Albemarle Supervisors vote 5-1 to withdraw support for bypass
On the eve of a major public hearing on the U.S. 29 Western Bypass, the Federal Highway Administration has weighed in with a request to reevaluate the project’s need and to consider potential alternatives to alleviate congestion on U.S. 29 in Albemarle County.
In combination with expected action by the Albemarle Board of Supervisors to withdraw its support, construction of the Western Bypass in the near future now appears very unlikely.
“Our legal counsel has advised us to reassess the purpose and need of the project in light of the changes in the Route 29 corridor that have occurred over the past 20 years to determine if it remains appropriate,” wrote Irene Rico, a division administrator with the FHWA, in a Feb. 18 letter to the Virginia Department of Transportation.
VDOT has been working with the FHWA on revisions to an environmental assessment required to see if previous federal approvals were still valid. The FHWA last issued an approval, known as a “record of decision,” in 2003.
At that time, the project was on hold due to opposition from the Charlottesville-Albemarle Metropolitan Planning Organization. The MPO blocked any funding for construction of the road.
That changed on June 8, 2011, when the Albemarle Board of Supervisors voted 4-2 to direct its representatives on the MPO to remove that restriction. The MPO approved the project in July after the Commonwealth Transportation Board signaled it would fund the road at a total cost of $244.5 million.
VDOT pursued a path of securing federal approvals while simultaneously seeking a firm to both produce a final design and build the 6.2 mile roadway. A joint venture of Skanska-USA and Branch Highways was awarded a $136 million contract in June 2012.
However, the FHWA informed VDOT that they would need to conduct an environmental assessment of the project before either final design or construction could begin. VDOT submitted a draft assessment in August 2012 and has been working with the FHWA to finalize the document ever since.
Rico’s letter indicates that the FHWA is not likely to issue a ‘finding of no significant impact’ and that a more detailed justification will be necessary to secure future approvals.
“Based on the EA analysis, our knowledge of the project, and FHWA’s involvement in it going back to the late-1980’s, it is expected that a reassessment of the purpose and need of will find that it is no longer adequate to support the investment in the corridor,” Rico wrote.
The official “purpose and need” of the project is to “improve efficiency and safety along the existing Route 29 corridor” according to VDOT’s website.
“The road will bypass 13 traffic signals along the Route 29 corridor, reducing the time for motorists traveling from north of Charlottesville to destinations along Route 29 south of Charlottesville,” VDOT’s statement continues.
However, Rico has now asked VDOT to consider alternatives that might perform that purpose more efficiently.
“The most appropriate tool for formally updating the purpose and need and reopening the consideration of alternatives would be a supplemental [environmental impact statement],” Rico continued.
Rico said this approach would allow VDOT and FHWA to “take a fresh look” at the U.S. 29. She also called for VDOT to “work closely with local representatives to gain their support of the transportation improvement moving forward.”
The letter was made public just hours before the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors was scheduled to hold a hearing on their position on the project.
At the beginning of the public hearing Wednesday, county executive Thomas L. Foley read the letter to supervisors and said he would be meeting with VDOT officials soon.
“The Secretary of Transportation has asked VDOT’s Commissioner to develop a plan to address the corridor’s needs in consultation with the local governments along the corridor,” said Lou Hatter, spokesman for VDOT’s Culpeper District.
Morgan Butler, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said the letter from the FHWA is significant.
“Not only does it validate what we've been saying all along--that federal law requires our decision-makers to consider alternatives to the bypass--it sends a strong signal that the bypass is an outdated proposal, and that it's time for VDOT and the County to get on with the better solutions to Route 29 traffic,” Butler said.
Neil Williamson, president of the pro-bypass Free Enterprise Forum, said the letter was not unexpected.
“We have continued to believe that the decision with regard to the Western Bypass is now based in Richmond and Washington rather than in Albemarle County,” Williamson said.
Update after public hearing
This story has been updated to reflect the discussion and action at the public hearing held by the Albemarle Supervisors.