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.

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13 responses to “Bend, Buckle and Crack”

  1. I think one of the most vociferous “supporters” of a Rt 29 bypass in Cville was Lynchburg who originally has a limited access version of 29 built through Lynchburg but was designed for an earlier era of vehicles as it twists and turns like a snake and the ramps are not only very short and very tight but have very short merge and exits – so as most know who travel that way – a few years back VDOT built out in rural area a modern “bypass” – limited access but not full interstates restrictions as it does have curb-cuts and cross-overs on some parts but over all it’s “better” than the original limited-access through Lynchburg whose utility was seriously degraded when the non-limited access parts of Rt 29 that connected to it where – you guess it- co-opted for local development – the VERY SAME WAY that Rt 29 in Cville was.

    The problem is there is no good western path for a bypass as development has proceeded right up to the slopes of the Appalachians.

    And I’ve never really understood why an Eastern Bypass was not considered viable ….

    Finally – the bigger picture here – it’s not that the bypass (any bypass) should be shorter in time 24/7.

    this is the problem … people do not think of a road in terms of it’s conditions 24/7 and that is an important distinction that most GPS units don’t handle well.. which is what does the normal/typical peak hour traffic look like?

    It appears to me that at least in some cases, retrofitting access-management to a road – can recover some of the lost utility if there is room to add enough left turn stacking lanes – and the signals can be fully-synchronized – with at least pre-loaded historical data and better if in a real-time, actual-conditions mode.

    As I had asked earlier – what if the good citizens of Cville had to pay the costs of the bypass – in addition to what they pay now – or (more likely) in exchange for future allocations that would have been used for other projects), would they have voted that way?

    does anyone know why the eastern ( more rural) route became unfeasible?

    1. Larryg- aren’t you getting the story a little muddled? A little history on the US 29 expressway in Lynchburg: the section from Madison Heights through downtown was 2 lanes for more than 10 years and there was a stoplight at the 17th street intersection (where Kemper St intersection is now). To suggest that this had been built as a long term bypass is inaccurate. While the new bypass isn’t quite to interstate standards, it certainly exceeds the condition and quality of I-64. Frankly, Lynchburg has a much more functional highway system, mainly due to its much larger area. As early as the 60’s the city began to plan an effective limited access route that circled a large portion of the city and crossed most major thoroughfares. They are now planning another limited access point along the bypass that will funnel some traffic off of Candler’s Mountain Rd- a much better option than continually adding lanes like we’ve see along Seminole or building ridiculous overpass intersections as has been suggested for Hydraulic. I am sure that before the pavement cools, there will be serious suggestions for a northern extension of the bypass.
      Lynchburg is most interested in seeing US 29 develop into a near interstate quality corridor, which is useful as an economic development tool. Some might think that it would not or could not act in that way, but plenty of businesses look for that type of highway access during site selection. To think that we wouldn’t even be having this discussion if planners hadn’t moved on this back when land cost less and was less developed, and construction costs were more reasonable.

      1. @Tomr – here’s the history: “Virginia State Route 163 (SR 163) is a primary state highway in the U.S. state of Virginia. The state highway runs 6.74 miles (10.85 km) from U.S. Route 501 and US 29 Business in Lynchburg north to US 29 Business in Madison Heights. SR 163 is the original alignment of US 29 through Lynchburg, a highway has been twice bypassed: first by the Lynchburg Expressway and later by US 29’s present bypass. The state highway provides access to downtown Lynchburg and many other historic neighborhoods of the independent city.”

        there’s more at:

        and I’d add more links but BR goes to moderation if more than one link per post is added.

        In terms of the current bypass – it has at-grade side intersections as well as median crossovers – neither of which I-64 has and those things are considerably more dangerous IMHO AND they can and will eventually get more development..more traffic…

        so Lynchburg HAS had TWO bypasses…. in truth and the 2nd one was necessitated when the first one had the endpoints overcome by commercial development just as has happened to Charlottesville.

        I understand the advocacy for US 29 but it’s never going to be an interstate quality road … unless NC does something about it near Greensboro and Va does something about it north of Charlottesville to Northern Va.

        I would suggest that you drive the full distance from the NC line where US 29 goes into Maryland to get a fuller appreciation of just how far fetched that idea really is. It’s fairly easy to believe it if you only look at the new infrastructure around Lynchburg – I agree it’s pretty good (but I do not like the at-grade and crossovers.).. but I’d be interested in hearing your views about the part near NC and the parts North of Cville.

        how about?

        1. I live in Lynchburg and I am from Maryland- I remeber the trip when some sections were only 2 lanes, so I am pretty familiar. It is not farfetched at all; look at what NC is doing with their highway infrastructure- adding 2 new interstates in the last 15 years and building new corridors for I-85 and I-40 around most of the larger cities ( I guess you should call those bypass bypasses).
          Intersection and crossovers are dangerous, but the US 29 bypass has neither. You might be pointing to the section where US 29 begins its duplex with US 460; that section is over 40 years old and VDOT has slated it to be replaced for full limited access for that 3 mile section. The bypass that was completed around Madison Heights is a very nice road- with a 70 MPH speed limit.

