Tag Archives: Charlottesville Bypass

Bend, Buckle and Crack

The southern terminus

The case for the proposed Charlottesville Bypass is collapsing like an old bridge. Even a VDOT consultant questions how well Skanska-Branch’s design for the controversial highway can handle projected traffic loads.

by James A. Bacon

Suspicions confirmed: Northbound trucks on the proposed Charlottesville Bypass would take nearly two minutes longer to pass through the southern interchange under contractor Skanska-Branch Joint Venture’s preliminary design than under VDOT’s original design — nullifying much of the purpose of building the bypass in the first place.

The travel-time estimates come not from citizen activists opposed to the Bypass, whose concerns I have detailed on Bacon’s Rebellion (see “A Bypass for Trucks that Trucks Won’t Use.”) It comes from VDOT’s own consultant, Parsons Brinckerhoff.

A Jan. 17, 2013, draft memo from Michael Fendrick with Parsons Brinckerhoff included a chart that listed computer-modeled travel times through the interchange under various scenarios. Under the original VDOT design, which used a “flyover” ramp allowing for 45 mile-per-hour travel, trucks would take 58.3 seconds on average to clear the interchange. Under the “3 lane diamond” design, adopted by Skanska-Branch for purposes of actual construction, the trip would take 167.7 seconds on average.

“As would be expected, the flyover is the best from a traffic and operations perspective,” wrote Fendrick. “The 3 lane diamond with steep grades is substantially slower than the other alternatives due to signal delay plus truck acceleration issues.” Given the steepness of the grade, trucks would have to travel 1,400 feet before accelerating to 45 miles per hour.

The difference between the two designs is 110 seconds — offsetting much of the roughly 150-second travel-time savings the $244 million project was supposed to gain for north-bound trucks seeking to skirt a congested stretch of U.S. 29 north of Charlottesville. And that doesn’t include other problems identified by Parsons Brinckerhoff and VDOT officials in documents obtained by the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) under the Freedom of Information Act.

The Skanska-Branch design also would create a problem with a “weaving” traffic pattern between the southern terminus and the Ivy Road interchange on the U.S. 250 Bypass. Weaving occurs when traffic entering a limited-access highway from one interchange conflicts with traffic on the highway seeking to exit at the next interchange. When interchanges are closely spaced or when conditions are already congested, the complex pattern can slow traffic, worsen congestion and increase the risk of traffic accidents.

Furthermore, the three-diamond design would create problems for south-bound drivers where the two-lane Bypass would split as it approached the southern terminus and merged with U.S. 250. “From a capacity standpoint,” wrote Fendrick, “the merge will cause flow operation issues, particularly if the single lane to the right is at a low design speed.”

When the Commonwealth Transportation Board approved $244 million in 2012 to fund the project, VDOT displayed schematics from an earlier design in its presentation to the board. No one had informed board members that engineers in the Richmond central office were questioning whether the project could be delivered for that price. The McDonnell administration finessed those concerns by setting up the Bypass as a design-build contract on the expectation that outside, private-sector bidders might find creative ways to redesign the 6.5-mile highway at lower cost.

Skanska-Branch submitted a low bid of $135 million to handle design and construction — not including funds for preliminary engineering and Right of Way acquisition — coming in just under the authorized amount. The company’s conceptual design saved millions of dollars of construction costs by eliminating the southern-terminus flyovers, vastly reducing the amount of excavation, fill and new roadway construction work required. Despite the radical design changes — drivers now would encounter two stoplights on a steep grade — VDOT awarded the contract to Skanska-Branch.

A competing bidder, American Infrastructure, disputed the contract award, arguing that Skanska-Branch had failed to meet the specifications of VDOT’s Request for Proposal. In a June 1, 2102, letter to Jeff Roby with VDOT’s Alternate Project Delivery Office, the firm honed in on the southern terminus, specifically citing the problems created by the traffic signals, the weave traffic pattern, and the inability to handle large traffic volumes during special events at the nearby University of Virginia. Read more.

Raising Taxes, Building Roads, Inducing Traffic

by Randy Salzman

In fighting the waste of taxpayer dollars on the so-called “Western Bypass” of Charlottesville, I met a woman who favored the bypass because her family owns a beach house in Virginia Beach. As best as  I could decipher her logic, she was willing to drive 15 miles out of her way to save approximately one minute to bypass congestion north of Charlottesville on her six-hour trip from the Appalachian foothills to the Atlantic Ocean.

Even if the bypass allowed her to drive 60 miles per hour for the entire 6.2 miles, and even if she hit every light along the existing U.S. 29, it will always take her more time to drive the bypass, which is literally taking her the opposite direction from her beach house.

