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End of the road: State officials to consider Western Bypass termination
by Sean Tubbs | Tuesday, July 15, 2014 at 10:17 p.m.

The Western Bypass of U.S. 29 could near the official end of the road today, all but formally halting more than 25 years of planning and debate on the highway never built.

At its monthly meeting in Richmond, the Commonwealth Transportation Board will consider a resolution to rescind all previous approvals for the 6.2-mile road. Those date to a November 1990 motion to select an alignment from several alternatives.

“This is the next step that one would expect would be taken by the CTB,” said Dennis Rooker, a former Albemarle County supervisor and longtime bypass foe.

Approval would clear the way for land the Virginia Department of Transportation purchased for the project to be sold back to its original owners without any additional action from the board.

“By law, it will then be the commissioner of highways who determines what right-of-way is no longer needed for transportation purposes and that can be disposed of in accordance with statutes and policies,” said Lou Hatter, spokesman for VDOT’s Culpeper District.

The vote to remove the bypass from Virginia’s highway system comes three years after the board allocated $197 million to the project, a key transportation priority for former Gov. Bob McDonnell.

For years, construction funding for the project had been blocked by the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors. Both Charlottesville and county officials on the Metropolitan Planning Organization argued the road was unnecessary and that traffic congestion could be more effectively eased by building overpasses for local roads to cross U.S. 29 at key intersections.

A late-night vote in June 2011 to overturn Albemarle’s official opposition paved the way for the resurrection of the bypass that summer. The following June, the board awarded a $136 million contract for the firms Skanska USA and Branch Highways to both design and construct the road.

However, VDOT’s quest to secure environmental approval from the federal government stalled last year when local historians protested an archaeological report by the state roads agency that claimed a cemetery off Lambs Road was not historically significant.

The Sammons Cemetery and Family Homestead later was declared eligible to be included on the National Register of Historic Places, which likely would have meant an alteration of the bypass route to avoid the cemetery’s destruction.

In February, the Federal Highway Administration wrote a letter to VDOT that drastically reduced the chances of the road being built.

In the spring, Gov. Terry McAuliffe convened a panel led by former VDOT Commissioner Philip A. Shucet to suggest alternatives. These included building parallel roads and widening U.S. 29 from Polo Grounds Road to Hollymead Town Center. The $230 million package of projects also includes $81 million for an interchange at Rio Road and U.S. 29.

Last week, Shucet told a U.S. 29 panel there will be a lesser degree of environmental review for the interchange.

“[The Rio Road interchange] project does not require an environmental impact statement, it doesn’t require an environmental assessment, [and] it can be done with what’s called a categorical exclusion because it is within the existing right-of-way,” he said.

Shucet said McAuliffe expects the Rio Road project to be completed by summer 2017.

VDOT acquired 87 of 122 parcels in the bypass right-of-way at a cost of $33.7 million. When the agency begins to sell back the land, state law requires it to first offer the properties to the original owners at the original purchase price.

Though the board will withdraw its support for the Western Bypass, technically, it will be alive as long as it exists in VDOT’s six-year improvement program and the Charlottesville-Albemarle Metropolitan Planning Organization’s long-range transportation plan.

“The Route 29 bypass will remain in both documents in order to allow for VDOT and FHWA to determine the resolution process for the project’s conclusion,” said Sarah Rhodes, transportation manager for the MPO.

That also will involve terminating the contract between VDOT and the Skanska-Branch team.

Hatter said Skanska-Branch has suspended all work on the project, but will be paid for all preliminary engineering conducted to date.


UPDATE at 4:05 pm on Wednesday, July 17 -- The Commonwealth Transportation Board voted unanimously to remove the bypass from the state highway system. There was no discussion before the vote. 

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