FHWA Deals a Body Blow to Charlottesville Bypass

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

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

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

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

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


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12 responses to “FHWA Deals a Body Blow to Charlottesville Bypass”

  1. Once again, the dark side of VDOT gets whacked!

    it’s not that new roads are all bad ..or that some might actually be needed. it’s that the way that VDOT goes about doing them – … well.. it pisses people off… to be blunt.

    their public involvement process on major or controversial roads is more aligned to “managing” the public’s involvement that really using the input to come up with a more acceptable plan. I see more and better responsiveness on other VDOT projects but when it comes to high profile projects, they tend to choke up and drop into a “I See Nothing – Sgt Schultz ” bunker mentality.

    It’s just illogical and delusional for anyone but especially so a state agency to pretend that a 20+ year old environmental document still represents current conditions and try to get contractors and the public to sign off on engineering that lacks things like termini interchanges, hill climbing issues for trucks and noise issues in residential areas.

    To be fair – US 29 is a major road of statewide significance that has been co-opted for local purposes and because of it, it has seriously degraded US 29 for folks who don’t live in Cville trying o get from one side to the other and that problem may well not be fixed by a “Places 29′ – the title which implies that a US signed road is Cville’s asset for local purposes.

    But why is FHWA involved at all (and what would happen if the FHWA did not have any authority?) FHWA is involved largely because money from Federal taxes is part of the funding. The NEPA type rules would not be near as strict with all State money… which .. VDOT has used as an approach before and especially so with PPTA type projects where the NEPA requirement are largely submerged.

    Now -off topic perhaps, but maybe this is also a good time to ask those who say they hate, resent the “interference” of the Federal Govt in State issues like this or…sort of like the EPA telling Virginia it has not done a good job on prevention of stormwater and nutrient pollution of it’s rivers and the Chesapeake or taking care of the medical care needs of it’s poor and uninsured folks or providing education for at-risk kids aka Head Start and Title 1 teachers? Do we support the “interference” of FHWA, aka “the Feds” i this state issue?

    finally – one more off-topic question about VDOT:

    has anyone noticed by the way that it’s http://www.virginiadot.org/ .ORG

    and not .GOV? what’s up with that? Most other state DOTs are .GOV.

    and looking forward to hear from the Charlottesville correspondents views of this news.

    1. Sounds like VDOT “mailed it in” with the environmental review..

  2. Good points only thing I have to say is they have two links for VDOT. Virginiadot.org and http://www.Vdot.Virginia.gov same site just two different links

  3. DJRippert Avatar

    “A vote by Democratic Party supervisors undoubtedly will carry weight with the McAuliffe administration, which so far has not publicly indicated whether or not it will push the project forward.”

    Good. A vote by any board of supervisors should carry weight with any administration. Which is why the previous vote in support of the bypass carried weight with the McDonnell Administration.

    The real question is why something like this isn’t put on the ballot and decided directly by the citizens of Charlottesville and Albemarle County. I am forever voting on school and parks referenda in Fairfax County. Why not ask the people whether they want the bypass or not? Even if it were non-binding it would be an important bit of information for the governor and VDOT.

    1. Oh I agree.. but now days there are questions that state and local govt do not want asked for fear of what the answer might be.

      but they cannot keep up with the power of the internet and a little app called Survey Monkey…

      only problem is – people outside of Cville who want Rt 29 rehabilitated for non-Cville north/south travelers can vote also…

      local roads are the purview of the locality… US signed roads (like US 29) and state primary roads – serve all citizens who also have a stake in the issue.

  4. Lynchburg is mad. Larry has a point – it is more than a local road, but Lynchburg and the trucking industry have also gotten way too worked up about this. The best recent evidence has suggested a time savings of 2 minutes after the bypass.

    It’s time for small municipalities to quit putting their faith in giant new highways (built, as Jim so eloquently said, “on spec”) to revitalize them – they are massive, destructive expenditures for the state and their impact is debatable. 55 in West Virginia near Moorefield comes to mind. The trucking industry is just fighting a losing war with reality and thinks it can shore things up on the public-subsidy side of things. Not that trucking will ever go away, but long-haul freight trucking has peaked and will be in decline for some time if things stay the way they are. No amount of huge roads can fix that.