          As far as upgrading US 29 from NC to I-66- very possible, if the state wanted to do it and had the resources. From Lynchburg to NC, well more than half of the trip is limited access, requiring very little in the way of upgrades. The segment from Blairs to the NC border was built with the realization that I-785 (from Greensboro) would cover the entire portion. VDOT already has plans for a new limited access section of US 29 from just west of the Lynchburg Airport to a point several miles south of SR 24. From Lynchburg south, there would be no issues- mainly shoulder paving; obviously, from Amherst north through Greene County would pose the biggest problem, since the communities north of Cville have already seen well designed bypasses around them. The state will soon get traffic through Gainesville without stoplights.
          The corridor study that concluded a while ago indicated much the same. My guess is that the Lynchburg transportation district will continue to pursue the upgrading of US 29 southward, and will continue to push the Culpeper District for improvements. With the growth of traffic along I-81 and I-95, the state will likely soon need some form of reliever and US 29 is he most likely option.
          On the other hand… if fuel continues to increase in price, one must wonder how travel and transport of goods will be curtailed over the next ten years.

          1. not sure if I caught how the section just north of Greensboro is going to become an “interstate”. Is it a funded plan?

            And I NOW the road north of Cville is not a funded plan.

            there’s another problem. The “freeway” near Lynchburg still goes through many lights, many curb cuts, side entrances and median crossovers.

            It’s fine now because the traffic count is next to nothing but it could not sustain the traffic counts you see on a typical interstate without serious safety issues.

            you cannot have a high speed road with side entrances and median crossovers without compromising safety …

            I still think an “I-29” is a pipe dream primarily concocted by boosters in Lynchburg with little relation to realities.

            I DO support incrementally upgrading it from I-64 south to the NC border but I’m very skeptical that it will truly function as an interstate.

          2. Larryg- I don’t think I even insinuated that any plan was funded. Quit driving along Seminole thinking you are on the Lynchburg bypass. There is not a single light, intersection, or any of the other things you mentioned on the entirety of the bypass, from US 460 to north of Amherst (this IS the section that has been referred to as the Lynchburg bypass)- more than 15 miles, most of which is 70 MPH. Lets talk apples to apples- stop trying to compare some section of 29 that ISN’T part of the bypass. Do a little Google mapping and searching- you don’t know what you are talking about. A drive from the airport to Lovingston along US 29- ONE traffic light, at Concord Turnpike, slated to be removed and replaced with an interchange. Meanwhile look up I-785 and read up- even 29 around Danville is badged as “future I-785.”
            Also, insisting that there is no traffic in Lynchburg… next to nothing… not worth responding to. Thankfully, Lynchburg has been able to spread its growth out among multiple corridors, and we have multiple options for our busiest roads.

          3. @Tomr – no you did not say they were funded. I said that and that lack of funding tells us what the near term plans are and are not. As far as I know it’s not even on VDOTs website for future “unfunded” projects even.

            re: not a light… have you driven SOUTH of Lynchburg? I have. Many times guy and there is quite a few lights, side entrances, cross-overs etc in that area. Heck..there’s a Sheetz at the southern end of Lynchburg itself.

            oh I’m also familiar with the “Future” sign. How long have they been there?
            are there near term plans to build it? NC is broke you know. They’re now doing toll roads.

            I think VDOT has done a good job piecing things together but traffic outside the urban areas is very, very light.

            the section south of Cville by the way although 4 laned is full of curves and hills and side driveways…and median crossovers… 65 on that section is a suicide mission if the cops don’t get you first.

            there is no way to “fix” that unless you cut a new limited access road and that’s not even a plan as far as I know.

            I understand Lynchburg’s advocacy but it’s totally unrealistic. You can’t take a road like 29 and turn it into an interstate without a heck of a lot of money and that’s just not going to happen no matter what happens in Cville IMHO.

            is there a Rt 29 corridor plan on the VDOT website?

          4. Larryg- we don’t need to discuss any section of US 29 south of Lynchburg, as this is not part of the Bypass, itself. Their are forward looking plans to build a southern bypass that extends for 9-10 miles south of Lynchburg, and this is noted in the study that you asked about the availability of. See it here:
            It is interesting and though dated, the Lynchburg District is continuing to pursue the improvements to the south of the city.

            NC’s intent to build I-785 is still there, but they put I-73 and 74 on the front burner, as federal dollars are directed at those projects. I didn’t know that NC is broke- the state has a lower debt burden per capita than VA does, but we both know that VA isn’t in the best of shape. That said, toll roads are definitely in the future for us, and I don’t think that anyone can rule out improvements on US 29 as such a project. US 460 is already undergoing that transition from Suffolk to Petersburg. The idea was first addressed in 2008 and the road is scheduled to open in 2018.
            In regards to the sections in Nelson and Albemarle Counties, I think little is being proposed other than some sightline improvements and some intersection improvements. The indication from the study is that traffic died down quite a bit after the SR 6 intersection.

