Virginia’s new transportation secretary said Monday he wants to hear more from the public before taking a position on the fate of the Western Bypass of U.S. 29.
Shortly after being appointed by Gov. Terry McAuliffe last November, Secretary Aubrey Layne said he would review all of the state’s transportation projects, including the planned 6.2-mile four-lane highway through Albemarle County.
“My initial reviews have been completed [but] I am not in a position to make a recommendation to the Governor,” Layne said.
Earlier this month, Layne announced that work on a new U.S. 460 project in southeastern Virginia would be halted until the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers finishes its permitting process.
In 2012, the Corps determined that VDOT had not selected the alignment with the least environmental impact, a priority of former Gov. Bob McDonnell and then-Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton. Construction and design of that road proceeded anyway.
A spokesman for the Corps of Engineers said earlier this month that his agency is still concerned about the project’s impacts.
“The concerns raised have not been addressed to-date and therefore remain,” said Patrick Bloodgood of the Corps’ Norfolk District.
The Corps also expressed concerns about the local bypass project. In late 2012, a Corps official said it would be “prudent” for VDOT to re-evaluate the roadway, which will affect 2.8 acres of wetlands and 7,040 linear feet of streams.
Layne said the U.S. 29 project is different from the southeastern Virginia roadway because the contractors – Skanska USA and Branch Highways – do not have authorization to proceed with either new designs or construction despite having been awarded a contract in the summer of 2012.
VDOT is still seeking the Federal Highway Administration’s authorization for that work to proceed, and is tweaking the bypass’ environmental assessment in response to the administration’s questions. VDOT first released a draft assessment in August 2012, but is revising the document in response to public comment and the revelation that a cemetery in path of the bypass is historically significant.
There is no clear timetable for when VDOT will complete and publish the revised.
“VDOT continues to work with the Federal Highway Administration to address comments from [the highway administration] in response to the most recent submittals,” said Lou Hatter, spokesman for the agency’s Culpeper District.
Although VDOT has been sending portions of the revised environmental assessment to the highway administration for its review, the document is not yet public yet and will not be available until it is published on VDOT’s website.
Once the final environmental assessment is published, the public will have at least 15 calendar days to submit another round of comments.
However, the highway administration will likely not make a final determination quickly.
“Once the comment period is over, comments will be reviewed, summarized and addressed,” said Doug Hecox, a spokesman with the highway administration. “Once responses to comments are developed, additional coordination with our legal counsel will occur.”
After reviewing comments, the highway administration can issue a “finding of no significant impact” and allow the project to proceed or it a supplemental environmental impact statement.
However, no determination will be made until authorities determine what impacts the U.S. 29 Bypass will have on the Jesse Sammons family cemetery. Sammons was a prominent 19th century black educator who, with other family members, is buried on land that was his homestead.
“We are avoiding the Sammons Farmstead, which includes much more than just the cemetery,” Hecox said.
Documents obtained by Charlottesville Tomorrow last December indicated that VDOT may move the alignment slightly to the north to avoid the cemetery.
Albemarle’s new Board of Supervisors has scheduled a public hearing on the bypass in February.
Layne said he will wait until reviewing both sets of public comments. He said he also wants to hear from members of the Metropolitan Planning Organization, the local body of elected officials that must approve any project that receives federal funding.
The MPO voted 3-2 to revive the bypass project in July 2011, but the two county supervisors who moved the project forward were defeated in the November 2013 election. Their successors are not supporters of the project.
“I’ll be interested to see what the comments from the public are,” Layne said. “I’ve received quite a bit of information from residents both for and opposed to the bypass.”
Meanwhile, an investigation into the legality of advertisements purchased last fall by a group called the Bypass Truth Coalition is in the hands of the Albemarle County Commonwealth’s Attorney. Supervisor Kenneth C. Boyd filed a complaint with several agencies, including the State Board of Elections, that alleged the group violated state campaign finance laws.
“When the issue came up, we advised it was outside of [our] jurisdiction and would need to be handled by the Attorney for the Commonwealth,” said Chris Piper, manager of election services for the State Board of Elections.
Commonwealth’s Attorney Denise Lunsford is out of the office this week, and one of her colleagues could neither confirm nor deny that the office is handling the case.