    1. well.. I’m not advocating for Lynchburg or trucks and I don’t think US 29 will every become an interstate …

      …. however.. US-signed roads were originally constructed by the Federal and State governments to connect cities and towns like folks in Lovingston trying to get to Warrenton or further north. Think about your own travels which now days probably includes an interstate but then you likely will travel on a non-interstate also – for instance you might want to get to Wintergreen or similar.

      so the interstates mesh up with US signed highways and Va Primary highway to complete the network – that was initially designed not as commercial venues for towns but as transportation routes for people to travel.

      Since then in City after City, town after town these routes have been degraded and bypasses were required – at huge expense plus serious impacts to private property and other built environments.

      Even now, if you drive on most US signed or Va Primary roads you will see that they practice “access management” – i.e. they limit curb cuts, keep median crossovers to a minimum and put left and right turn lanes in at intersections so that the main lanes do not have to stop when someone is turning – as they often do on secondary roads and local streets.

      the US signed highways were designed – and are currently maintained as travel routes …

      that’s what is driving VDOT in Cville.. they see an important north/south US signed highway becoming so degraded that the average person trying to get through Cville at rush hour is stymied.

      VDOT has invested millions of dollars in 4-laning US-29 north and south of Cville.. to maintain it’s usefullness for everyone that needs to go longer distances north and south – including Charlottesville citizens … so that road is important to most folks who depend on it for travel.

      the average person does not realize the purpose of US signed highways though.. they just think it “belongs” to the locality it goes through.

      Stafford County – up my way a year ago – wanted to turn US 1 at Stafford Courthouse into a mixed-use development venue.. with traffic calming…

      US 1 is the primary north/south route when I-95 shuts down so they were promptly disabused of that idea by VDOT.

      Charlottesville depends on that road also for trucks to re-supply stores in Cville.

      Cville has some unique issues including terrain .. but I would not expect VDOT to totally give up because it is their responsibility to maintain some level of mobility for Va citizens trying to travel through Cville.

      I think we’ve all grown so accustomed to the interstates, we forget the US signed roads … and just assume they are “okay”‘ but they are not.. all over the state – they are degraded and bypasses built…

  5. Last thought: 29 is the ultimate stroad. As the article pointed out, the bypass has been made useless by the explosion of growth north of its northernmost terminus. If the bypass did significantly reduce the time to travel through the area, it would only incentivize more development north of job-rich Charlottesville. Greene County is hungry for development and has zoned every square foot along 29 in the south side of the county for anything anyone is willing to build. Neither county has put any pressure on developers to build parallel roads and have shown no interest in pushing for them. Even the most recently approved subdivisions are all single-access onto 29. Are you going to just keep asking for linear bypasses all the way up 29?

    The communities south of Charlottesville would be better served to push the state to clamp down on Greene County and Albemarle County lining the road with strip malls. They should oppose further signalled intersections and curb cuts. They should push for overpasses and for the stroad to become a road. But that won’t happen in a thousand years – because that would be to acknowledge that county land use planning has a real effect on others and that’s verboten in Virginia. The solution from these coalitions will always be to spend more money and build more and bigger roads.

    1. Ghost of Ted Dalton Avatar
      Ghost of Ted Dalton

      This is the best reply I’ve read on a Virginia blog in years. Danville and Lynchburg have lost their minds about the Cville bypass. Once you hit the bypass’s exit point (Forest Lakes), there are a ton of stop lights going north. There’s nothing that makes this “stroad” attractive to the transportation industry even with the bypass. That fight was lost probably a decade ago when the traffic lights started to sprout up all over 29.

      Heck….don’t forget….even tiny Nelson County has now erected a stoplight on 29.

