Opponents of the Meadow Creek Parkway had their day in federal court Wednesday to argue that the Federal Highway Administration unlawfully split the road into three segments in order to avoid full federal scrutiny of the project.
“What the FHWA has done here is exactly what they can’t do,” said James B. Dougherty, an attorney for the Coalition to Preserve McIntire Park .
In October 2010, the FHWA issued a “finding of no significant impact,” allowing the Virginia Department of Transportation to build a grade-separated interchange to connect the U.S. 250 Bypass with the Meadow Creek Parkway, known in the city as McIntire Road Extended .
On Wednesday, Dougherty argued before Judge Norman K. Moon in U.S. Western District Court that the FHWA violated the National Environmental Protection Act by not conducting a full environmental impact statement that took into account all of McIntire Park.
Instead, the FHWA conducted a less-restrictive environmental assessment that only considered the section of the park affected by the interchange.
Sharon Vaughn-Fair, assistant chief counsel for the Federal Highway Administration, argued that the “FONSI” was issued because there was no other feasible alternative to the interchange. She said the structure was necessary to overcome operational deficiencies at the existing interchange in order to make it safer for pedestrians and cyclists.
“Alternative G-1 is prudent and meets all the purposes and needs of the project,” Vaughn-Fair said. “We are not required to do an environmental impact statement.”
However, Dougherty argued that the plans reviewed in the environmental assessment violated the law because of the presence of a 775-foot stub extending northwards from what is currently a T-shaped intersection. He said the purpose of this stub would only be to speed traffic onto a road that goes through the heart of McIntire Park.
“If this project were what it was held up to be, an intersection improvement, we concede that only an environmental assessment would be necessary,” Dougherty said. “But the northern stub is key. That satisfies their dreams of building a road through the park.”
Dougherty said the entire parkway was considered one project until the 1980s, when the U.S. Department of Interior objected to the road because of its impacts to McIntire Park. He alleged the FHWA deliberately moved all federal funding to the interchange project to avoid the need to comply with NEPA and Section 4(f) of the 1966 Department of Transportation Act.
Vaughn-Fair acknowledged that the entire parkway was one project in the 1980s, but that has changed because of shifting politics and funding mechanisms.
“This is not unusual for infrastructure projects across the country,” Vaughn-Fair responded.
Vaughn-Fair said because no federal funds are being used to build McIntire Road Extended, it did not have go through the Section 4(f) process. She added that the FHWA is only funding the project because VDOT asked it to, and that there is local support.
“It is important to note that Charlottesville asked for this project,” Vaughn-Fair said. Funding for the project was secured in 2005 by a $25 million earmark from then-Sen. John Warner. That was followed by an additional $2 million a few years later.
Vaughn-Fair said the FHWA was not deliberately seeking to build a road through a park, but that was the only feasible alternative.
“If we have to do it, there is a statute in place that tells us how to do it,” Vaughn-Fair said.
Vaughn-Fair said a Section 4(f) analysis was conducted in the section of the park affected by the interchange to identify cultural and natural resources that would be affected.
As a result of that process, the interchange was determined to have a minimal impact on the Charlottesville-Albemarle Courthouse Historic District and the Covenant School , as well as more significant impacts on the Rock Hill landscape, McIntire Park, and the skate park.
“We have done the adequate mitigation for these impacts,” Vaughn-Fair said. The skate park will be relocated and new trails will be built in the park. The city will build a rock wall to replace one that will be demolished at the Rock Hill landscape.
In conclusion, Vaughn-Fair said NEPA requires a thoughtful decision, but does not guarantee a particular outcome. The FHWA issued a FONSI after taking a “requisite hard look” at the project and its impacts.
The judge asked if the interchange would be built if McIntire Road Extended is never completed. Vaughn-Fair responded that it would be because the interchange is in the Metropolitan Policy Board’s long-range transportation plan as a separate project from the rest of the parkway.
“Even if McIntire Road Extended is not built, we can build it to ensure traffic flows,” Vaughn-Fair said.
But Moon said that there was no need to build the northern section of the interchange in order to solely accomplish that purpose. Vaughn-Fair insisted the interchange could go forward independently.
“We are proposing to build an interchange, not a highway,” Vaughn-Fair said. “It will connect to McIntire Road Extended, but even if [that] is not built, there is an existing roadway.”
Judge Moon said he would take both sides into consideration and would issue a ruling within a few weeks.