I know you’re a busy man. You oversee the entire breadth and scope of state government. You don’t have time to get involved in every local controversy. But every once in a while, if you don’t step in to correct a bad decision, you can wind up with a big mess on your hands.
The Charlottesville Bypass is turning into a Big Mess. Your administration has committed $244 million to build a 6.5-mile highway to bypass one of the more congested stretches of U.S. 29. You made the project a priority in order to preserve the integrity of U.S. 29, a Corridor of Statewide Significance, which Lynchburg, Danville and other communities regard as an economic lifeline for their manufacturing-based economies. That makes sense. You are “the jobs governor,” after all, and Lynchburg and Danville need good highway connections to stay economically competitive.
But there’s a lot about that project that you don’t know (unless you read Bacon’s Rebellion faithfully).
You probably don’t know, for example, that the magnitude of the traffic congestion is greatly exaggerated. Thanks to a modest investment in traffic light sequencing, the Virginia Department of Transportation has greatly improved travel times through the congested area north of Charlottesville. Trucks and cars using the Bypass (as originally designed) could expect to save only three minutes or so of travel time. The rush hour “congestion” in Albemarle County would be considered ideal driving conditions in Northern Virginia. Go visit sometime. See for yourself.
You probably don’t know that the original $244 million cost estimate of the project was gravely flawed and that there was considerable disagreement inside VDOT on what the final cost would be. You probably don’t know that the Commonwealth Transportation Board approved the project without hearing these concerns. And you probably don’t know that VDOT managed to bring the project within the cost parameters approved by the CTB only by accepting radically different designs for the bypass’ northern and southern termini.
You probably don’t know that the winning design/build contractor, Skanska/Branch, submitted a lower bid than other competitors by introducing design changes that would seriously limit the Bypass’ usefulness for heavy trucks. The configuration of the southern terminus is so flawed that three trucking companies have said they would not even use it for north-bound traffic. Moreover, the configuration would create a safety hazard for south-bound traffic in bad weather. By accepting the design changes, VDOT has undermined the entire justification for building the Bypass in the first place!
Finally, you probably don’t know that Charlottesville and Albemarle County were far advanced in developing an alternative to the Bypass before you resurrected the project. For a comparable sum of money, the Places 29 plan would build interchanges at the busiest intersections of U.S. 29, extend parallel roads to siphon off traffic and make other spot improvements. These changes would benefit everyone who uses the U.S. 29, not just those who seek to drive through Charlottesville on the way to somewhere else, creating a much bigger bang for the buck.
If you knew in early 2011 what you should know now, I suspect you never would have made the decision to fund the Bypass. But the project kept chugging along and information dribbled out so slowly that there was never an “aha” moment that would prompt you to change your mind. Until now. The “aha” moment is the revelation that trucking companies won’t use the Bypass for north-bound trips.
Don’t believe me. Don’t believe the Charlottesville Albemarle Transportation Coalition (CATCO), the citizens’ group that took the trouble to show the plans to local trucking operations and ask what they thought. Don’t even believe the local trucking managers to whom CATCO talked. Just make a single call to the Virginia Trucking Association. I’m sure they’d be happy to get their people to look at the current design and give you an authoritative opinion.
Just one little phone call, that’s all it takes. Don’t let the Bypass go down in history as “McDonnell’s Folly.”
— James A. Bacon