      1. The US signed roads are still important “connecting” roads for the areas “in between” the interstates.

        and consider how many “bypasses” have been built on many of them as cities and towns grew and took over more of the original road.

        imagine what Va would look like without these “bypasses”

        Here’s a list of US signed highways in Va:

        U.S. Highway 1
        U.S. Highway 11
        U.S. Highway 11E
        U.S. Highway 11W
        U.S. Highway 13
        U.S. Highway 15
        U.S. Highway 17
        U.S. Highway 19
        U.S. Highway 21
        U.S. Highway 23
        U.S. Highway 29
        U.S. Highway 33
        U.S. Highway 48
        U.S. Highway 52
        U.S. Highway 58
        U.S. Highway 60
        U.S. Highway 211
        U.S. Highway 220
        U.S. Highway 221
        U.S. Highway 250
        U.S. Highway 301
        U.S. Highway 340
        U.S. Highway 360
        U.S. Highway 421
        U.S. Highway 460
        U.S. Highway 501
        U.S. Highway 522

        Here’s Va Primaries:

        Virginia 6
        Virginia 7
        Virginia 13
        Virginia 28
        Virginia 36
        Virginia 37
        Virginia 42
        Virginia 45
        Virginia 47
        Virginia 55
        Virginia 56
        Virginia 76 – Powhite Parkway
        Virginia 101
        Virginia 110
        Virginia 116
        Virginia 123
        Virginia 149
        Virginia 150 (Chippenham Parkway)
        Virginia 168
        Virginia 195
        Virginia 199
        Virginia 207
        Virginia 208
        Virginia 230
        Virginia 231/Virginia Secondary 670
        Virginia 233
        Virginia 234
        Virginia 237
        Virginia 262
        Virginia 286 (Fairfax County Parkway)
        Virginia 288
        Virginia 337
        Virginia 895/Pocahontas Parkway

        roads are classified by function – in other words the road, when built, was designed for a particular use:

        (from FHWA):


        Functional classification is the process by which streets and highways are grouped into classes, or systems, according to the character of traffic service that they are intended to provide. There are three highway functional classifications: arterial, collector, and local roads. All streets and highways are grouped into one of these classes, depending on the character of the traffic (i.e., local or long distance) and the degree of land access that they allow.

        The Functional Classes:


        Each type of road has a specific purpose or function.
        Functional System Services Provided

        Arterial Provides the highest level of service at the greatest speed for the longest uninterrupted distance, with some degree of access control.

        Collector Provides a less highly developed level of service at a lower speed for shorter distances by collecting traffic from local roads and connecting them with arterials.

        Local Consists of all roads not defined as arterials or collectors; primarily provides access to land with little or no through movement.

        Typically, travelers will use a combination of arterial, collector, and local roads for their trips. Each type of road has a specific purpose or function. Some provide land access to serve each end of the trip. Others provide travel mobility at varying levels, which is needed en route.

        There is a basic relationship between functionally classified highway systems in serving traffic mobility and land access, as illustrated in Figure 3.1. Arterials provide a high level of mobility and a greater degree of access control, while local facilities provide a high level of access to adjacent properties but a low level of mobility. Collector roadways provide a balance between mobility and land access.

        so after reading the above – what is the functional classification of US 29 through Charlottesville, Warrenton, Lynchburg, Danville, NoVa?

        the US signed roads were designed as Arterials to serve the purpose of mobility.

        when you lose that level of service, you’ve degrade the original purpose of the road.

        VDOT’s job is to protect and preserve the arterials through access management and if that is not feasible then through bypasses.

        but you will find much more aggressive Access Management in general on arterials all across the state including US 29 which consists of limiting curb cuts, requiring significant access infrastructure when there are major curb cuts – like left and right turn lanes in addition to the main through lanes, efficient traffic signals that are specially adapted for the specific conditions at the traffic signals themselves, closing of median cross-overs, and when push comes to shove – grade-separated interchanges – and bypasses.

        Cville has a number of older grade-separated interchanges for US 29 and US 250 and they resemble the initial efforts in Lynchburg with their original bypass but neither the ones in Cville nor Lynchburg were built to modern standards for the distance and radius of the ramps.

        The modern type of grade-separated interchanges for cities and towns are called SPUI – single point urban Interchanges – they have a smaller footprint than standard diamonds and cloverleafs although there is a new kind of diamond called a diverging diamond that has advantages in that it “switches” the traffic flow so that people can make left turns without crossing in front of oncoming traffic. There is also a new type non-grade separated intersection called a continuous flow intersection that separates left turn movements from the intersections.

        any/all of these may have potential on the mainline of 29 rather than a bypass but they will not be cheap and they will not be town-center “friendly”.

