price will climb. The American Trucking Association will demand changes and the price will climb. Similar issues will likely show up in other sections of the 6.2 mile highway and the price will climb again.

All when the media and the public are no longer paying attention.

Bacon’s Rebellion tried contacting three different VDOT spokesmen for a comment Thursday, two in the Culpeper office and one in the Richmond office, but did not get a response.

21 Responses to A Bypass Built for Trucks… that Trucks Won’t Use

  1. This post reminds me of the following quote:

    “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat. “.

    The anti-bypass people are clearly among those timid souls …

  2. This comment is submitted on the behalf of Randy Salzman.

    This 11.4 percent grade is almost twice as steep as the famed “Going to the Sun” highway in Glacier National Park, and only one of 35 Colorado mountain passes is steeper than 10 percent. As designed, cars and trucks will be barreling down this hill, trying to make the yellow light at the bottom, from 60 miles per hour — regardless of whether there is an unnoticed and strictly cosmetic change from “arterial” to “local street” designation — and onto the North Grounds (campus) of the Darden Business School. Below this stoplight, about 75 yards is the student crosswalk where many, if not most, students daily hurry to classes.

    By this questionable maneuver of cosmetically expanding “local road” Leonard Sandridge Road north over U.S. 250, instead of as consistently noted in hundreds of Commonwealth Transportation Board documents for 20 years beginning the bypass on the south side of U.S. 250, Skanska also escapes the need to put up sound barriers and landscaping to protect Darden. The school will be left with at least a $4 million tab to put in a student overpass and sound barriers but, regardless of what the business school does, Darden’s quiet, completive atmosphere will be lost. Trucks and cars will now come down this hill and utilize Leonard Sandridge, Massie and Arlington Roads to cut through both Darden and the UVA Law School.

    In studying “design-build” projects, the Federal Highway Administration and the Indiana DOT note that third party requests usually drive the total costs of design build projects HIGHER than similar traditional “design-bid-build” projects. Indiana, indeed, suggests that DB only be used for “smaller projects.” There is a powerful tendency for sage contractors (and perhaps officials determined to build a highway that most citizens do not want) to submit low-ball bids to get the contract and then make massive income through change orders when the public is not paying attention.

    Skanska’s bid was $80 million less than the highest bidder – which did comply with 20 years of agreements to begin the bypass on the south side of U.S. 250 and keep all grades at six percent. The discrepancy between low and high bids was 60 percent of Skanska’s total bid. At least one bidder has filed with VDOT claiming Skanska failed to live up to the Request for Proposals in its design of this southern terminus.

    Finally, no other “bypass” along the 29 corridor has stoplights at its beginning and ending.

  3. Can you spell C-H-A-N-G-E-O-R-D-E-R?

  4. Jim:

    What is you answer to this whole thing? Spend another 20 years evaluating Places29? Give back the property that was claimed in eminent domain and start again?

    Really?

    Yes, there will be design changes. Yes, there will be budget overruns. What’s new? Anybody who has run any type of project to build pretty much anything allocates a reserve for unforeseen events / problems. 15% – 20% is a good buffer. If changes are required, will those changes consume more than the 15% – 20% total? If not, that’s life. If so, VDOT should be held to account for accepting a bid that won’t work. Which one is it?

    Was this approved by the appropriate elected officials or not? If this is a highway that most citizens don’t want then I assume that the elected officials who approved the idea will be voted out of office. Is that your prediction? Will the elected officials who approved this be voted out of office because they supported a highway that most citizens don’t want?

    There’s a lot of crying over this bypass. However, it seems to have been properly funded and properly approved by local elected officials. Whether the state (in the form of VDOT) has done it’s job is always a good question. But the big question remains – do you believe that the appropriate local officials approved this project?

    • No, I really don’t think the Bypass was properly approved. VDOT did not level with local officials or the CTB about the major design changes that would be necessary when presenting its case. Only now are we beginning to understand the sacrifices in performance that were made in order to complete the project under budget. The ROI on this project was marginal under the best of circumstances. If north-bound heavy trucks can’t even use it, the ROI erodes even more. If the configuration creates more accidents at the southern terminus, the project plunges into negative ROI — it will destroy more economic value than it will create.

      Do you seriously propose spending $244 million on a project that will destroy economic value? In this day and age? Really? You can’t think of any better ways to spend $244 million? Come on.

      • So, you have determined that the ROI is inappropriate. You have seen through the VDOT games. However, the local officials can’t see what you see so clearly. Why? If this project is such a bad idea why aren’t the local officials screaming about it?

