Tag Archives: Charlottesville Bypass

U.S. 29… The Saga Continues

VDOT rendering of proposed Rio Road interchange

VDOT rendering of proposed Rio Road interchange

The battle over the Charlottesville Bypass may be over, but the battle over what to do instead is heating up. After pulling the plug on the super-controversial, $240 million bypass early last year, the McAuliffe administration dusted off a plan to upgrade the U.S. 29 commercial corridor north of Charlottesville by investing in a series of spot improvements, parallel roads and grade-separated interchanges. Now the community is up in arms over the proposal to put an $81 million grade-separated interchange at the intersection with Rio Road.

Last week, “hundreds” of citizens attended an open house meeting to voice their opposition to the interchange, which would eliminate a major bottleneck along the clogged commercial corridor, which also serves as a U.S. highway. (See WVIR’s coverage from last week.)

The most steadfast opposition comes from businesses located near the proposed interchange, whose access to major thoroughfares would be diminished by the new configuration of the Rio Road/U.S. 29 intersection. The businesses have been joined by citizens who worry that construction will cause detours and other inconveniences.

Clearly, there are no perfect, painless solutions. The concerns of those who will be negatively impacted by the project are legitimate. The question is whether those concerns should outweigh the general good stemming from the proposed package of improvements. U.S. 29 is, after all, a U.S. highway, whose primary function is to provide connectivity between cities, not to serve as a local main street.

From what I can glean from local media accounts, pieces of the $200 million corridor improvement package are uncontroversial — a $54 million extension of Berkmar Drive parallel to U.S. 29 and a $51 million widening of U.S. 29 between Hollymeade Town center and Polo Grounds Road. Both projects offer tangible benefits and should go forward.

Here’s the question: Could the $81 million allotted to the Rio Road interchange be invested usefully in other improvements? If so, would the economic return on investment — as measured by congestion mitigated and traffic accidents reduced — come close to the benefits of the Rio Road interchange? If so, perhaps the Virginia Department of Transportation should consider reallocating the funds to other projects. However, if the Rio Road project offers a demonstrably superior return on investment, then VDOT officials should not be dissuaded by the public opposition.

I don’t know the numbers, so I can’t make a judgment. But I do have faith in Philip Shucet, the former VDOT commissioner drafted by the McAuliffe administration to devise a reasonable solution to an intractable problem. If opponents want to make the case that the interchange shouldn’t be built, they should demonstrate how $81 million could be invested to greater effect elsewhere.

Update: Shucet responded to my suggestion that the Rio Road interchange could be hived off from the other improvements: “To make the Berkmar – Hillsdale parallel road network work, you have to grade-separate Rio.  It would be irresponsible to construct Berkmar and Hillsdale and somehow believe that it’s ok to wait and see how Rio fairs in the future. ”

The latest traffic numbers say 107,500 cars, a mix of local traffic and vehicles traveling through the region, will be traveling through the intersection by 2040. The grade-separated interchange (GSI) will allow the through traffic to pass through without conflicting with local traffic.

As for local business’ loss of roadway access, Shucet says, Albemarle Square will lose only one of four points of access, and Fashion Square only one of six. Furthermore, the construction plan limits disruption to 103 days.

— JAB

McAuliffe Team Continues Transportation House Cleaning

mopping_floorby James A. Bacon

I’ve been out of town attending a conference so I wasn’t able to cover the Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB) meeting this month. But based on press coverage and press releases, it sounds like Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s transportation team is getting a good handle on things, correcting some of the more grievous policy decisions of the McDonnell administration. Hitting the highlights…

U.S. 460 probe. The state Inspector General’s Office has joined the Virginia Department of Transportation’s internal probe of the $1.4 billion U.S. 460 connector between Petersburg and Suffolk. The IG inquiry, which should be complete by the end of the month, will examine whether the state followed its own procurement rules, the Times-Dispatch reports. Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne temporarily pulled the plug when it was clear that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was not yet prepared to issue permits for construction. The state racked up hundreds of millions of dollars in potential liabilities on the 55-mile route which would disrupt nearly 500 acres of wetlands.

