Truckers Question Safety of Cville Bypass Design, Still Support Project

Conceptual design of Charlottesville Bypass southern terminus. Graphic credit: Bob Humphris.

Virginia trucking companies are concerned that a new design of the Charlottesville Bypass would create safety issues, says Dale Bennett, executive director of the Virginia Trucking Association (VTA), but he doesn’t know of any company that would avoid using the Bypass. And he stands by the association’s long-stated support for the $244 million project.

In a written response to questions submitted by Bacon’s Rebellion, Bennett confirmed some claims leveled by the Charlottesville-Albemarle Transportation Coalition (CATCO) about deficiencies in the design of the Bypass’ southern terminus but disputed others.

As described in “A Bypass Built for Trucks… that Trucks Won’t Use,” Bob Humphris, author of the CATCO report, documented how a conceptual design submitted by winning design-build contractor Skanska-Branch shaved millions of dollars from costs where the proposed bypass joins the U.S 250 Bypass. Northbound trucks using the Bypass would encounter a tight turning radius, two stoplights and extremely steep grades. South-bound trucks exiting east would face stoplights at the bottom of a very steep grade, which could pose problems in bad weather. The Virginia Department of Transportation’s original design had connected the terminus with the U.S. 250 Bypass with longer, free-flowing ramps that avoided stoplights.

“From a safety point of view [the design] doesn’t make sense,” agreed Bennett. Nobody at the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) or Skanska/Branch asked the association what it thought about the new, money-saving approach.

Bennett quoted a senior executive of a trucking company in the Lynchburg area: “I think the gentleman (Humphris) is correct in stating that a 4.7% and 11.36% grade for trucks plus stop lights will be challenging for loaded trucks and trailers.”

Added Bennett: “Our organization would certainly not advocate ignoring identified and documented safety concerns in the design and construction of any project. We believe that VDOT has a responsibility to ensure that safety issues are properly addressed in projects.”

Ironically, the VTA supports the bypass mainly for reasons of safety, with time savings a “secondary but valid” consideration. Wrote Bennett:

Traffic congested areas pose increased risks for crashes.  The numerous retail accesses, stoplights and center turn lanes on current Route 29 pose a particular challenge for commercial trucks and other large vehicles having to interact with passenger vehicles.  Eliminating the traffic signals and other hazards will improve safety and reducing the risk of crashes along the corridor by allowing through trucks and cars to avoid having to interact with local traffic.

However, in talking to executives with trucking associations cited by Humphris, Bennett could not find any who said they would avoid using the Bypass. In his report, Humphris stated that he had talked to four local trucking companies and had been told that heavy trucks (70,000 pounds or more) would likely avoid the bypass.

Humphris stood by his analysis, sharing with Bacon’s Rebellion the notes he made from his interviews a couple of months ago. Estes Express Lines, none of whose loads exceeded 35,000-40,000 pounds, would not have a problem. UPS, which also uses lighter trucks, also said the design would not pose an issue, other than noting that it “wouldn’t want to [use the bypass] in bad weather.”

The operations manager of Lawrence Transportation Systems, which hauls heavy loads of paper, often more than 80,000 pounds, saw lots of problems with the terminus, saying that the company “would not use the Bypass much.” Likewise, a manager for Wilson Trucking said the terminus “is going to cause problems for trucking. ” Humphris’ notes say, “We have big loads — probably not use.”

Bennett’s source at Wilson Trucking could not find anyone with the firm who recalled being contacted about the issue. His source for Lawrence Transportation, the vice president of human resources and safety, offers a different recollection of the conversation with Humphris:

Our manager in Waynesboro did recall speaking to someone a few months ago about the 29 By-Pass. He said they discussed the percentage of grade and two stoplights to enter the highway but he never stated that our trucks would not use the By-Pass. He felt those issues were not particularly significant and the stoplights more a nuisance and simply questioned why stoplights rather than an entry ramp. Our people in Waynesboro support a 29 By-Pass around Charlottesville.

Despite the newly surfaced safety concerns, the association remains firm in its commitment to the Bypass. Says Bennett: “Charlottesville is the largest major population center in the Route 29 corridor without a Bypass so it should be a top priority.”

5 Responses to Truckers Question Safety of Cville Bypass Design, Still Support Project

  1. I still think this is classic VDOT low-balling and I think Charlottesville is going to end up on the hook for quite a bit of the cost of the interchange, noise walls and everything else that was skimped on.

    interesting that this road would not even “work” as a subsidized toll road.

    what can you say about a road – that no one would pay even a small a toll to use?

  2. So, nobody can remember telling Mr. Humphris that they won’t use the bypass. Actually, I am not surprised. I’d guess that Mr. Humphris contacted these people in what seemed like a casual and off the record conversation. They spent a minute considering the matter and offered a quick and dirty opinion (that they will not use the bypass). Then, along comes Bacon with written requests and a blog site. All of the sudden the people who spoke to Mr. Humphris have a bit of amnesia. However, the conversations between Mr. Humphris and the trucking concerns should have been “on the record” and more formal.

    It is really unfair to rage against a big road project based on casual conversations between one person and a couple of folks at local trucking operations. I am glad you made the written request of the VTA. It makes me wonder why CATCO didn’t do the same.

    Jim, there are a lot of “special interests” in this story. Some are being honest with their analyses (you, for example). Some are overstating their case by a fairly wide margin (Mr. Humphris, it seems) and some are just lying.

    A well run corporation would bring in an experienced analyst to look over the situation, talk to the affected parties and report back to the CEO. It seems like this is what should happen here. A six to eight week project would do wonders to pull the pieces together for Bob McDonnell. One person, six to eight weeks. Do you think that’s reasonable ahead of a quarter billion expenditure?

    JLARC should have a list of seasoned retired executives and former government officials for just such tasks. McDonnell can take the person’s advice on the matter or not. However, such short and inexpensive efforts would do wonders for both government’s actual efficiency and (perhaps more importantly) it’s perceived efficiency.

    • I agree. The McDonnell administration should appoint someone to examine this issue and cut through the “he said/she said” fog and objectively analyze what impact the southern terminus will have on the movement of heavy trucks. Even the trucking lobby agrees that there are real safety issues. The administration needs to know, is the design deficient, and if it is, how much will it cost to make right?

      Of course, if the design is deficient, it means that someone in VDOT screwed up big time by granting the bid to Skanska/Branch. Heads will roll. Thus, there is every incentive to sweep the problem under the rug and say, “Move along, nothing to see here.”

  3. the fact that the grade is twice as steep as the I64 grade up the Blue Ridge is nothing short of stunning.

    I remember way back when they were looking how to take I-64 over the mountain and it was a BFD because of the trucks – going up – and coming down.

    The truckers have a running start up the mountain – and they still drop down to 30, 20, 10 mph near the top.

    Can you imagine a truck starting from a dead stop trying to climb a grade twice as steep?

    No trucking companies wanted to piss off VDOT or McDonnell… I’m sure but had they had the opportunity to weigh in on the design – do you think they would point out the issue?

    this is what happens when VDOT does endruns….

    the reason for NEPA is to take a HARD LOOK at things like this BEFORE money is committed … this is what happens when VDOT ignores that process.

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