  5. DJR – it’s more complicated than this. VDOT does not always make appropriate contacts with local elected officials and with the affected community. Case in point – the proposed two left turn lanes on Route 7 and the Georgetown Pike. There was strong opposition from the Great Falls Citizens Association to this plan because it would likely increase traffic on the Pike and, thus, degrade the quality of life for GF residents. The GFCA, aided by other groups and Frank Wolf, John Foust, Sharon Bulova, Janet Howell, Margi Vanderhye and Barbara Comstock, was able to stop VDOT’s plans. VDOT got the message and reached out to these and other stakeholders. The end result is general agreement on a plan to widen Route 7 between Reston & Tysons. Money was obtained from the state to do the engineering and planning, which will also include a transit option on Route 7. If it works in Great Falls, it can work anywhere else in the state.

    • ” … Frank Wolf, John Foust, Sharon Bulova, Janet Howell, Margi Vanderhye and Barbara Comstock …”.

      Local officials opposed VDOT’s plans.

      In Charlottesville, didn’t the local officials approve the bypass? If the plan is so obviously flawed then why aren’t the local politicians screaming bloody murder?

  6. This is not an uncommon tactic for VDOT on controversial projects.

    They have a history of doing this – i.e. “low balling” numbers, drawing the locality into the project then dropping the other shoe and saying it has to come out of the localities future money.

    It’s hard to understand where DJ is coming from – he talks long and hard about “greedy grays” and other “takers” and professes support for fiscal conservatives like Mr. Ryan, but then with METRO and now this he demonstrates a high tolerance for higher taxes and expensive projects that have a strong odor of boondoggle to them.

    the Cville bypass is also starting to get an odor to it in terms of how the bidding and design requirements were handled.

    It’s very hard for an organization to build up and maintain a good reputation and trust but VDOT cannot seem to help itself sometimes.

    and I’ll admit their job is oftentimes a no-win situation.

    I will say this about them. When they make up their minds to do something, it usually gets done, not before there is blood on the floor.

    I can’t believe they approved a grade like that. Unbelievable.

  7. DJR~ With regard to your first comment~ you can’t ‘undo’ a project like that. So, while your pretty little quote is pretty, and little, It is not relevant. Think about it. If we build it (the ‘getting in the arena’ part of your quote) and then realize, like we already have, that IT DOESN’T WORK, then what are we to do? De-Build it? No, that’s neither prudent, nor possible. So, why don’t we LISTEN TO THE CONSTITUENCY, as opposed to the FEW elected officials that ramrodded the project thru, under dubious circumstances, mind you and continue to weigh our options. For example, as you’ve alluded to, Places 29 or other ideas. I’ve seen plenty of alternatives to this disaster. Do not be fooled, this IS a disaster of EPIC proportions. As I have children who WILL BE AFFECTED by the pollution that this project will bring (are you even aware of the detrimental side effects?) I suggest that this road NOT BE BUILT to begin with. Plus, we can’t afford it, financially or environmentally.

    • myk – Why aren’t the local officials in Charlottesville screaming bloody murder about this horrible project?

      Are they all willing to be voted out of office by an irate constituency?

      Or, are there a lot of people who think the bypass is a good idea, even if it is imperfect? And maybe just a few very loud people who don’t want it?

      This bypass has been planned for 20 years. Hardly a project that was “ramroded” through anything.

  8. At some point FHWA has to sign off on this road, including the grade and at-grade intersections at the terminus and I’d not be surprised to see this project get delayed.

    Normally, you will not hear FHWA come out publically and make a statement. They will tell VDOT quietly to fix the problems or they’ll not sign off on it. FHWA generally takes a dim view of a design that has safety issues … as well it should.

    but I think VDOT is committed to this project and they’re going to go looking for some money to build the interchange, I bet.

    US 29 was the pre-cursor to the interstates. A’U.S.” network of highways to connect the country.

    Unfortunately – many localities used the US signed highways for commercial venues.

    Look around in your own area for where the commercial strips are and 9 times out of 10, the highway will be a U.S. signed highway that no longer functions for it’s original transportation purpose.

    The limited access interstates were the next big thing to provide roads that could not be co-opted for commercial venues but then they could not figure out how to get around the cities without having a beltway and while they continued to protect the interstates from being co-opted directly for commercial and other development, they could not control what happened in the areas around each interchange and so the interstates themselves became co-opted for the use of the urbanized area they served – and again – to the detriment of the highway as a connecting corridor to other cities.