            While in the past, I have been a proponent of all these improvements, these days, I think that economic conditions might be altering the way we travel and distribute goods. Lynchburg does have a solid argument as to why they want to pursue this vision and I think that opponents are rather disingenuous when they suggest that the roadway has little to do with economic development. Just yesterday the head of the (former) Thomas Jefferson Partnership for Economic Development pointed to highway and Interstate access as one of the assets they use as a tool to attract new business. Agree or not, Lynchburg business leaders are going to continue to make efforts to improve their highway and market access in an effort to compete economically.

          5. 1997? right?

            my perspective of the existing status is that there are parts of it that are essentially interstate quality – and there are parts that are not and have side entrances and crossovers… I drive this road frequently.

            The southern aspect of Lynchburg in my view, clearly demonstrates what Lynchburg, Cville and virtually all localities will do to co-opt roads for commercial venues – and it comes at a steep price when the road no longer functions effectively as a through corridor and a bypass is brought forth as a solution.

            the development near the Sheetz obviously occurred in the intervening period between the design and programming of the bypass and the time until it was completed. This is how fast development can occur AND it’s no accident as the businesses all knew where the planned bypass would come back to the original 29.

            NC is not “broke” but their transpo money is already committed as you pointed out with I73/I74 and it’s the same thing in Va with 460.

            29 in Va and NC or not priorities. If they were they’d be funded.

            tolls on an I-29 without tolls on I-81/I-95 would probably not be good for that road but I just don’t see where funding will come from if not tolls.

            do you?

            Some day, there might be an I-29 but it’s probably 30, 40, 50 years downstream.

  2. Of course, it’s a bait and switch. One that will cost taxpayers somewhere north of $22 million, just on the Southern Terminus, once taxpayers and media are no longer paying attention. There will be similar issues with the Northern Terminus, too.

    The Federal Highway Administration compared 18 “design-build” (DB) projects with 18 similar-sized “design-bid-build” (DBB) projects, the traditional manner of construction, and found that DB always end up costing more money (although DB saved one percent — yes, ONE percent — in the time it took to build the project). The cost difference, Uncle Sam explained, is that there end up being so many needed “third party requests” which UVA has already begun asking for, exactly what the McDonnell Administration planned. Indiana also made comparisons and warned public entities that they should never try to build any large projects on DB due to the cost overruns which happen after the public is no longer paying attention.

    “Design-build,” “fast-track” is tailor made for cost-overruns and to presume that the secretary of transportation didn’t understand, and therefore, promote this reality is an insult to his intelligence. Please note that the Culpepper member of the Commonwealth Transportation District was fired for trying to explain this waste of taxpayer dollars to the public.

  3. I agree with Salz. VDOT has a track record of low-balling projects and then coming back later to add on the stuff that should have been in the original proposal and design-build is tailor-made to do that.

    But I think Cville will pay for the bypass from their future allocations.

    In other words.. after this project is finished, it’s liable to be a long dry spell for future improvements.

  4. Larryg: The good citizens of Charlottesville have consistently opposed this so-called “bypass.”

    Indeed in the public comments on the latest “Environmental Assessment” 3,194 of the 3,257 comments t opposed building the so-called “bypass,” or demanded additional study, and the University of Virginia’s representative to the area’s Metropolitan Planning Organization says that, “at best, five percent”

    “The (bypass) project as designed does not meet community or regional needs, and has been determined too costly for the transportation benefits to be gained,” the Albemarle County Comprehensive Plan, which does NOT include anything in favor of the bypass, states. “The transportation goals of the Bypass can be more effectively realized with improvements to the existing Route 29 corridor.”

    That, of course, is exactly what you’re suggesting in your first comments.

    The problem: It’s semantics. People hear “bypass” and think it actually means missing the suburbs; the congestion; the stoplights. This Skanska design has four stoplights on it to “bypass” four miles of the existing U.S. 29 but even if the the design is returned — at a cost of $25 millioin plus interest to taxpayers — it will still save only 66 seconds in the 10-hour drive from Lynchburg to NYC. This is crucial because the sole rationale for this highway is that if Virginia spends $240 million then manufacturers will build new plants downstate and deliver to the major population markets in the North East.

    If saving 66 seconds over 10 hours is within a Top Ten, hell, Top 1,000, list of reasons to locate a manufacturing facility, our economy has no hope.

    Please help us get the word out. Write, call, email your delegate, your senator saying “We should go after some of that wasted money down in Cville. No rational administration (and every previous one has said “no way are we going to spend $240 million for only $8 million in public benefits”) expect the tax-and-spend one we have today would ever waste so much money.”

  5. Saltz – do you know why the eastern side was not an option?

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