Bypass Surgery

The McDonnell administration has pushed through $200 million in funding for the Charlottesville Bypass over strenuous local opposition. The big question: Will the bypass need a bypass five years from now?by James A. Bacon

The Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB) voted today to provide $197 million in funding to build the 6-mile Charlottesville Bypass and another $33 million to widen a 1.6-mile stretch of U.S. 29. The controversial bypass project is almost certain to receive final approval in August by the Charlottesville-Albemarle Metropolitan Planning Organization.

The vote represents a significant victory for the McDonnell administration, which lobbied Republican board members on the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors earlier this month to reverse its previous opposition to the project, thus creating an opening for the CTB deliberation. After years of transportation funding cutbacks across Virginia, the Charlottesville Bypass is likely just the first in a series of mega-projects likely to receive funding as the administration dispenses the proceeds from $3 billion in transportation bond issues leveraged, in many instances, by public-private partnerships.

Ironically, the project received its strongest backing from CTB board members from outside the Charlottesville area, while James Rich, representing the Culpeper transportation district of which Albemarle County is a part, spoke passionately against it. Business and civic leaders in Lynchburg and Danville deem U.S. 29 to be an economic lifeline for the region’s manufacturing sector, and they regard the severe congestion north of Charlottesville as a hindrance to their economic development.

Opponents accused the administration of moving too fast, with too little transparency, in doling out the money. The Charlottesville Bypass will be funded at the expense of other more pressing projects. “Virginia has many transportation needs competing for limited money, and shifting these funds will shortchange other projects statewide,” said Trip Pollard with the Southern Environmental Law Center. “That’s not sound planning, especially when there are far more effective and less costly alternatives to reduce congestion.”

(Click on map for more legible image.)

The controversy highlighted an irreconcilable contradiction that plagues many of Virginia’s transportation corridors. On the one hand, U.S. 29 is a classified as a “corridor of statewide significance,” meaning that it plays a role in providing connectivity between urban centers. It is also a U.S. highway stretching from Pensacola, Fla., to Baltimore, Md. One stretch between Danville and Greensboro, N.C., is touted as “future Interstate 785.” On the other hand, the highway doubles as the primary development corridor in Charlottesville-Albemarle County. It is the location of 20,000 jobs, most of the region’s retail business and its largest residential real estate developments, accounting for 40% of the region’s tax base. Peak traffic reaches roughly 50,000 cars per day.

The lack of access controls along the U.S. 29 corridor means that anyone can build a strip mall, subdivision, office park or even a single-family home and connect directly to the highway. That practice, combined with Albemarle County’s decades-long policy of making it the count’s major growth corridor, has created nightmarish congestion. As one of the Albemarle dissenters summed up the dilemma in the public hearing, “It is not possible for a road to function as a highway and a commercial main street.”

In voting to fund the Charlottesville Bypass, the CTB board made clear its policy preference for maintaining the system integrity of the state’s corridors of statewide significance. “No one project is the solution,” said Doug Koelemay, representative of the Northern Virginia transportation district. “We need to look at all projects as a whole. We’re trying to make a system work.”

“This has gone on too long,” said Lynchburg district representative Mark Peake, alluding to the on-again, off-again history of the Bypass. “This is a United States highway, not the City of Charlottesville’s main street. … We’ve studied this for 20 years. We have the money now. Let’s do it!”

Because U.S. 29 is classified as a U.S. highway, it must be approved by the Charlottesville-Albemarle Metropolitan Planning Organization, but that should prove to be a formality. Two of the five MPO board members are Albemarle County supervisors who voted to rescind the county’s previous objection to the Bypass. A third is a VDOT official who answers ultimately to the Secretary of Transportation.

The 6-mile Bypass will run from Rt. 250 in the south to just north of the Rivanna River, bypassing about a 3 ½-mile stretch of U.S. 29 with 14 traffic lights. In a 1997 study, traffic was forecast to reach 24,400 vehicles per day by 2022, said James Utterback, Culpeper district administrator for the Virginia Department of Transportation. Utterback offered no estimate of how much travel time the Bypass would save.

