RICHMOND — The Commonwealth Transportation Board has officially awarded a $135 million contract to the team of Skanska/Branch Highways to design and build the 6.2-mile Western Bypass of U.S. 29 in Albemarle County.
“The Skanska-Branch joint venture combines the skills, experience and capabilities of two companies with over 120 years of combined experience supporting the motoring public of Virginia,” said Stephen Davis, assistant secretary of Skanska USA, in a letter accompanying the team’s proposal.
The contract was awarded despite several efforts by the Virginia Department of Transportation’s Culpeper District CTB representative to convince his colleagues to stop or delay the project.
“You have all heard today about the very severe [transportation] problems and needs we have in the commonwealth,” said James Rich. “We can’t afford to look the taxpayers of Virginia in the face and throw money on a road to nowhere.”
Rich’s comments came after opponents of the road pleaded with the CTB not to award the contract. One concern is that the $244.5 million road would have a northern terminus that ends in the middle of Albemarle’s growth area.
Lynchburg’s representative on the CTB said it was time to move forward with the contract.
“This is the plan, this is as good as we got, [and] this is as good as it’s going to get,” said Mark Peake. “This is far from being a road to nowhere. This is a road from North Carolina to Washington, D.C.”
Peake said the bypass would improve U.S. 29 as a corridor of statewide significance, allowing for economic development opportunities southern Virginia. He said it was time for state interests to prevail over local opposition.
Rich argued that projects called for in Albemarle’s Places29 master plan would be a more cost-effective way to improve traffic flow on U.S. 29.
“According to the engineers, [Hillsdale Drive Extended] could take 12,000 vehicles a day off of U.S. 29,” Rich said. Hillsdale Drive Extended was to have received construction funding as part of a condition for local support for the bypass.
The Six Year Transportation Plan approved by the CTB Wednesday did not include that additional funding, but officials said that would be corrected when the board next meets in July.
Hillsdale’s official cost estimate in the draft plan was listed at $29.9 million, but that figure was revised downward to take into account that much of the right-of-way for the road is expected to be donated.
“By mistake, we continued to fully fund the preliminary engineering and right-of-way, but we did not take the excess money that we had and put it towards construction,” said VDOT Commissioner Gregory T. Whirley. “We have enough to fully fund construction because of the savings in the right of way.”
Another opponent of the road said the project would continue to rise in cost as more items are added to it.
“The design-build contract apparently excluded provisions for landscaping,” said Leighton Powell of the group Scenic Virginia. “It seems to us that a contract that does not include landscaping does not serve the Commonwealth.”
Whirley said landscaping would be added to the project after public meetings are held.
“I know we have something around $1.2 million for that,” Whirley said. “So that will take place.”
Rich also asked to defer the award of the contract until after the Federal Highway Administration determines whether VDOT has completed the necessary environmental review of the project.
“We don’t know what additional requirements the FHWA or some other agency [will require],” Rich said. “There’s no need to rush ahead with this… There’s no reason we couldn’t come back when the environmental documents are complete.”
VDOT will submit a draft environmental assessment to the FHWA later this month and a citizen information meeting will be held in September.
“If there is a need, we would have a revised environmental assessment submitted to FHWA in October, and then FHWA will give us their decision at that point,” Whirley said.
If the FHWA determines no further environmental review is necessary, Skanska-Branch will be permitted to finalize design and begin additional purchasing right-of-way.
The other members of the CTB were satisfied that VDOT is overseeing the project correctly.
“We’re following what the feds and our process would normally have us do,” said Aubrey Layne, the Hampton Roads representative to the CTB.
Even after the contract was awarded, Rich continued to press his opposition.
“This is a political project that is mainly to satisfy the folks in the Lynchburg District,” Rich said.
Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton disagreed.
“As someone who has lived in the commonwealth for 30 years and has been going down to Charlottesville to see relatives there, I’ve seen progressively how traffic has gotten worse and worse and worse,” Connaughton said. “It’s been politics that has kept it from moving forward.”
While he did not refer to him by name, Connaughton said the reelection of bypass supporter Kenneth C. Boyd to the Albemarle Board of Supervisors last November is a sign that the road is not completely opposed by Albemarle residents.
“This is one of the biggest investments we’ve made in [the Culpeper District] for a long time,” Connaughton said. “It’s not the perfect solution, but it will be a partial solution to a major problem faced in the Charlottesville area.”