There is no planning model to calculate this kind of “induced traffic” but every time the before- and after- reality of a newly constructed highway project has been researched, induced traffic has been found. We drive more times more places with less thought whenever government makes it seem easier or cheaper to drive, which, of course, creates more pollution, more fuel consumption, more global warming, more need to fight in the Middle East, more reason for oil companies to drill in the Arctic and, in the end, more congestion.

Every highway project has slightly different effects, but overall the data show that more lanes of highway induce more people to drive farther until not only is the new roadway oversubscribed but the roadways it was intended to relieve are again backed up. Donald Chen, in a 1998 Surface Transportation Policy Project titled, “If you Built it, They Will Come: Why We Can’t Build Ourselves Out of Congestion,” found that 90 percent of new urban roadways in America are overwhelmed within five years. And those roadways are never cheap. Indeed, an analysis of roadway construction across 70 urban areas over 15 years concluded:

Metro areas that invested heavily in road capacity expansion fared no better in easing congestion than metro areas that did not. Trends in congestion show that areas that exhibited greater growth in lane capacity spent roughly $22 billion more on road construction than those that didn’t, yet ended up with slightly higher congestion costs per person, wasted fuel, and travel delay. … On average the cost to relieve the congestion reported by [Texas Transportation Institute] just by building roads could be thousands of dollars per family per year.

In the case of the Western “Bypass,” the Virginia Department of Transportation does not even claim that spending $240 million on a locally unwanted highway will make U.S. 29 easier to drive. Both before and after spending money the state does not have, VDOT reports U.S. 29 north of Charlottesville will have an “F” level of service.

Unfortunately for those of us who want our tax dollars spent wisely, as a nation and a people we’re invested in outdated, short-term thinking because no politician – or media – dares question the American love affair with the automobile. Because the vast majority of voters are also drivers, we keep denying reality and producing policy that digs us ever deeper into a vast hole.

Just days ago, the General Assembly passed a budget compromise that decreases the Commonwealth’s meager gasoline tax and charges everyone more money for milk, whether they drive or not, primarily in order to ease the cost of driving which will, every economist notes, lead to more driving.

It is not primarily population growth that creates congestion, it is new driving ,which grows at an annual rate of at least twice population, regardless of where the rate is measured. Since 1970, U.S. vehicle miles traveled have increased 121 percent — four times population growth. Read more.

Tell Us What You Really Think, Jim

by James A. Bacon

A month after getting the sack from the Commonwealth Transportation Board, James E. Rich, former Culpeper District representative, has unloaded on the $245 million Charlottesville Bypass and Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton in far harsher terms than he did immediately after his resignation. (See “Our Way or the Highway.”)

“Despite the contrary advice of senior VDOT engineers and a $1.5 million Route 29 study conducted by VDOT, Virginia Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton is hell bent on resurrecting a thoroughly discredited 20-year-old bypass proposal,” Rich wrote in The Hook, a Charlottesville tabloid.

Unfortunately, because of the nontransparent design-build process that Connaughton has utilized, no public hearings have been allowed on the current contract design, and there will be very large cost overruns and change orders in the future unless this project is terminated. This a colossal waste of taxpayer money from which any fiscal conservative should recoil. …

Why would Connaughton propose such a project and do so in such a nontransparent manner? The answer is arrogance, politics over engineering and a complete lack of vision for Charlottesville-Albemarle. Much like the fiscal situation in Washington, Connaughton kicks the can down the road for somebody else to deal with.

Those aren’t partisan potshots. Rich served on the executive committee of the Republican Party of Virginia for 20 years.

Unquestionably the strongest personality in Governor Bob McDonnell’s cabinet, Connaughton has earned the reputation of someone who “gets the job done.”  One way he gets things done is is willingness to play hardball in a Virginia political culture that is still genteel in many respects. Under his watch, the administration swept clean the board of directors of the Virginia Port Authority, installed new appointees on the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority and canned Rich, an irritatingly independent voice on the CTB. Rest assured that other gubernatorial appointees subject to Connaughton’s reach have gotten the message.

Decision-making for mega-transportation projects is so complex, so process-driven and so easy for determined opponents to run off track that some observers find Connaughton’s approach refreshing. If all goes well, he will look like a hero. But if his damn-the-torpedoes approach leads to cost overruns or defaulted bonds, history may remember him the way Jim Rich describes him.

$240 Million to Save One Minute Travel Time?

Trucks on I-64 at Afton Mountain struggle to maintain posted speeds on a grade that is half as steep as a short slope at the southern terminus of the proposed Charlottesville Bypass. How fast can trucks drive when starting from a dead stop at a traffic signal?

by James A. Bacon

Spending roughly $240 million to build the Charlottesville Bypass will save motorists less than one minute of travel time compared to driving on U.S. 29, according to a new analysis by the Charlottesville-Albemarle Transportation Coalition (CATCO).

