Tag Archives: Charlottesville Bypass

U.S. 29… The Saga Continues

VDOT rendering of proposed Rio Road interchange

VDOT rendering of proposed Rio Road interchange

The battle over the Charlottesville Bypass may be over, but the battle over what to do instead is heating up. After pulling the plug on the super-controversial, $240 million bypass early last year, the McAuliffe administration dusted off a plan to upgrade the U.S. 29 commercial corridor north of Charlottesville by investing in a series of spot improvements, parallel roads and grade-separated interchanges. Now the community is up in arms over the proposal to put an $81 million grade-separated interchange at the intersection with Rio Road.

Last week, “hundreds” of citizens attended an open house meeting to voice their opposition to the interchange, which would eliminate a major bottleneck along the clogged commercial corridor, which also serves as a U.S. highway. (See WVIR’s coverage from last week.)

The most steadfast opposition comes from businesses located near the proposed interchange, whose access to major thoroughfares would be diminished by the new configuration of the Rio Road/U.S. 29 intersection. The businesses have been joined by citizens who worry that construction will cause detours and other inconveniences.

Clearly, there are no perfect, painless solutions. The concerns of those who will be negatively impacted by the project are legitimate. The question is whether those concerns should outweigh the general good stemming from the proposed package of improvements. U.S. 29 is, after all, a U.S. highway, whose primary function is to provide connectivity between cities, not to serve as a local main street.

From what I can glean from local media accounts, pieces of the $200 million corridor improvement package are uncontroversial — a $54 million extension of Berkmar Drive parallel to U.S. 29 and a $51 million widening of U.S. 29 between Hollymeade Town center and Polo Grounds Road. Both projects offer tangible benefits and should go forward.

Here’s the question: Could the $81 million allotted to the Rio Road interchange be invested usefully in other improvements? If so, would the economic return on investment — as measured by congestion mitigated and traffic accidents reduced — come close to the benefits of the Rio Road interchange? If so, perhaps the Virginia Department of Transportation should consider reallocating the funds to other projects. However, if the Rio Road project offers a demonstrably superior return on investment, then VDOT officials should not be dissuaded by the public opposition.

I don’t know the numbers, so I can’t make a judgment. But I do have faith in Philip Shucet, the former VDOT commissioner drafted by the McAuliffe administration to devise a reasonable solution to an intractable problem. If opponents want to make the case that the interchange shouldn’t be built, they should demonstrate how $81 million could be invested to greater effect elsewhere.

Update: Shucet responded to my suggestion that the Rio Road interchange could be hived off from the other improvements: “To make the Berkmar – Hillsdale parallel road network work, you have to grade-separate Rio.  It would be irresponsible to construct Berkmar and Hillsdale and somehow believe that it’s ok to wait and see how Rio fairs in the future. ”

The latest traffic numbers say 107,500 cars, a mix of local traffic and vehicles traveling through the region, will be traveling through the intersection by 2040. The grade-separated interchange (GSI) will allow the through traffic to pass through without conflicting with local traffic.

As for local business’ loss of roadway access, Shucet says, Albemarle Square will lose only one of four points of access, and Fashion Square only one of six. Furthermore, the construction plan limits disruption to 103 days.


McAuliffe Team Continues Transportation House Cleaning

mopping_floorby James A. Bacon

I’ve been out of town attending a conference so I wasn’t able to cover the Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB) meeting this month. But based on press coverage and press releases, it sounds like Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s transportation team is getting a good handle on things, correcting some of the more grievous policy decisions of the McDonnell administration. Hitting the highlights…

U.S. 460 probe. The state Inspector General’s Office has joined the Virginia Department of Transportation’s internal probe of the $1.4 billion U.S. 460 connector between Petersburg and Suffolk. The IG inquiry, which should be complete by the end of the month, will examine whether the state followed its own procurement rules, the Times-Dispatch reports. Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne temporarily pulled the plug when it was clear that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was not yet prepared to issue permits for construction. The state racked up hundreds of millions of dollars in potential liabilities on the 55-mile route which would disrupt nearly 500 acres of wetlands.

VDOT to invest in secondary road maintenance. The highway agency admitted yesterday that only an estimated 58% of the state’s secondary roads are rated in fair or better condition, down from 65.8% in 2010, reports the Times-Dispatch. “The secondaries are deteriorating,” said chief engineer Garrett W. Moore. In years past, the state had concentrated on bringing up to standard interstates and primary roads, which together carry 78% of the state’s lane-miles of traffic. Now VDOT will focus on secondary roads. “We’re making up for nearly 20 years of not doing a lot,” Layne said.

