By Sean Tubbs
Thursday, June 16, 2011
RICHMOND — The Commonwealth Transportation Board adopted an $8.3 billion six-year improvement program for highway construction Wednesday, but no additional funding was allocated for the proposed Western Bypass of U.S. 29.
“It is not in the [state] six year plan because it has not been included for construction in the region’s transportation improvement plan,” said Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton.
The Metropolitan Planning Organization will vote in early summer on a TIP amendment to remove language that blocks the state from moving forward with the Western Bypass.
Earlier this month, the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors voted 4-2 to support that policy change .
“Once they do that, we will bring it back to the CTB and request that they amend the plan,” Connaughton added. He said funding for the project would come from reallocating money from other projects, but did not specify which ones.
James Rich , the area’s representative on the CTB, said he wants to know where the funding for the project would come from. He estimated it would cost between $250 million and $300 million, a large sum that would require large transfers from other projects.
“We allocated everything today [for] six years out,” Rich said. “It’s a zero-sum game and it’s going to have to come from somewhere. We don’t have the power of the federal government of printing money.”
The CTB also accepted a report on the U.S. 29 corridor that has been delayed for several months.
The study prioritized intersections along the way that could be replaced with grade-separated interchanges as traffic increases. It also recommends that meetings be held between Albemarle County and Charlottesville elected officials to create a master plan for the corridor.
“It’s really to start back at a beginning in which people and jurisdictions can state their interests in what’s going to happen,” said J. Douglas Koelemay, Northern Virginia’s representative on the CTB and chair of a subcommittee that produced the report.
Koelemay said U.S. 29 is a corridor of statewide significance that the commonwealth depends upon as a north-south arterial highway. He said the development of a corridor master plan would help protect U.S. 29 as a transportation resource.
“It doesn’t mean that we tell the localities what to do, it just means that once we as a group determine what the plan is, we incorporate it into our decisions and localities incorporate it into theirs,” Koelemay said.
Cord Sterling, representative from the Fredericksburg District, questioned this approach.
“It sounds good philosophically and on paper, but that means one locality can hold others hostage [if] they won’t incorporate [a project] unless it is exactly how the way they want it,” Sterling said.
Dawn Best, legislative affairs committee chair for the Lynchburg Regional Chamber of Commerce, urged the CTB to support the bypass when and if it comes before them.
“The U.S. 29 route in Virginia is a regional lifeline for several cities and an essential north-south artery for the commonwealth,” Best said.
“There are powerful special interests in Charlottesville that have scuttled this important project for many, many years.”
Trip Pollard, director of the Southern Environmental Law Center’s land and community program, objected to being described as a “special interest.”
“Obviously it’s a very controversial project,” Pollard said. “We have opposed it for a number of years because we think it is a wasteful and destructive project, and not because we’re a special interest. We think there are cheaper and better solutions.”
Rich said he thinks the vision for the corridor through Charlottesville and Albemarle County was to fund and build projects identified in the Places29 Master Plan such as the construction of Hillsdale Drive extended , a new ramp at the U.S. 29/250 interchange and Berkmar Drive Extended .
The Western Bypass was not part of the plan.
“I thought we were making such great progress on the projects that are doable,” Rich said.
Connaughton said work would soon get under way to resume purchase of right of way for the route and to continue the design.
He said he hopes to get the project advertised for construction before the end of the year because right-of-way purchase and preliminary design are underway.