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Bypass opponents launch campaign to promote alternatives
by Sean Tubbs | Thursday, July 12, 2012 at 8 p.m.

Two organizations opposed to the Western Bypass of U.S. 29 in Albemarle County have produced a three-minute video to encourage citizens to consider alternatives to the 6.2-mile, four-lane highway.

“We put this video together to highlight better approaches to solving traffic problems on U.S. 29,” said Morgan Butler of the Southern Environmental Law Center on Thursday. “The community itself has developed an approach that is far less damaging than the bypass; it’s more cost-effective, and it provides benefits that the bypass simply does not.”
 
In June, the Commonwealth Transportation Board awarded a $136 million contract to design and build the bypass to a team consisting of Skanska-USA and Branch Highways. 
 
However, the Skanska-Branch team cannot begin work on the final design until after the Virginia Department of Transportation completes an environmental assessment. The last study, known as an environmental impact study, was concluded in 2003. 
 
The Federal Highway Administration is expected to determine in the fall if further scrutiny is required. The environmental groups hope the FHWA will make a decision that stops the bypass once again.
 
“If changes have been made to the proposed project — or new information has become available — since the original EIS that would lead to significant environmental impacts, a supplemental EIS may be warranted,” said Doug Hecox, a FHWA spokesman.
 
Butler said the community’s development of the Places29 Master Plan is one of those changed circumstances. In addition to other transportation improvements, the plan approved in 2011 eventually calls for grade-separated interchanges at Hydraulic Road and Rio Road, the extensions of Hillsdale Drive and Berkmar Drive and an additional off-ramp at the U.S. 29/250 Interchange. 
 
“We think the community’s development of this alternative over the past decade clearly qualifies as new information and changed circumstances that the federal government must study before they can make a final determination,” Butler said. 
 
As part of this campaign, the SELC and the Piedmont Environmental Council are seeking to rename six specific alternatives as “Go 29” to focus on the ones they believe will have the most effect on relieving congestion on the existing U.S. 29.
 
“At Hydraulic Road and 29, traffic backs up in all directions,” the narrator says in the video. “Build one efficient overpass and traffic on 29 flows without stops.” 
 
As those words are spoken, the viewer sees a 3-D model of a grade-separated interchange at Hydraulic and U.S. 29 that Butler said would have less impact on businesses at the intersection. 
 
In January 1995, the Charlottesville City Council voted against a plan to build a grade-separated interchange at Hydraulic and U.S. 29 after a public hearing. Many citizens and business owners argued the overpass would adversely affect city interests at the three corners of the intersection that are in the city. 
 
However, Butler said the community could accept a new design. 
 
“VDOT had put forward a very over-engineered interchange design back at that point and it frightened business owners and citizens around that area,” Butler said. “That intersection has now been revisited, and it’s shown you can do a much more compact design there.” 
 
One supporter of the bypass is dismissing the video.
 
“There’s nothing like a high-end cartoon to oversimplify a complex matter than includes economic disruption like this community has never seen,” said Neil Williamson of the Free Enterprise Forum. “The construction of overpasses will displace jobs and create an urban expressway that will kill the economic engine that is U.S. 29.” 
 
Several of the projects called for by the SELC and the PEC are in the planning stages. The Commonwealth Transportation Board is expected to fund fully the extension of Hillsdale Drive at its meeting Wednesday. VDOT held an information session last month on the so-called “Best Buy Ramp.” Skanska-Branch is required to come up with three conceptual alternatives for Berkmar Extended as part of its final design. 
 
However, Butler said he is skeptical those projects will come to fruition if the bypass is built. 
 
“You’ll notice the bypass is on VDOT’s fast track, whereas the other projects are not,” Butler said. 
 
He added that the bypass would likely prevent the extension of Berkmar.
 
“One of the commitments is that the design for the bypass wouldn’t preclude the construction of Berkmar Drive Extended, but that’s not taking into account cost feasibility,” Butler said. “If you build the bypass with its off ramps, you’re going to have to build Berkmar up over those, or under those, which will add significantly to the cost.” 
 
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