Tag Archives: Charlottesville Bypass

Who Will Report the News? Weeklies, Monthlies and Blogs

In the last couple of days, I have come across two instances of excellent reporting on transportation and land use issues from obscure local publications. Both articles deserve exposure beyond their immediate circulation areas.

In Chesterfield Monthly, Scott Bass writes about the lack of a walkable city center in Chesterfield County. Chesterfield is largely a bedroom community; its downtown is the City of Richmond. The county takes a sprawling, amoebic form consisting mainly of subdivisions arrayed along auto-centric commercial corridors. But the thinking among planners and developers is changing, Bass reports.

Money quote from planning director Kirk Turner:

“The families with children in school that are looking for a house and a half-acre lot: Man, we got that nailed. We got lots of opportunities for those folks. Where we are lagging in the region is having the sort of housing opportunities that appeal to the young professional, folks just entering the work force. I think you’ll see that we are losing population in that area where Henrico and the city are probably gaining.”

In C-ville, Graelyn Bashear provides the single-most comprehensive overview of the Charlottesville Bypass controversy that I have seen anywhere. While the article doesn’t break any new ground from a news perspective, it provides a readable overview of the issue for non-bypass junkies who haven’t been following every twist and turn in the news. The article really shines in its use of maps, graphics, audio files and even video. An example can be seen below.

This is the kind of journalism that daily newspapers should be doing. As shrunken as they are, they have far more resources than local weeklies and monthlies. Until then, we can be thankful we have non-traditional publications like Chesterfield Monthly and C-Ville — and blogs like Bacon’s Rebellion — to keep the flame alive.

In a future post, I hope to show how citizen activists are helping to fill the journalistic void with their own probing and analysis of complex municipal issues.


Dude! WaPo Columnist Ventures Look at Downstate Road Project!

Robert McCartney, a Washington Post columnist, has done a remarkable thing: He has taken a look at a transportation project outside the Washington region and decided he didn’t like what he saw. Not only is the Charlottesville Bypass ill conceived, it is part of a pattern in which the McDonnell administration “relentlessly pushes a major highway project despite abundant evidence that the money could be spent more wisely elsewhere.” By way of specifics, he also cites the U.S. 460 upgrade between Suffolk and Petersburg and the Bi-County Parkway.

What makes the column remarkable is that McCartney escapes the usual myopia in which the newspapers serving Virginia markets focus monomaniacally on transportation projects in their readership zones without the slightest interest in anything occurring anywhere else. Thus, the Rail-to-Dulles rail project and the Bi-County Parkway receive heavy coverage from Washington-area media but other newspapers are no more interested than if they occurred in Boston or New York. It amazes me that Rail-to-Dulles, perhaps the biggest infrastructure project in Virginia history, has gotten zero visibility downstate.

Likewise, the Charlottesville Bypass has gotten no attention outside Charlottesville, the Midtown-Downtown Tunnel has garnered none outside Hampton Roads, and U.S. 460, which is outside any major newspaper’s circulation zone, has generated minimal coverage by any major metro daily.

Thus, no one gets the big picture. No one tunes into how mega-projects of questionable value around the state have consumed a disproportionate share of state transportation resources. No one questions the processes that determine how transportation funding priorities are set. And no one wonders if governance of the system needs reform. Instead, everyone goes along — baah, baah, baah — and agrees to raise taxes.

So, thank you Mr. McCartney, for proving to be a rare exception to the rule. Not that the media’s approach to covering transportation will change. But the column was a refreshing departure from the norm.


Bobbing and Weaving on the Northern Terminus

Really, can things get any worse?

Really, can things get any worse?

by James A. Bacon

The Charlottesville Bypass pile-up keeps getting bigger…

Last night some 300 Charlottesville-area residents packed a meeting at the Holiday Inn to view three design options for the southern terminus of the controversial, $244 million project. After public outcry over flaws in the preliminary design submitted by Skanska-Branch Joint Venture (SBJV) as part of its winning construction bid, the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) last night presented two new alternatives that avoided routing motorists through two traffic lights before accessing the bypass. While VDOT officials said it was too early to attach monetary figures to the new options, Albemarle County Supervisor Dennis Rooker estimated that a flyover alternative would cost an additional $30 million to $60 million. (See Sean Tubbs’ story in Charlottesville Tomorrow.)