VDOT to invest in secondary road maintenance. The highway agency admitted yesterday that only an estimated 58% of the state’s secondary roads are rated in fair or better condition, down from 65.8% in 2010, reports the Times-Dispatch. “The secondaries are deteriorating,” said chief engineer Garrett W. Moore. In years past, the state had concentrated on bringing up to standard interstates and primary roads, which together carry 78% of the state’s lane-miles of traffic. Now VDOT will focus on secondary roads. “We’re making up for nearly 20 years of not doing a lot,” Layne said.

Bacon’s Rebellion noted those same numbers in a March article about a Smart Growth America (SGA) report on the national scourge of maintenance under-funding. SGA revealed that VDOT had spent more than two-thirds of its funds on new construction between 2009 and 2011 while neglecting maintenance, allowing road conditions generally to deteriorate. SGA based its findings on Federal Highway Administration data but used a different methodology than VDOT to calculate maintenance and construction spending.

Charlottesville Bypass coming to a close. I have received word by means of a Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) press release that the CTB allocated $230 million to fund an alternative to the proposed Charlottesville Bypass that created such a furor in Central Virginia. The project package will create improvements to the congested U.S. 29 corridor north of the city by extending parallel roads that offer alternatives for local traffic, enhancing traffic light synchronization, creating an overpass at the U.S. 29/Rio Road intersection and making other spot improvements. There is no perfect solution but this is the best one available. It will reduce travel time for everyone using the congestion zone: local travelers as well as freight trucks passing through.

Bull in a china shop. Finally, there is this tidbit tacked onto the end of one of today’s Times-Dispatch articles based on emails the T-D scooped up in a Freedom of Information Act request. The emails shed light on decision-making process in the McDonnell administration to ram through spending on the U.S. 460 project before all necessary permits were obtained.

Then-Secretary of Transportation Sean T. Connaughton urged in an email last July that VDOT get permission to hire an outside lawyer and mount a public campaign to demonstrate why a supplemental environmental impact statement “is not needed or appropriate.”

“The message must be that the (Corps of Engineers) is trying to destroy Southside Virginia along the existing 460 and destroy the environment,” Connaughton said in an email to then-Deputy Transportation Commissioner Charles Kilpatrick on July 13.

The secretary further ordered Kilpatrick to solicit the support of communities and their local and regional officials. “We need their aggressive, negative reaction to the (Corps’) desire to destroy the towns along the existing 460,” he wrote.

Finally, Connaughton sought meetings with U.S. Sens. Mark R. Warner and Timothy M. Kaine, both Democrats, and Rep. J. Randy Forbes, R-4th. “We must have them complaining to (the Corps regional office),” he said. “We need to move … quickly,” he concluded.

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VDOT Seeks New Solution to Charlottesville Congestion

Philip Shucet

Philip Shucet

by James A. Bacon

Effectively pulling the plug on the proposed Charlottesville Bypass, the McAuliffe administration has set up an advisory panel to recommend improvements to the U.S. 29 corridor north of Charlottesville. Lead by former Virginia Department of Transportation Commissioner Philip Shucet, the group must submit recommendations by May 14 — less than two months from now.

The Federal Highway Administration told VDOT in February that it would have to conduct a complete environmental assessment before receiving approval for the 6.5-mile bypass around the traffic-snarled highway north of Charlottesville, a process that could take a year or longer and offered no guarantees of approval. “We’ve studied this project for 20 years,” said Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne today in the March meeting of the Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB). “We have to have action taken.”

To move things quickly, Layne appointed a 10-member panel comprised of local government officials, planners and representatives from the business community up and down the U.S. 29 corridor to develop recommendations that (1) improve mobility in the corridor and (2) can be accomplished within the $197 million previously allocated to the bypass. (Additional sums could come from the sale of Right of Way purchased years ago.) The panel will come back to the CTB with a proposal that the board can vote up or down, Layne said.