Bacon’s Rebellion noted those same numbers in a March article about a Smart Growth America (SGA) report on the national scourge of maintenance under-funding. SGA revealed that VDOT had spent more than two-thirds of its funds on new construction between 2009 and 2011 while neglecting maintenance, allowing road conditions generally to deteriorate. SGA based its findings on Federal Highway Administration data but used a different methodology than VDOT to calculate maintenance and construction spending.

Charlottesville Bypass coming to a close. I have received word by means of a Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) press release that the CTB allocated $230 million to fund an alternative to the proposed Charlottesville Bypass that created such a furor in Central Virginia. The project package will create improvements to the congested U.S. 29 corridor north of the city by extending parallel roads that offer alternatives for local traffic, enhancing traffic light synchronization, creating an overpass at the U.S. 29/Rio Road intersection and making other spot improvements. There is no perfect solution but this is the best one available. It will reduce travel time for everyone using the congestion zone: local travelers as well as freight trucks passing through.

Bull in a china shop. Finally, there is this tidbit tacked onto the end of one of today’s Times-Dispatch articles based on emails the T-D scooped up in a Freedom of Information Act request. The emails shed light on decision-making process in the McDonnell administration to ram through spending on the U.S. 460 project before all necessary permits were obtained.

Then-Secretary of Transportation Sean T. Connaughton urged in an email last July that VDOT get permission to hire an outside lawyer and mount a public campaign to demonstrate why a supplemental environmental impact statement “is not needed or appropriate.”

“The message must be that the (Corps of Engineers) is trying to destroy Southside Virginia along the existing 460 and destroy the environment,” Connaughton said in an email to then-Deputy Transportation Commissioner Charles Kilpatrick on July 13.

The secretary further ordered Kilpatrick to solicit the support of communities and their local and regional officials. “We need their aggressive, negative reaction to the (Corps’) desire to destroy the towns along the existing 460,” he wrote.

Finally, Connaughton sought meetings with U.S. Sens. Mark R. Warner and Timothy M. Kaine, both Democrats, and Rep. J. Randy Forbes, R-4th. “We must have them complaining to (the Corps regional office),” he said. “We need to move … quickly,” he concluded.

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VDOT Seeks New Solution to Charlottesville Congestion

Philip Shucet

Philip Shucet

by James A. Bacon

Effectively pulling the plug on the proposed Charlottesville Bypass, the McAuliffe administration has set up an advisory panel to recommend improvements to the U.S. 29 corridor north of Charlottesville. Lead by former Virginia Department of Transportation Commissioner Philip Shucet, the group must submit recommendations by May 14 — less than two months from now.

The Federal Highway Administration told VDOT in February that it would have to conduct a complete environmental assessment before receiving approval for the 6.5-mile bypass around the traffic-snarled highway north of Charlottesville, a process that could take a year or longer and offered no guarantees of approval. “We’ve studied this project for 20 years,” said Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne today in the March meeting of the Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB). “We have to have action taken.”

To move things quickly, Layne appointed a 10-member panel comprised of local government officials, planners and representatives from the business community up and down the U.S. 29 corridor to develop recommendations that (1) improve mobility in the corridor and (2) can be accomplished within the $197 million previously allocated to the bypass. (Additional sums could come from the sale of Right of Way purchased years ago.) The panel will come back to the CTB with a proposal that the board can vote up or down, Layne said.

When it comes to navigating highway department bureaucracy, Shucet knows the ropes. He was popular as highway commissioner during the Warner administration, and won renown in Hampton Roads for reining in runaway spending on the Tidewater Tide light rail project and completing the project on time. The panel will hold three meetings, Shucet said. The first meeting will define “success factors” for the project. The second will narrow down proposals to a manageable number for closer analysis. And the third will present a “solution package” that can be presented to the CTB.

Although Shucet made no reference to it, there is a “solution package” already on the books: Places 29. Generated after an extensive community-involvement process before the McDonnell administration revived the long-dormant bypass, Places29 envisioned a multi-pronged strategy for dealing with congestion: adding separated-grade interchanges at the two most congested intersections, building parallel roads to divert traffic from the highway and making spot improvements to choke points.

However, given the fact that the advisory board is heavily stacked with business interests and elected officials from outside the Charlottesville-Albemarle area, there is no guarantee that the group will agree to pursue Places29. For starters, following all the plan’s recommendations would cost considerably more than $200 million. Secondly, panelists from outside the region are less likely to prioritize local congestion relief at the expense of moving freight quickly through the congested zone. As Layne himself said, “I am determined to bring this conversation back to mobility, congestion and economic purpose.”