Now it appears that there are unresolved problems with the design of the northern terminus at U.S. 29 North and Ashwood Boulevard. More than a half year after VDOT’s central office had accepted the SBJV bid to build the highway, VDOT employees in the Culpeper District office enumerated a number of issues in a technical memorandum dated Jan. 31, 2013, acquired by the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) through the Freedom of Information Act.

Key questions centered on the “weave” — a criss-crossing pattern traffic that can create congestion and safety issues — created by the SBJV design. From the memo:

  • “Has a weave analysis for motorists exiting the by-pass traveling northbound and merging across 29 northbound to reach the right turn lane at Ashwood Blvd been evaluated?”
  • “Has a weave analysis for motorists exiting the by-pass traveling southbound and merging across 29 southbound to reach the left turn lane at Polo Grounds Rd. been evaluated?”

Discussions between VDOT and SBJV ensued. In a letter dated March 19, 2013, also acquired through the Freedom of Information Act, SBJV Project Manager J.J. Moegling suggested that addressing the newly raised issues would cost $13,000 in additional design costs for a northern terminus traffic study, $45,000 for a lane configuration-weave analysis and $500,000 to modify the design of the intersection at Ashwood Boulevard and U.S. 29 — and that’s just counting the design and consulting fees.

Another key issue that had surfaced by that point was how to dovetail the bypass design, which terminated at the Ashwood Boulevard intersection, with a planned widening of U.S. 29 on the other side of the intersection.

Plans for the widening of U.S. 29 that are available now were not available to SBJV during the bid proposal, Moegling said. It is now apparent that SBJV’s proposed location for an extra northbound lane, submitted in its winning bid, does not match up with the proposed lane configuration of a wider U.S. 29 on the other side of Ashwood. Moreover, Moegling contended, “VDOT’s apparent plan [would] create a dangerous merge condition prior to the signalized intersection. … SBJV’s plan did not widen the existing road, but instead restriped the existing lanes to minimize safety hazards….”

In response to VDOT’s contention that the existing right-turn lane into Ashwood Boulevard must be retained, Moegling said that SBJV “is unable to locate language in the RFP that requires this.”

And another bone of contention: “VDOT commented that the weave condition from the US29 bypass to Ashwood Blvd. must be modeled and analyzed; we are unable to locate language in the RFP that requires this. We believe that this model would fail if performed. It is our opinion that the entire intersection would have to be reconfigured in some fashion for this weave to be successful, possibly including an elevated section through the intersection.”

“As you can see,” wrote Moegling, “there are a number of outstanding issues and direction that we need from your office to move forward. … We believe that the order of magnitude to move forward with many of these design initiatives totals in the vicinity of Five Hundred Sixty Thousands Dollars and 00/100 ($565,000).” That number he added, was the direct design cost only and “does not include any markups or associated construction cost as a result of these changes.”

Bacon’s bottom line: Wow. Thirty to sixty million dollars in design changes for the southern terminus. Now potentially millions of dollars more to build an elevated lane at the Ashwood intersection? Holy smokes! This is what you get when you ram a project through the approval process. VDOT did not create this mess, by the way. Mid-level VDOT employees raised red flags throughout the entire process and their concerns were brushed aside. The McDonnell administration owns this fiasco, and VDOT planners and engineers are stuck with the job of making it work.

Safety Last?

The McDonnell administration’s defense of the $244 million+ Charlottesville Bypass as a boon to traffic safety on U.S. 29 falls apart under close scrutiny.

Accident on U.S. 29 in Albemarle County. Photo credit: NBC 29.

Accident on U.S. 29 in Albemarle County. Photo credit: NBC 29.

by Randy Salzman

With apologies to Lewis Carroll, Charlottesville’s so-called Western “Bypass” project gets “curiouser and curiouser.”

Each argument for the 6.2-mile highway collapses quickly if anyone does third-grade math. This highway built for trucks that trucks can’t use will need another $56 million added to the $244 million already allocated by Virginia to make it usable and then will save truckers, VDOT analyzes, only 66 seconds off the 10-hour drive from Lynchburg to NYC. Would any manufacturer build a plant anywhere on the planet to save a minute off full-day travel, as downstate proponents argue?

VDOT, meanwhile, consistently reports the “Bypass” will do nothing for Albemarle County congestion. Since only 10 to 12 percent of the 47,641 to 51,939 vehicles per day on U.S. 29N pass through the area while 90 percent are local, the intersections along 29N will remain an F level of service after Virginia borrows a fortune to build this expensive four-lane highway, which terminates south of two large, growing neighborhoods and the area’s largest shopping mall.