When it comes to navigating highway department bureaucracy, Shucet knows the ropes. He was popular as highway commissioner during the Warner administration, and won renown in Hampton Roads for reining in runaway spending on the Tidewater Tide light rail project and completing the project on time. The panel will hold three meetings, Shucet said. The first meeting will define “success factors” for the project. The second will narrow down proposals to a manageable number for closer analysis. And the third will present a “solution package” that can be presented to the CTB.

Although Shucet made no reference to it, there is a “solution package” already on the books: Places 29. Generated after an extensive community-involvement process before the McDonnell administration revived the long-dormant bypass, Places29 envisioned a multi-pronged strategy for dealing with congestion: adding separated-grade interchanges at the two most congested intersections, building parallel roads to divert traffic from the highway and making spot improvements to choke points.

However, given the fact that the advisory board is heavily stacked with business interests and elected officials from outside the Charlottesville-Albemarle area, there is no guarantee that the group will agree to pursue Places29. For starters, following all the plan’s recommendations would cost considerably more than $200 million. Secondly, panelists from outside the region are less likely to prioritize local congestion relief at the expense of moving freight quickly through the congested zone. As Layne himself said, “I am determined to bring this conversation back to mobility, congestion and economic purpose.”

During the public comment period, two members of the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors expressed their approval of the new approach. “We’re committed as a board to helping you move forward to find a solution quickly,” said Brad Sheffield, a newly elected supervisor who ran in opposition to the bypass. “We’re on board with you.”

Cost overruns were a significant concern for the McAuliffe administration. VDOT staff had warned higher-ups that the problems could drive up project costs by as much as $200 million higher than preliminary cost estimates. Then-Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton tried to finesse the issue by structuring the bypass as a design-build project allowing for creative solutions from the private sector. The Skanska-Branch Joint Venture won the contract with a bid that came in within the $197 million allocated by the CTB but close examination later revealed issues with its new design that would significantly degrade safety and the time-savings of the bypass, which would cost tens of millions of dollars to fix.

“The road proposed was not meeting the needed purpose for the amount of expenditure,” Layne said. “We need to match the resources available to us to the need.”

Busy Day at the CTB

Many meaty stories from the Commonwealth Transportation Board meeting today. It will take me a long time to do them all justice, so, for the moment, I will settle for whetting your appetite with the highlights.

  • The Charlottesville Bypass is dead. It may not be buried — a few ritual oblations remains — but it is lying in the coroner’s office. The McAuliffe administration has tasked a Rt. 29 Advisory Panel, headed by former highway commissioner Philip Shucet, to develop recommendations for improving mobility through the U.S. 29 corridor in the Charlottesville area that fits the state’s current budget parameters. The group will examine a wide variety of options. However, Shucet said, “The bypass is not something we would consider.”
  • Can we get that $300 million back? Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne announced earlier this week that he has suspended spending on the U.S. 460 Connector on the grounds that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has warned that it may not grant a critical environmental permit. He noted that the state had spent roughly $300 million so far, about $60 million for Virginia Department of Transportation oversight, $100 million for environmental work by the contractor, US 460 Mobility, and another $140 million for the contractor’s “mobilization,” which includes opening and staffing offices in preparation for the work to begin. VDOT will consider alternative routes, including upgrades to the existing U.S. 460. Layne told Bacon’s Rebellion that he could not now say how much of that $300 million could be recovered. “If it’s a different alignment, we’ll have to negotiate with the contractor.”
  • VTrans is reappraising its forecast methodology. The Secretariat of Transportation, which oversees the VTrans long-range planning process for Virginia’s transportation needs, is implementing the biggest overhaul in its forecasting methodology seen in years. Past forecasts of future transportation demand largely extrapolated from previous trends. But Deputy Transportation Secretary Nick Donohue told the CTB that past projections overshot actual demand by a wide margin. This time around, he said, planners would take into account indicators of changing demand such as Americans’ increasing preference for walkable communities, the declining interest of teenagers in acquiring a driver’s license, and the surge in multifamily housing construction.
  • Expand the Washington Metro… or build an extra 110 lane-miles of highway? The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority wants Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C., to kick in an extra $6.1 billion to fund its aggressive Metro 2025 capital improvement program, requiring annual average contribution in $190 million a year more from each state by 2021. Expanding the number of cars per train to eight, WMATA Richard Sarles told the CTB, would increase people-moving capacity in the region by the equivalent of adding two lanes to Interstate 66 or building 110 lane-miles of highway.

