An internal Virginia Department of Transportation document has revealed that the nine firms developing proposals to design and build the Western Bypass of U.S. 29 in Albemarle County still have many unanswered questions about the project.

 

The document, which was obtained by Charlottesville Tomorrow, is a response to 220 questions asked by firms seeking more details in order to craft their bids. For example, firms want additional traffic data, noise analyses and information on bridge designs.

VDOT is referring companies to a supplemental information package available on its website, but also issues a warning 15 times in the 33-page document.

“The Department does not represent or warrant that the information contained in the supplemental information package is reliable or accurate or suitable for designing this project,” reads the document.

Bypass critics claim the document raises more questions about the suitability of the whole project.

“Our viewpoint is that VDOT is giving short shrift to these many concerns from bidders and they’re not thinking through some key issues,” said Morgan Butler, of the Southern Environmental Law Center.

The questions, which are not specifically identified with any of the nine bidders, reveal that at least some of the contractors are aware of the controversial nature of the bypass.

“We believe that traffic volumes will be one of the most scrutinized aspects of this project,” reads one question that asks for additional information on known traffic conditions.

VDOT responds by pointing out that the winning bidder will have to produce a traffic study showing its design can maintain a level of service of “C” in the design year of 2036. That means traffic must be continuous and free-flowing both on the 6.2-mile roadway and its two interchanges.

The document reveals there are many gaps between data collected by VDOT to date and that which will be needed to develop a final design.

“Will VDOT identify all areas in which noise abatement will be required?” reads a portion of question No. 33.

“VDOT’s preliminary noise study will not identify all areas in which noise abatement will be required,” reads the response.

The document then clarifies that the winning bidder will be responsible for conducting a noise study as part of the final design.

“From many of the answers, it is clear VDOT is just not showing an effort to think through a lot of these important issues that have been raised,” Butler said.

VDOT did not respond to a request for comment.

The bypass project is currently under environmental review by the Federal Highway Administration to ensure compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act. The FHWA gave its last approval to the project in 2003 and the current assessment is being conducted to make sure it is still valid.

One question asked who would be responsible for designing and paying for any environmental mitigations that might be required as part of the FHWA review.

“The NEPA decision scheduled for late 2012 may contain additional commitments that will require implementation by the design builder,” reads the response from VDOT.

In several questions, contractors point out that purchasing more right-of-way might be necessary in order to comply with stormwater regulations because the regulations have become more stringent since the last environmental review was conducted in 2003.

However, VDOT insists that is not an option.

“The design-builder shall be responsible for addressing the stormwater management requirements in accordance with all applicable current specifications within the current environmental footprint established for this project so that the NEPA documentation is unaffected,” reads the response to question No. 126.

Butler said if VDOT expands the project, it would increase the likelihood the Federal Highway Administration would call for a deeper environmental review of the project.

One question asked for more time to ask more questions, but VDOT responded that no additional time for questions would be allowed “in order to meet the procurement schedule.”

VDOT will open proposals in early May and the Commonwealth Transportation Board will award a contract to the lowest bid that meets the requirements of the RFP. The FHWA is expected to complete its review by the end of October.

The document specifies that any changes required as a result of the current NEPA review will be handled through work orders to the RFP.

VDOT also states that the winning bidder will be required to obtain any further environmental permits beyond the NEPA process. For example, the winning bidder will need to demonstrate to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that wetlands near the South Fork Rivanna Reservoir will not be impacted.

The design-builder will also be responsible for confirming with the Virginia State Historic Preservation Office to ensure that its plans avoid certain sites that have been previously identified as having cultural resources.

VDOT is offering to pay each team $100,000 for producing a qualified proposal. Some of the companies are not satisfied with that price.

“Would VDOT consider increasing the proposal payment to $200,000 given the complexity of the project?” reads question No. 177.

VDOT denied the request.

VDOT will make further clarifications in a second amendment to the RFP that spokesman Lou Hatter said would be issued by the end of the month.