    Thus I-95, while it survives intact and free from commercial venues, it has been so thoroughly co-opted for the NoVa region as to be so seriously degraded as a connecting corridor that it is avoided by most folks going north and south on I-95 if they can avoid it in the DC area.

    Thus US 29 in Charlottesville has been co-opted by Charlottesville as a local venue for commercial and such a mess that it’s a real chore to try to get through Charlottesville on your way north or south.

    Charlottesville, like most other cities never considered what Rt 29′s intended original purpose was… they just saw what a wonderful commercial venue it would make.

    Now -people do not what a bypass – and they don’t really care if someone from outside of Charlottesville is trying to get through it on their way somewhere.

    What is a reasonable solution?

  9. larryg, good point about major highways being co-opted. There are plans proposed like Places 29 which combines parallel roads and grade, separated interchanges along Rt 29 in the urban ring north of Charlottesville that traffic modeling indicates will increase the level of service equal to or greater than building the By-pass at 2-4 times less cost.

    So given the compromised state of the original design criteria you mentioned we have to deal with the reality of what exists. And building the by-pass won’t change that. So let’s spend meager transportation funds prudently.

  10. VDOT is now “encouraging’ localities to build parallel roads by instituting much tougher access management rules on the original
    primary road.

    they are closing off median cross-overs, getting rid of some lights by extending the left-turn lanes at other lights and encouraging intra-parcel connections on adjacent strips.

    then they are putting the lights on a computerized synchronization system – that right now rights on historical traffic patterns but soon will operate according to real-time conditions.

    Many of these roads – including Rt 29 in Charlottesville could benefit from these comprehensive rehabilitation strategies.

    At the least – the new bypass should have been compared to various strategies to rehabilitate the original Rt 29.

    the basic problem is that VDOT likes to build roads ..they are engineers by tradition and mission but there is another section
    of VDOT that sychs lights, institutes access management, etc and the
    “new” road folks often compete with the “let’s fix it in place” guys.

    Did VDOT really show a “fix 29″ alternative in the planning?

    usually they don’t.. preferring instead to talk about de-facto abandonment of the existing road and start all over with a bypass.

    this often works if there is available land and few terrain challenges but in places like Cville – there are many factors in the way of a bypass and when VDOT tries to do it on the cheap – some of the most significant features are dumped because of costs.

    they promote a “lie gently on the land” …. “parkway” but such roads are 2x, 3x as expensive as a slam, bam, than you mame… bypass.

    you cannot put an interstate road through Cville.. any more… whatever is done will be a serious compromise.

  11. VDOT has, indeed, been working to move traffic more efficiently and effectively. The Tysons Task Force wanted to make Route 7 and Route 123 boulevards with on street parking and lots of entrances. VDOT quickly vetoed it because both streets are through routes and in the national highway system. As I recall, 37% of the Route 7 traffic at Tysons is through traffic, with the figure for 123 slightly higher.

    • VDOT is getting draconian about “access management”. They are in some places clawing back the capacity and throughput by taking away the things that benefited commercial venues – median crossovers, traffic signals, on-street parking, etc.

      Be curious to know what it is about 123 that made it part of the US highway system, though.

  12. From Randy Salzman:

    “Cville will get their upgraded interchanges…count on it.”

    What larryg apparently does not realize is that the money spent on the so-called Western Bypass is half of all funds projected to come to the entire Culpepper District of the Commonwealth Transportation Board through 2050. Even if Uncle Sam and the Commonwealth suddenly find $16 trillion to pay off debt, the simple fact that there are other communities with other needs in the Culpepper District will ensure that there is little, if any, money for other Albemarle County projects, including the remote possibility that this so-called bypass will be extended past Cville’s north-side population centers.

    If this writer puts credence in the present state administration’s lukewarm promises, and he/she believes that future administrations will adhere to them, then I hope he/she will address why this administration has allowed the written, guaranteed commitments to UVA and Darden from previous administrations to disappear in the Skanska-Branch “design” for the so-called Western Bypass.

  13. Well Randy is right but all I can say is that this has never stopped VDOT before. They often will spend heavily on one project and then promise to make it up later for the other localities.

    VDOT is far, far removed from the Feds 16 trillion problem as their funding comes from gas taxes, general sales taxes and sales taxes on new cars/trucks.

    If you want to stop VDOT – it won’t be by questioning their money supply. Basically you’ve got to have strong community opposition and identify things that FHWA does not like.

Leave a Reply