— JAB

FHWA Deals a Body Blow to Charlottesville Bypass

Big news! The Federal Highway Administration has informed the McAuliffe administration that it will need to conduct an environmental assessment of the Charlottesville Bypass before getting federal authorization for the controversial, $240+ million project. The decision creates an enormous procedural barrier for the project which, combined with a likely vote by the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors to register its opposition to the project, could suck the life out of the project. Sean Tubbs with Charlottesville Tomorrow has the story here.

Under the McDonnell administration, the Virginia Department of Transportation had updated a previous Environmental Assessment rather than undertaking an entirely refresh review. The FHWA sat on the document for more than a year before issuing its decision yesterday in a letter to VDOT. At the very least, the decision to require a brand new assessment will add considerable expense and many more months before construction can begin.

Last year, Albemarle County swept out the supervisors who had previously voted to approve the bypass. The board is holding a hearing tonight in a session jam-packed with opponents, prelude to reversing the previous board’s decision. A vote by Democratic Party supervisors undoubtedly will carry weight with the McAuliffe administration, which so far has not publicly indicated whether or not it will push the project forward.

It’s time to pull the plug on this ill-conceived project and resurrect the Places 29 plan to re-make U.S. 29 north of Charlottesville, reducing congestion not only for trucks and motorists passing through the city but local inhabitants as well. The March meeting of the Commonwealth Transportation Board should be an interesting one. Hopefully, the McAuliffe administration will reveal its intentions by then.

Update: According to the Daily Progress, State Secretary of Transportation Aubrey Layne has given VDOT 30 days to produce alternatives to the Bypass.

— JAB

GOP Road Kill

Rodney Thomas

Rodney Thomas

Among the more interesting election results from Wednesday, Democrats trounced three Republican candidates for Albemarle County Board of Supervisors. The county split close to even in the gubernatorial and lieutenant governor’s races, indicating that the Democrats sweeping to power in the board of supervisors rode were not riding on Terry McAuliffe’s coattails.

The vote was a referendum on the Charlottesville Bypass. Incumbents Rodney Thomas and Duane Snow, who played key roles in resurrecting the bypass  two years ago, were thumped by 13 and 14 percentage-point margins respectively. A third Republican candidate, Cindi Burket, got hammered by nearly 16 percentage points.

Duane Snow

Duane Snow

Such is the price that Albemarle Republicans paid for their fealty to Governor Bob McDonnell. Early in their terms, Thomas and Snow had signed on to the Places 29 plan, which would have made spot improvements on the U.S. 29 corridor north of Charlottesville rather than bypassing it. But Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton persuaded both men to vote with two others in rescinding the board’s opposition to the project. McDonnell and Connaughton rammed through the bypass, funded with transportation dollars allocated for Charlottesville-area improvements, to benefit downstate communities of Danville and Lynchburg who believed in defiance of all reason that the $240 million highway would add to their economic competitiveness.

The McDonnell administration continued pushing the bypass even when it emerged that the cost estimates were way too low. Rather than reconsider the project, Connaughton issued a design-build contract that kept the project within budget by making design changes to the northern and southern termini. Subsequent analysis showed, however, that the proposed changes significantly degraded the travel-time savings of using the bypass, negating much of the purpose of building it in the first place.

