Several residents of neighborhoods affected by the long-planned Western Bypass of U.S. 29 want Albemarle County supervisors to tell state transportation officials to sell the land acquired for the scuttled project.
“Since the Western Bypass is no longer considered a solution to the county’s traffic issues, it appears that [the state] does not have any need for these right-of-way properties any longer,” Sarasa Subromony, of the Roslyn Ridge neighborhood, told county supervisors.
Supervisors chose to await the state Commonwealth Transportation Board’s response following the presentation of a report next month by a 10-member panel exploring short-term options to ease congestion on the bustling section of U.S. 29 slicing through the region.
The Route 29 Advisory Panel was convened last month after the Federal Highway Administration froze plans to build the 6.2-mile, four-lane bypass.
The Virginia Department of Transportation began purchasing land for the road in the mid-1990s, eventually buying 87 of 122 parcels for a total $33.7 million.
Martha Wilhelm, who lives near the bypass route, said she wants VDOT to take the project out of its six-year improvement program so she and others can sell their properties.
“We have received a significant amount of feedback that potential buyers like our property, but the uncertainty about the road construction and its ultimate effect on the property was too much of a risk for buyers to take,” Wilhelm said.
Charlottesville Mayor Satyendra Huja suggested to fellow panelists last week that the right-of-way be considered as a transit-only road or a bike-way.
“A technical team is considering Mayor Huja’s suggestion along with all the other suggestions offered by the advisory panel,” said Lou Hatter, spokesman for VDOT’s Culpeper District.
However, Hatter said in an email, it is too early to tell if Huja’s idea will be among the scenarios advanced by the panel.
At the end of a meeting Wednesday, Supervisor Brad Sheffield asked the board whether it should direct Supervisor Jane Dittmar, the county’s panel representative, to bring up the issue at the advisory group’s April 10 session.
“My fear is that the CTB will continue to hold on to the right-of-way until after May 13,” Sheffield said. That’s the date the panel is scheduled to present its findings.
County Attorney Larry Davis advised the board to proceed cautiously.
“We need to be careful to let the CTB terminate the process,” Davis said.
A provision of state law requires the Culpeper District to pay back all of the money spent on the road to date if the project is canceled due to an action of local officials.
Sheffield said he thought Huja’s option would be too expensive and would not significantly address traffic concerns.
Dittmar said the technical team, composed of VDOT engineers and other analysts, will come back with rough cost estimates as well as a preliminary estimate of how much traffic congestion would be mitigated.
VDOT’s Hatter said the agency still has a $136 million design and construction contract with the joint team of Skanska USA and Branch Highways.
Under state law, VDOT cannot be compelled to sell the right-of-way if there is an active contract or an alternative transportation use for the land has been determined.
The Southern Environmental Law Center, a bypass foe, said it is time for VDOT to part with the land.
“With the bypass off the books, there’s no reason for taxpayers’ money to be tied up in the ownership of that land,” said center attorney Morgan Butler. “The property should be sold and the money used for projects that can actually be built and make an immediate improvement on Route 29.”