Although there is a broad consensus that the $33 million allocated to widening a section of U.S. 29 is worthwhile, foes predicted that the $197 million spent on the Bypass will be largely wasted. The “bypass” is not even a bypass, they argued. It’s better labeled a “connector,” for it circumvents only half of the congested area. The “bypass” will dump travelers onto U.S. 29 just past the Rivanna River, where they will encounter many more miles of stop-and-go traffic. In the years ahead, congestion will only worsen as development continues to crowd the highway as far north as Ruckersville in Greene County. “In another five years, we’ll need to build another road to bypass the bypass,” predicted Albemarle resident Denny King during the public hearing.

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13 responses to “Bypass Surgery”

  1. larryg Avatar

    the “deal” made was this. Enough of the MPO would accept the bypass as long as the money for it was in addition to their already funded projects and not diverted from them.

    shouldn’t some of the money come from Lynchburg? 🙂

    Has VDOT learned to build a “bypass” that will not be co-opted by new development and ruined thus requiring yet another bypass to bypass the original?

    The comment about “main street” was only half right unless one wants to consider each and every existing and future commercial corridor as “main street” because as sure as night follows day – the land speculators will “on the hunt” to determine WHERE the new interchanges might go and the more bold and aggressive of them will get into the game itself of deciding where the new access points should go.

    In many respects this is similar to the western transportation corridor proposal/controversy where (justifiably) .. it is felt that I-95 through the Washington Area has been completely co-opted by the region and no longer functions as an effective east coast highway of national significance.

    How do you build a bypass and not have it ruined by development?

    One way might be to put a toll on it. A toll low enough to encourage those who just want to get through the area to pay it but one that is high enough that paying it everyday is enough of a cost that it would not be a viable twice-a-day road.

  2. Just let VDOT control and limit the number of curb cuts. That will help keep traffic flowing and development harnessed.

  3. Stephen Avatar

    The only reason McDonnell is pushing this through is he wants to give the Republican Senate candidates in the Lynchburg area an issue to run on this fall. It doesn’t matter that the bypass will end right in the middle of the most heavily populated area on North 29 or that it will be useless by the time it’s built. It’s a $250 million taxpayer investment in a Republican Senate majority. That’s an investment that the Governor understands.

  4. Groveton Avatar

    Good for McDonnell. That stretch of Rt 29 has been a disaster for years. It’s good to see a Virginia governor actually so something about the problems in what should be a very prosperous, job creating region of the Commonwealth.

    Also interesting to see the critics once again over-playing their one time trump card of analysis paralysis. In Charlottesville the Southern Environmental Law Center wants more study. In Northern Virginia Jaime Radke wants to push the Rail to Dulles project back to the state which didn’t want it in the first place. All these phony baloneys will claim that they support progress but, in reality, they hope to use endless delays to kill the projects they don’t want.

    The same thing is true with much of this, “more walkable community” tripe. We should create places where people can work, live and play. They should be more walkable. There should be alternatives to our obsession with private automobiles. However, all of these things require systematic change rather than superficial window dressing. Go to the shoppers at the stores along Rt 29 north of Charlottesville. Find out how many could reasonably walk or bike to the shops. Maybe start with the ABC Store. I can tell you from experience, it’s a long way from that store to Mad Bowl. Especially when carrying a case of cheap Aristocrat Vodka.

  5. Groveton, Take a look at the Places 29 plan before your dismiss talk of creating walkable communities along U.S. 29 as “tripe.” Places 29 is not meant as an instant panacea — it is a long-term plan that will guide development, re-development and transportation improvements in the corridor over the next few decades. The $200 million spent on the “bypass” could fund a whole lot of improvements called for in the Places 29 plan. Could those improvements have reduced more traffic than the Bypass? I guess we’ll never know.