        If one buys the idea of what US signed highways purposes are – including US 29 through Cville – then you sorta have to pick your poison – bypass or more serious access management and interchanges on the mainline.

        If every city on a primary road in Va refused to pick of these two approaches – we’d end up with most of Va’s primary roads no longer useful for statewide mobility and we’d be back to the way cities and roads worked in general before interstates came along..

        but just to reiterate – US and Va signed roads are not interstates either although Lynchburg and Danville and North Carolina think they could be.

        But even where there are significant bypasses of 29 around Lynchburg these days: 1. – they are not interstates – they have at-grade intersections as well as traffic signals and 2. – ironically – growth in Lynchburg has grown beyond the terminal points of their bypass also and going south out of Lynchburg there are dozens of traffic signals and curb cuts, at grade intersections, etc.

  6. As usual, excellent discussion. Especially the psychological aspects of what writer Jack Trammell calls the “Lynchburg Lobby.” When you constantly hear — even today in the daily newspaper and chamber newsletter in Lynchburg — that Charlottesville is to blame (by not building this bypass) for our economic woes from the day you’re born, data makes very little difference to you.

    The data, however, is clear. The so-called Western “Bypass” of Charlottesville does NOT come close to bypassing our community. Even proponents of this highway admit that it would take another $145 million added to the $300+ million cost of this so-called “bypass” to make it resemble a bypass. And though FHWA didn’t quite say this in its letter, it underlined the point that our Places29 projects, including overpasses on two key cross streets, do more to relieve congestion, increase traffic speeds, and boost safety for about one-third the cost of the “bypass” — the one that doesn’t bypass.

    As Mr. Bacon has written several times — and belatedly state-wide leaders (except those in Lynchburg) agree — there needs to be cost-benefit studies from the git-go on major transportation projects. At NO TIME have VDOT’s rational planners indicated that the so-called “bypass” out performs those two intersections. To give you a short summation of the fiscal history through quotes:

    From May 1990 Daily Progress: “A three-year, $3.6 million study of U.S. 29 north of Charlottesville released Thursday shows that overpasses at key intersections on U.S. 29 will do more to alleviate traffic congestion than a bypass.”

    From 2002 MPO transportation plan: “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 transportation goals of the Bypass can be more effectively realized with improvements to the existing Route 29 corridor.”

    From 2009’s $1.5 million 29N Corridor Study: “The Western Bypass is no longer an effective option to serve corridor-wide trips”– its mandated purpose.

    From 2012: Bypass called “The Road to Wealth Destruction” and “among the eight worst projects in the nation,” by Taxpayers for Common Sense and former Virginia Business editor.

    From 2013 August C-ville article: VDOT’s time “data indicate that turning just one congested intersection on 29—Rio—into a grade-separated interchange would have a greater impact on delays than the Bypass would.”

    A couple of ya’ll have put the blame on VDOT. A little closer to the issue (in both distance and research), I argue that VDOT itself has not come close to embracing the so-called “bypass” since its sudden, politically-motivated resurrection in 2011. I could make a very strong argument that the engineers there have internally been fighting this “colossal waste of taxpayer money” (Jim Rich, fired by McDonnell for trying to talk fiscal sense about the “bypass”)since what we think of as “the off-agenda, against-rules, midnight” vote which breathed sudden life in the zombie highway.

    Governor McAuliffe and Secretary Layne now have the opportunity to finally drive a stake into its heart because from both funders — FHWA — and citizens — Albemarle County supervisors and a massive public hearing, both directions are convincingly saying the so-called Western “Bypass” is not nearly as effective as the Places29 projects in doing what Lynchburg really wants — faster access to D.C., NYC, etc.

    1. good commentary Salz!

      The heart of the VDOT culture is that of a road-builder not a backfit fixer.

      You’ll not find the part of VDOT that synchronizes traffic signals or backfits access management, or even SPUI or diverging diamond interchanges in the same part of VDOT that plans new roads and interestingly enough – when the new location road folks do a NEPA – they downplay “fixing” the existing infrastructure as a “solution” so I strongly suspect the “alternatives” that are directed – will also be new construction – more expensive new construction!

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