Throughout the controversy, Thomas and Snow doggedly defended McDonnell’s folly. In January, they will be gone. Now that Democrats have a majority on the board, one of the first orders of business, no doubt, will be to re-assert its opposition to the project. Such a vote surely will weigh in the long-delayed decision of the Federal Highway Administration whether or not to give the bypass the regulatory go-ahead.

Should the FHWA demur on the project, Bob McDonnell will have lost both the bypass and Albemarle Republicans their control of the board.

Contrast the fate of Thomas and Snow to that of Del. Tim Hugo, R-Centerville, and Del. Bob Marshal, R-Manassas, who sailed to re-election in Northern Virginia. While Northern Virginia went blue in the statewide elections, both men held onto their seats, Hugo quite comfortably. Both opposed the governor’s plans for the controversial Bi-County Parkway.

— JAB

The Road to Wealth Destruction Revisited

A Google's-eye view of houses in the vicinity of the proposed Charlottesville Bypass.

A Google’s-eye view of houses near the route of the proposed Charlottesville Bypass.

There’s an interesting new wrinkle in the never-ending debate over the Charlottesville Bypass, a project that has been stalled for a year or more while the Federal Highway Administration figures out whether to approve the project or send the Virginia Department of Transportation back to the drawing board, effectively nixing it.

A real estate agent by the name of Bill Tucker wrote a letter in C-Ville Weekly that has bypass foes all abuzz  — as well it should, for it raises important points not yet considered in a debate that has seemingly covered every conceivable angle. Here’s how he started the letter:

I am a real estate attorney with over 40 years experience in the Charlottesville-Albemarle marketplace. In the past two years, numerous real estate agents have told me about the decreased property values and loss of sales in the seven neighborhoods affected by the proposed Western Bypass.. … Unfortunately, many Realtors are reluctant to go public for fear of creating further panic in these already affected neighborhoods. Realtors say that houses in these neighborhoods along the proposed Bypass route are losing value and losing it fast.

Currently, I am representing two sellers that are being held hostage by the proposed Bypass and are marketing their homes at significantly discounted prices. I have spent the last five years dealing with numerous distressed properties (short sales and foreclosures), which have already decreased property values throughout our area. Now that we are beginning to see some relief and stabilization from the economic downturn, we are saddled with the negative effect that even the mention of the Bypass is producing in property values.

In all the discussion over the $300 million highway called the Western Bypass—though it does not bypass our growing community—no one has really connected the loss of housing value with a high-speed, 6.2-mile supposed cut-through. As my experience illustrates, we’re losing time, money, and opportunity due to the desire of a handful to force the rest of us to pay a huge amount of money for a highway that doesn’t accomplish its intended goals. Area Realtors appear to be hesitant to bring buyers into the seven affected neighborhoods. These Realtors fear that once the highway is built, their buyers might blame them when their houses are worth even less.

As I have argued in the blog on many an occasion, road and highway projects can create economic value and they can destroy economic value (as measured by the rise and fall of real estate property values). Indeed, landowners looking to enjoy a windfall gain often are the political prime movers behind projects — you need look no further than the Bi-County Parkway in Loudoun and Prince William counties for an example. But the Charlottesville Bypass is remarkable in that it has no such prime movers. I have heard speculation that the project might have a mildly positive impact on commercial property values around the northern terminus, but such an impact, if it exists, does not seem to be stirring anyone to action. The effect on the Bypass upon property values appears to be overwhelmingly negative.

Using Tucker’s numbers, let’s assume that 1,500 homes lose an average of $30,000 each (pick a higher or lower number that suits you) in property value as a result of the bypass cutting through their neighborhoods. That would represent a collective loss of $45 million in property values. That’s only a fraction of the $240-$300 million cost to build the project, but it should be included in any cost-benefit analysis.

When the Return on Investment of the project based on travel-time and traffic-accidents saved is vanishingly small  — I guesstimated an ROI of 3.3% in “The Road to Wealth Destruction” nearly two years ago — the destruction of tens of millions of dollars worth of real estate property values could push the net value of the project into negative territory.

— JAB