The installation of synchronized stoplights in 2007 has cut travel time on the congested stretch of stoplight-infested highway by 30% to  50%, and traffic volumes have increased less than predicted by the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) when the Bypass was originally proposed 20 years ago. At the same time, design changes to the Bypass made by winning contract bidder Skanska/Branch have diminished the performance of the highway, creating the potential for significant slowdowns at its southern terminus.

While some might dismiss the CATCO analysis as the work of a group that has long opposed the Bypass, it is the only travel-time analysis that anyone has conducted on the basis of published roadway design specifications. As the report notes, “VDOT has  never publicly released any travel time information regarding the proposed Rt. 29 Bypass.”

Lead author Bob Humphris is a retired University of Virginia civil engineer professor. Having followed the Bypass controversy for 20 years, he has amassed the largest collection of Bypass-related documents anywhere outside VDOT. Last year he exposed the fact that the redesigned southern terminus would create safety problems (see “A Bypass Built for Trucks… that Trucks Won’t Use“). The Virginia Trucking Association subsequently confirmed that the safety issues he raised were valid, although the association still supports the project.

The preliminary Skanska/Branch design, which still may be modified under the design-build contract with VDOT, reduces travel time savings compared to the original VDOT design that was deemed too expensive. North-bound traffic from the U.S. 250 Bypass must detour onto a ramp and the local street system (Leonard Sandridge Road), which includes two stoplights, an 11.4% grade for a distance of 162 feet, and a 4.3% grade for 500 feet before entering the Bypass. States the report:

The CATCO-calculated travel time, using posted and estimated speeds for various segments, for the north-bound 6.56 mile Skanska design WITH the proposed Bypass is 8.26 minutes, and the calculated time for the 6.18 mile present route WITHOUT the Bypass is 9.11 minutes.

The CATCO calculation of a 51-second time savings comes with an important caveat. It represents an “ideal situation” in which traffic flows at the posted speed. In point of fact, even with synchronized lights, travel times frequently fall beneath posted speeds on the congested U.S. 29 business corridor. But Bypass travel times will fall short, too. North-bound tractor-trailers will encounter two stoplights at steep grades and, depending upon traffic conditions, could require multiple signalling cycles to get through.

Bypass foes have argued that for roughly the same price as building the Bypass, VDOT could make major improvements along the existing U.S. 29 that would alleviate more congestion and improve travel times for local traffic as well as for pass-through traffic. Albemarle County Supervisor Dennis Rooker also has been promoting the deployment of more advanced signalization controls on U.S. 29, such as those used successfully in a pilot project on U.S. 250 at Pantops Mountain.

Bacon’s bottom line: If the CATCO calculation is accurate, it would prove devastating to the economic case for the Bypass. The McDonnell administration has justified the project largely on the grounds that U.S. 29 is a corridor of statewide significance critical to the inter-regional movement of trucks. Likewise, the business communities of Lynchburg and Danville have supported the project thinking that it will make local manufacturers more competitive. But the notion that shaving 51 seconds off a five- to 10-hour trip to Northeastern markets would provide a measurable economic boost to Southside manufacturers is hard to maintain. That time savings would quickly be swamped by the ongoing encroachment of cut-throughs and stoplights along the length of the U.S. 29 corridor.

Army Corp Wants New Analysis of Cville Bypass

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) isn’t the only federal agency that would like to see a comprehensive environmental reevaluation of the Charlottesville Bypass. The Army Corps of Engineers contends that previous environmental studies, conducted in 1990 and 2002, may be outdated and do not fully explore alternatives to the bypass.

The Norfolk District of the Army Corps claims jurisdiction over 2.8 acres of wetlands and 7,040 linear feet of streams impacted by the proposed U.S. 29 bypass north of Charlottesville. In a Nov. 9 letter to state and federal highway officials, William T. Walker, chief-regulatory branch, said the state’s Environmental Assessment (EA), an update of previous environmental studies, is “insufficient” for the Corps to make a Least Environmentally Damaging Practical Alternative (LEDPA) determination.

The letter enumerated upon several concerns, including the Virginia Department of Transportation’s use of possibly flawed traffic data as well as the use of information that is between 10 and 20 years old in analyzing less environmentally damaging alternatives to the proposed 6.3-mile bypass. Walker specifically noted the “Places 29″ plan developed in the 2000s, which proposed improving traffic flow on U.S. 29 by building two grade-separated interchanges, upgrading two parallel roads, and making other spot improvements.

Combinations of some or all of the components of these effort should be evaluated as stand-alone alternatives to the [bypass]. In light of the fact that these alternatives appear to have less environmental impact than the [bypass], all of these factors need to be thoroughly and carefully evaluated, in comparison with the [bypass].