    1. JoeThomasWCHV Avatar

      Places 29 is a land-use plan masquerading as a road plan. It abuses emminent domain to shut down the only commercial area of the community for years at a time while taking over the property rights around them to zone them out. BTW, without an appropriat detour available for traffic on a Constitutionally protected “Post Road.” (US Highway) The traffic on US29 in Albemarle is bad and is hurting the “Main Street” economy on it, but this is like fixing an ingrown toenail by blasting your foot with a shotgun.

  6. larryg Avatar

    the basic problem is the main street problem. How do you CONNECT and provide THROUGH ACCESS – major urban areas without having the primary “through” road – co-opted for local commercial (and residential) development.

    Talking about making 29 a more “walkable” place really does not address the more fundamental problem that Lynchburg is concerned about.

    The entire center of Va from NoVa to Danville could travel south to a variety of Interstate connections if Rt 29 were useful in that regard through Charlottesville.

    It would relieve pressure on both I-81 and I-95 …

    we use Rt 29 all the time to go to southern North Carolina… and it’s a fine road – though I’d hate to see it crapped up with big trucks….

    I blame VDOT also because only recently have they signed on to the Access Management bible.

    Many roads in other states ( as we are now on a 6 week “tour” of Washington and Oregon) manage to protect and maintain their “through” arteries …. (although I-5 through Seattle is a nightmare – worse than NoVa IMHO).

    I’m not a big supporter of the Charlottesville bypass in it’s current specified location unless it is going to “fit” with the existing residential development – and I’m not convinced that those who live in that area are not going to mount a ferocious opposition.

    Finally, think about this. Every Virginian is going to help fund this bypass with the tax on their car insurance.

    Is this the right way to build new roads?

    I’d much rather see such a road with very limited access… designed to fit and not destroy the surrounding locale and have a toll on it…. to discourage all but the primary proposed use – a through-path through Charlottesville – that through traffic would be glad to pay for while at the same time discourage development uses…. that would ultimately lead to the road being co-opted for local purposes and destroyed for it’s intended/justified purpose.

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  8. “Just let VDOT control and limit the number of curb cuts. That will help keep traffic flowing and development harnessed.”

    VDOT already does that. It took me months to get a permit for a curb cut – where one already existed. This was a pipestem drivewya situation where two houses shared the same existing driveway.

    It STILL took months to get the permit.

  9. “The same thing is true with much of this, “more walkable community” tripe. ”

    Listened to some of that on the Kojo Naamby show concerning some redevelopment in Noretheast, where parking spaces were being removed to make the place more walkable. Someone from Smart Growth Coalition was there and gave a very convincing and very smoothly delivered argument, which was, however, full of logical fallacies and unproven opinion. Nevertheless he made what sounded on the face of it as a perfectly reasonable argument that what was really going on was a matter of reallocating public space accoring to the number of people who used it, autos taking up a lot of space for relatively few people. And all the other Smart Growth arguments.

    As I say, it was very nicely argued. Then the local business owners started calling in, and their contempt for the idea was obvious. One owner more or less said, look, my customers come from all over. This plan is a done deal, so there is nothing I can do to prevent it, now. But I will evaluate its effect on my business, and right now, I believe that evaluation means I will pull up stakes and move.

  10. In Charlottesville the Southern Environmental Law Center wants more study. In Northern Virginia Jaime Radke wants to push the Rail to Dulles project back to the state which didn’t want it in the first place. All these phony baloneys will claim that they support progress but, in reality, they hope to use endless delays to kill the projects they don’t want.


    I saw SELC doing the exact same thing in another location, with the identical argument. Having the word environmental in the name of an organization whose main strategy consists of wasting other peoples resources strikes me as a travesty and a waste of the first order.

  11. larryg Avatar

    the problem is, at least in part, that the SELC and others do not TRUST VDOT to build … AND PROTECT a new road from being essentially co-opted and destroyed by development.

    you have to admit.. VDOT does not have a good record on this.

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