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Uncertainty remains over public process for bypass action
by Charlottesville Tomorrow | Tuesday, June 21, 2011 at 11:01 p.m.

DailyProgress By Sean Tubbs
Charlottesville Tomorrow
Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The chairman of the Metropolitan Planning Organization said Tuesday that he expects to hold two public hearings on the Western Bypass , but did not rule out the possibility of taking some action at the first of the two hearings.

20110126-thomas
Rodney Thomas at the January 2011 meeting of the MPO

A decision on July 14 could put the decades-old bypass of U.S. 29 in line to receive funding from the Commonwealth Transportation Board by the end of next month.

“I want the public hearing, and people to be heard that want to talk,” Albemarle County Supervisor Rodney S. Thomas said in an interview.

Late in a meeting on June 8, the Albemarle Board of Supervisors voted 4-2 to direct its two MPO representatives to remove language from the local transportation improvement program opposing the bypass. The unannounced vote reversed an almost 15-year-old policy position of county opposition to the bypass.

“The action, the way I understand it, is to change the language,” said Thomas, chairman of the MPO. “It gets the whole machine in gear.”

The Virginia Department of Transportation’s regional administrator and the director of the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission recently have disagreed on the number of public hearings that will be required before the MPO takes a vote on removing the language and a second vote to amend the MPO’s long-range transportation plan.

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James S. Utterback at the January 2011 meeting of the MPO

“A single public hearing, to be held on July 14, 2011, is all that will be required for the [MPO Policy] Board to decide if they want to add this project to the plans,” wrote James S. Utterback last Friday in an email to the TJPDC’s executive director, Stephen W. Williams.

Utterback is administrator of VDOT’s Culpeper district and a voting member of the MPO.

In emails obtained by Charlottesville Tomorrow, Williams informed Utterback his preference is to proceed with two public hearings.

“I hope you understand it is my responsibility as MPO executive director to protect the MPO’s interests,” Williams wrote in response.

Both the long-range plan and the TIP must be changed before federal funding can be allocated to the project, which is estimated to cost between $250 million and $300 million.

The MPO’s long-range transportation plan is being updated as part of the Livable Communities project being managed by the TJPDC. That work is expected to be completed by the spring of 2014.

Federal law also requires that the long-range plan be “constrained,” which means it can only include projects that have a reasonable chance of being funded within the timeline of the plan.

20110608-steve-williams
Stephen Williams at the June 8, 2011 meeting of the Albemarle Board of Supervisors

“Our interpretation is that before the MPO is able to take the vote on the long-range transportation plan and TIP amendments on July 27, we must have evidence from VDOT that provides a reasonable assurance of project funding,” Williams said in an interview.

Last week, the CTB adopted a six-year improvement program that does not include any additional funding for the Western Bypass.

Its next meeting is July 20, and if two public hearings are held on the bypass, it would delay the CTB’s anticipated action.

Williams said he believes that both planning documents need to be updated, not amended, because of the scope of the Western Bypass. He has requested that the board proceed with updates, which would allow for public hearings on July 14 and July 27, per MPO policy guidelines, with action to be taken at the latter meeting.

Utterback said he thought a public hearing and action could be taken together on July 14 if the matter is handled as an amendment rather than as an update. With Charlottesville City Council’s decision Monday to not endorse the bypass if it is brought up for a vote at that specific meeting, Utterback holds the fifth and potentially deciding vote with Albemarle’s two votes in favor and Charlottesville’s likely two votes against.

“The decision to treat these additions as plan updates as opposed to amendments seems excessive in light of the fact that only one project is being added to the documents,” Utterback wrote.

Williams disagrees and told Utterback he is going to proceed as if the addition of the bypass is an update, though he would take input from MPO members until later this week before setting the next meeting agenda.

“In my opinion, there is ample justification for treating it as an update due to the fact that it is a very complex project with extensive impacts, and will represent a reversal of previous policy,” Williams wrote in a response.

Bypass-image
If you have downloaded Google Earth, you can use this overlay map compiled by Charlottesville Tomorrow to fly the bypass route detailed in VDOT's 2003 supplemental environmental impact statement

In an interview Monday, Utterback said he would accept Williams’ direction if it had the support of Supervisor Thomas.

“[Williams] is the director and if he and the chairman are on the same page, than it’s fine,” Utterback said.

Thomas said he did not anticipate taking action on the 14th, but he did not rule out the possibility.

“It seems to me that an action has to be made on the language [in the TIP] so the Commonwealth Transportation Board can meet on [July] 20th if they decide to put money [toward the bypass],” Thomas said.

Thomas also said he had not seen anything in writing yet from Connaughton detailing where the money for the project would come from.

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