During the public comment period, two members of the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors expressed their approval of the new approach. “We’re committed as a board to helping you move forward to find a solution quickly,” said Brad Sheffield, a newly elected supervisor who ran in opposition to the bypass. “We’re on board with you.”

Cost overruns were a significant concern for the McAuliffe administration. VDOT staff had warned higher-ups that the problems could drive up project costs by as much as $200 million higher than preliminary cost estimates. Then-Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton tried to finesse the issue by structuring the bypass as a design-build project allowing for creative solutions from the private sector. The Skanska-Branch Joint Venture won the contract with a bid that came in within the $197 million allocated by the CTB but close examination later revealed issues with its new design that would significantly degrade safety and the time-savings of the bypass, which would cost tens of millions of dollars to fix.

“The road proposed was not meeting the needed purpose for the amount of expenditure,” Layne said. “We need to match the resources available to us to the need.”

Busy Day at the CTB

Many meaty stories from the Commonwealth Transportation Board meeting today. It will take me a long time to do them all justice, so, for the moment, I will settle for whetting your appetite with the highlights.

  • The Charlottesville Bypass is dead. It may not be buried — a few ritual oblations remains — but it is lying in the coroner’s office. The McAuliffe administration has tasked a Rt. 29 Advisory Panel, headed by former highway commissioner Philip Shucet, to develop recommendations for improving mobility through the U.S. 29 corridor in the Charlottesville area that fits the state’s current budget parameters. The group will examine a wide variety of options. However, Shucet said, “The bypass is not something we would consider.”
  • Can we get that $300 million back? Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne announced earlier this week that he has suspended spending on the U.S. 460 Connector on the grounds that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has warned that it may not grant a critical environmental permit. He noted that the state had spent roughly $300 million so far, about $60 million for Virginia Department of Transportation oversight, $100 million for environmental work by the contractor, US 460 Mobility, and another $140 million for the contractor’s “mobilization,” which includes opening and staffing offices in preparation for the work to begin. VDOT will consider alternative routes, including upgrades to the existing U.S. 460. Layne told Bacon’s Rebellion that he could not now say how much of that $300 million could be recovered. “If it’s a different alignment, we’ll have to negotiate with the contractor.”
  • VTrans is reappraising its forecast methodology. The Secretariat of Transportation, which oversees the VTrans long-range planning process for Virginia’s transportation needs, is implementing the biggest overhaul in its forecasting methodology seen in years. Past forecasts of future transportation demand largely extrapolated from previous trends. But Deputy Transportation Secretary Nick Donohue told the CTB that past projections overshot actual demand by a wide margin. This time around, he said, planners would take into account indicators of changing demand such as Americans’ increasing preference for walkable communities, the declining interest of teenagers in acquiring a driver’s license, and the surge in multifamily housing construction.
  • Expand the Washington Metro… or build an extra 110 lane-miles of highway? The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority wants Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C., to kick in an extra $6.1 billion to fund its aggressive Metro 2025 capital improvement program, requiring annual average contribution in $190 million a year more from each state by 2021. Expanding the number of cars per train to eight, WMATA Richard Sarles told the CTB, would increase people-moving capacity in the region by the equivalent of adding two lanes to Interstate 66 or building 110 lane-miles of highway.


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.


GOP Road Kill

Rodney Thomas

Rodney Thomas

Among the more interesting election results from Wednesday, Democrats trounced three Republican candidates for Albemarle County Board of Supervisors. The county split close to even in the gubernatorial and lieutenant governor’s races, indicating that the Democrats sweeping to power in the board of supervisors rode were not riding on Terry McAuliffe’s coattails.

The vote was a referendum on the Charlottesville Bypass. Incumbents Rodney Thomas and Duane Snow, who played key roles in resurrecting the bypass  two years ago, were thumped by 13 and 14 percentage-point margins respectively. A third Republican candidate, Cindi Burket, got hammered by nearly 16 percentage points.

Duane Snow

Duane Snow

Such is the price that Albemarle Republicans paid for their fealty to Governor Bob McDonnell. Early in their terms, Thomas and Snow had signed on to the Places 29 plan, which would have made spot improvements on the U.S. 29 corridor north of Charlottesville rather than bypassing it. But Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton persuaded both men to vote with two others in rescinding the board’s opposition to the project. McDonnell and Connaughton rammed through the bypass, funded with transportation dollars allocated for Charlottesville-area improvements, to benefit downstate communities of Danville and Lynchburg who believed in defiance of all reason that the $240 million highway would add to their economic competitiveness.