Recently, the safety argument also fell by the wayside. According to VDOT Traffic Engineer Robert Rasmussen, in a letter forwarded to Albemarle County supervisors, in 2010 there were 260 accidents, or 305 per 100 million vehicle miles of travel, along 3.3 miles of U.S. 29 that the “Bypass” is supposed to relieve.

That’s a stiff rate; one of the highest in the state.

All but a handful of accidents, however, take place at the intersections of Hydraulic and Rio Roads with U.S. 29. If the intersections are excluded, the accident rate drops to 77 per 100 million vehicle miles of travel. Nearly four four in five wrecks would be prevented if Virginia stuck to its original “three-party agreement,” which promoted overpasses at Rio and Hydraulic.

In the early 1990s, VDOT’s three-party agreement sequenced possible projects along U.S. 29 north of Charlottesville and concluded the overpasses should be built first. Only if all the other improvements failed to solve traffic issues, and if funding was available, would a bypass be considered. It was clear then that a bypass would not solve local congestion or local intersection accidents.

Yet in 2012 Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton tried to make safety a primary justification for the bypass, stating in correspondence that “900 crashes in Albemarle County” represent “almost 50% of all crashes along the entire Route 29 corridor from North Carolina to the Fauquier/Prince William County Line.”

VDOT’s April 2010 report illustrates the secretary not only can’t fathom the borrowed dollars he’s dumping on future generations, he also has trouble with third-grade math. Of the 7,103 crashes over three years that VDOT notes along U.S. 29 in Virginia, 887 are indeed in Albemarle County. Run the numbers. That’s about one accident in every 12 and nowhere close to “almost 50%.” Read more.

The Stroad to Hell …

The Midlothian Turnpike in Chesterfield County: a classic stroad. Photo courtesy of the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

by James A. Bacon

Americans, asserts Charles Marohn in his book “Thoughts on Building Strong Towns,” do not understand the difference between streets and roads. That conceptual confusion has resulted in untold billions of dollars in bad investment as traffic engineers have melded the two in what Marohn and others have contemptuously term “stroads.”

I bring this up because I cannot imagine that any state suffers more from the affliction of stroads than Virginia does. Worse, I don’t see that anyone writing editorials, commentary or white papers in the Old Dominion who understands what we have done to ourselves. All I see is the relentless call to increase taxes so we can spend more money to “fix” the problem that we created through  carelessness and ignorance.

As Marohn explains:

Roads move people between places while streets provide a framework for capturing value within a place.

The value of a road is in the speed and efficiency that it provides for movement between places. Anything … that reduces the speed and efficiency of a road devalues that road. If we want to maximize the value of a road, we eliminate anything that reduces the speed and efficiency of travel.

The value of a street comes from its ability to support land use patterns that create a financial return. The street with the highest value is the one that creates the greatest amount of tax revenue with the least amount of public expense over multiple life cycles. If we want to maximize the value of a street, we design it in such a way that it supports an adjacent development pattern that is financially resilient, architecturally timeless and socially enduring.

Rather than maximizing the efficiency of streets and roads, we have combined their functions to the detriment of both. Stroads, designed to move traffic at 45 or so miles per hour, create the worst of both worlds. Rather than accommodating complete streets that allow for automobiles, transit, bikers and pedestrians, stroads focus on moving automobiles exclusively. In exchange for bumping up local speed limits 10 or 20 mph that save motorists a few fractions of a minute in driving time, stroads effectively banish other modes of transportation from the scene. In so doing, as I noted in a previous post (“Wealth-Destroying Streets“), they destroy property values and dampen tax revenues.

At the same time, we have ruined state highways across the Old Dominion by allowing them to evolve into commercial streets cluttered with driveways, cut-throughs and stop lights. Thus, to pick an example frequently mentioned on this blog, government officials in Charlottesville and Albemarle County enacted policies over the past three or four decades that gradually converted U.S. 29 north of Charlottesville from a state highway into a local street that now requires a $244 million bypass to circumvent. Of course, local government officials have done the same thing in Danville, Lynchburg, Warrenton, Gainesville and even in rural counties in between. State officials have awakened to the need for “access management” but they have done so way too late in the game — the damage is irreparable. Virginia does not have the money to fix its ruined highways.

One of the dangers of the Governor Bob McDonnell’s tax increase is that it will absolve transportation policy makers of the need to return to first principles. Rather than re-think how we invest our transportation dollars, we will continue to degrade more highways into stroads and build more stroads that degrade property values. We will continue merrily upon our wealth-destroying ways until the money runs out.

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.