Walker said a new environmental impact statement was needed “to address all the issues raised in this letter, as well as those raised by others … and to provide an up-to-date alternatives analysis….”

The Army Corp’s opinion matters because design-build contractor Skanska-Branch must obtain permits for impacts to stream crossings, wetlands and other places where waterways would be affected.

Undercutting the thrust of his message, however, Walker apologized for missing the deadline for filing his comments, due Oct. 19 in response to VDOT’s environmental assessment. He blamed workload, belated notification that the assessment was available for review and “the complexity of matters at hand.”

– JAB

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

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.”

Please, Please, Please, Pay Attention to the Situation in Charlottesville!

Dear Governor McDonnell,

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

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.

Bypass Foes Take their Case to the Feds

Building a highway over the mountain: Solving one problem creates another.

by James A. Bacon

An Environmental Assessment (EA) of the Charlottesville Bypass prepared by the state and submitted to the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) is based on an outdated highway design, uses a deeply flawed traffic model and fails to consider transportation alternatives, charges the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) in a formal response to the assessment.

Having failed to halt the Charlottesville Bypass at the level of state, regional and state government, the SELC and its allies are taking their case to the feds, who must review the EA before granting final approval for the federally funded project. The 6.5-mile bypass would circumvent a congested stretch of U.S. 29 north of Charlottesville and a cost of roughly $245 million.

“I don’t think the FHWA has the information it needs to made a decision,” says Morgan Butler, SELC senior attorney. When asked what outcome he hoped to get from the federal review, he said: “The FHWA could say, ‘We want [the Virginia Department of Transportation] to go back and take a closer look.”

By contrast, bypass supporters find the environmental assessment “a very defensible document,” in the words of Neil Williamson, president of the Free Enterprise Forum in Charlottesville. “VDOT is moving fairly, methodically and carefully,” he says. The EA addressed important issues such as the noise impact not considered in the original Environmental Impact Statement.

Barring a rejection of the EA by federal authorities or the filing of a lawsuit, construction of the bypass is scheduled to begin November 2013.

Outdated design. The SELC argues that the environmental assessment is based upon a conceptual VDOT bypass design that differs in important respects from the design submitted by winning bidder Skanksa/Branch. Of particular concern is the configuration of the southern terminus connecting to the U.S. 250 Bypass.

The original VDOT design anticipated a grade of 4% as the highway crossed over Stillhouse Mountain near the southern terminus. Skanska/Branch increased the elevation of the bypass in order to reduce the significant cost of blasting and removing rock. But that would create a new  problem: Cars and trucks entering the bypass from the south would encounter an extremely steep grade — 11.26%, or more than twice the average grade of Interstate 64 as it climbs Afton Mountain. Trucks struggling to accelerate up that grade could block traffic and reduce the desired level of service.

Additionally, noted the SELC critique, one of the other bidders, American Infrastructure, had filed a protest against the awarding of the contract to Skanska/Branch on the grounds that the southern terminus design was deficient. “American Infrastructure noted that the traffic lights included in the design would likely cause long queues that would impede flow on the eastbound 250 Bypass during special events on the University’s North Grounds.”

Flawed traffic analysis. Citing an analysis it contracted from Smart Mobility Inc., the SELC contends that the VDOT traffic projections contain a major methodological error: treating growth of “external” traffic (originating outside the Metropolitan Planning Office boundaries) as “through” trips, meaning that all such vehicles will travel through the region to destinations outside the region. However, some of those trips will be, in fact, to destinations in Charlottesville and Albemarle County. The model projects that the percentage of “through” trips on U.S. 29 will jump from 13.5% in 2010 to 51% in 2040, thus inflating traffic counts and the putative benefits of the bypass.

No look at alternatives. VDOT never gave serious consideration to bypass alternatives, SELC argues. Installing grade-separated interchanges at the two busiest intersections, Hydraulic Road and Rio Road, would achieve greater delay reductions than the bypass — and it would benefit everyone using the 29 corridor, not just people passing through the region. Building the two interchanges also would cost less.

Representing much of the Charlottesville business community, the Free Enterprise Institute has long supported the bypass. In comments submitted to the FHWA, Neil Williamson minimized the changes that have taken place since the original Environmental Impact Statement was completed two decades ago. “Even though some of the areas on US29 North have been rezoned and/or developed since 1995, these areas have been designated for high density growth since at least the 1984 Comprehensive Land Use Plan. This designation was factored in when the original route was developed.”

The EA was correct in stating that the bypass would divert up to 28% of U.S. 29 traffic to the bypass by 2o4o, the Institute wrote. “The project will result in significant improvement in traffic flow on the new Business 29.”