The McDonnell administration continued pushing the bypass even when it emerged that the cost estimates were way too low. Rather than reconsider the project, Connaughton issued a design-build contract that kept the project within budget by making design changes to the northern and southern termini. Subsequent analysis showed, however, that the proposed changes significantly degraded the travel-time savings of using the bypass, negating much of the purpose of building it in the first place.

Throughout the controversy, Thomas and Snow doggedly defended McDonnell’s folly. In January, they will be gone. Now that Democrats have a majority on the board, one of the first orders of business, no doubt, will be to re-assert its opposition to the project. Such a vote surely will weigh in the long-delayed decision of the Federal Highway Administration whether or not to give the bypass the regulatory go-ahead.

Should the FHWA demur on the project, Bob McDonnell will have lost both the bypass and Albemarle Republicans their control of the board.

Contrast the fate of Thomas and Snow to that of Del. Tim Hugo, R-Centerville, and Del. Bob Marshal, R-Manassas, who sailed to re-election in Northern Virginia. While Northern Virginia went blue in the statewide elections, both men held onto their seats, Hugo quite comfortably. Both opposed the governor’s plans for the controversial Bi-County Parkway.


The Road to Wealth Destruction Revisited

A Google's-eye view of houses in the vicinity of the proposed Charlottesville Bypass.

A Google’s-eye view of houses near the route of the proposed Charlottesville Bypass.

There’s an interesting new wrinkle in the never-ending debate over the Charlottesville Bypass, a project that has been stalled for a year or more while the Federal Highway Administration figures out whether to approve the project or send the Virginia Department of Transportation back to the drawing board, effectively nixing it.

A real estate agent by the name of Bill Tucker wrote a letter in C-Ville Weekly that has bypass foes all abuzz  — as well it should, for it raises important points not yet considered in a debate that has seemingly covered every conceivable angle. Here’s how he started the letter:

I am a real estate attorney with over 40 years experience in the Charlottesville-Albemarle marketplace. In the past two years, numerous real estate agents have told me about the decreased property values and loss of sales in the seven neighborhoods affected by the proposed Western Bypass.. … Unfortunately, many Realtors are reluctant to go public for fear of creating further panic in these already affected neighborhoods. Realtors say that houses in these neighborhoods along the proposed Bypass route are losing value and losing it fast.

Currently, I am representing two sellers that are being held hostage by the proposed Bypass and are marketing their homes at significantly discounted prices. I have spent the last five years dealing with numerous distressed properties (short sales and foreclosures), which have already decreased property values throughout our area. Now that we are beginning to see some relief and stabilization from the economic downturn, we are saddled with the negative effect that even the mention of the Bypass is producing in property values.

In all the discussion over the $300 million highway called the Western Bypass—though it does not bypass our growing community—no one has really connected the loss of housing value with a high-speed, 6.2-mile supposed cut-through. As my experience illustrates, we’re losing time, money, and opportunity due to the desire of a handful to force the rest of us to pay a huge amount of money for a highway that doesn’t accomplish its intended goals. Area Realtors appear to be hesitant to bring buyers into the seven affected neighborhoods. These Realtors fear that once the highway is built, their buyers might blame them when their houses are worth even less.

As I have argued in the blog on many an occasion, road and highway projects can create economic value and they can destroy economic value (as measured by the rise and fall of real estate property values). Indeed, landowners looking to enjoy a windfall gain often are the political prime movers behind projects — you need look no further than the Bi-County Parkway in Loudoun and Prince William counties for an example. But the Charlottesville Bypass is remarkable in that it has no such prime movers. I have heard speculation that the project might have a mildly positive impact on commercial property values around the northern terminus, but such an impact, if it exists, does not seem to be stirring anyone to action. The effect on the Bypass upon property values appears to be overwhelmingly negative.

Using Tucker’s numbers, let’s assume that 1,500 homes lose an average of $30,000 each (pick a higher or lower number that suits you) in property value as a result of the bypass cutting through their neighborhoods. That would represent a collective loss of $45 million in property values. That’s only a fraction of the $240-$300 million cost to build the project, but it should be included in any cost-benefit analysis.

When the Return on Investment of the project based on travel-time and traffic-accidents saved is vanishingly small  — I guesstimated an ROI of 3.3% in “The Road to Wealth Destruction” nearly two years ago — the destruction of tens of millions of dollars worth of real estate property values could push the net value of the project into negative territory.


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.

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.