By Sean Tubbs
Wednesday, July 27, 2011
The Charlottesville-Albemarle Metropolitan Planning Organization has paved the way for construction of the Western Bypass of U.S. 29 through Albemarle County.
The MPO policy board voted three-to-two Wednesday night to remove language that blocked money from being allocated to construction of the project.
“There comes a point where you’ve listened and it’s time to move forward,” said Albemarle Supervisor Duane E. Snow.
Snow voted with fellow Supervisor Rodney L. Thomas to approve the funding. They were joined by Jim Utterback, the administrator of VDOT’s Culpeper District.
City Councilors Kristin Szakos and Satyendra Huja voted against the motion to approve funding, which came after more than 100 people spoke at the second public hearing on the topic.
Roughly two-thirds of the speakers argued that the MPO should not remove language from its transportation improvement program that prevents further funding for the project.
The vote for approval came after the city’s two officials pleaded with the board to defer the vote until August. A motion made by Szakos was defeated on a two-to-three vote.
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Download the July 27, 2011 letter
from Sean Connaughton, Secretary of Transportation
Earlier this month, the Commonwealth Transportation Board approved $197 million in funding for the 6.2-mile-long bypass, as well as a $32.5 million project to widen U.S. 29 to six lanes between Polo Grounds Road and Timberwood Boulevard.
The latter project is called for in Albemarle County’s Places29 Master Plan.
After the MPO’s first public hearing on July 14, Snow and Thomas said they would not vote for the bypass unless they received guarantees that the CTB also would fund other priorities identified in Places29.
In a letter made available shortly before the public hearing
, Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton addressed four projects identified in a letter to him by the MPO.
He specifically recommended that the CTB allocate in June 2012 the $10 million in funding to construct Hillsdale Drive Extended and $8.4 million to advance construction of the Belmont Bridge replacement.
Connaughton promised no funding for Berkmar Drive Extended, however, offering only to prepare a design concept.
“I am directing VDOT as part of the Route 29 Bypass design to include the conceptual design and layouts of Berkmar Drive Extended including the river crossing to ensure the Bypass does not preclude the construction of Berkmar Drive Extended,” Connaughton wrote.
Connaughton also said he expects the city to retain its investment in a project to add a second lane on the westbound on-ramp at the intersection of southbound U.S. 29 and the U.S. 250 Bypass. VDOT will still take over administration of the project, as has been previously reported.
After the public hearing, the letter was read to the dozens of people who were still in attendance.
Szakos said Connaughton’s letter did not specify when the funding would actually be allocated to the project.
“It’s a very vague phrasing that doesn’t commit to anything,” Szakos said.
Thomas pointed out that the secretary doesn’t have the power to make decisions for the CTB.
Snow said the letter satisfied his conditions.
Szakos said she felt that taking a vote without input from city staff on the letter undermines the whole process.
“I don’t think this meets the conditions because it doesn’t even necessarily say he’s recommending full funding,” Szakos said. “It doesn’t offer any concrete assurances.”
Jeff Gleason, a county resident who serves as deputy director of the Southern Environmental Law Center, said Connaughton only offered to recommend funding. He said it was disgraceful Connaughton’s letter was only released to the public at the meeting.
“That is unacceptable for an issue so important to this community,” Gleason said. “We can see these are not commitments. If they were serious about this, they would have made those recommendations at the last CTB meeting.”
County resident Michael Johnson said he supported the bypass because it would be a long-term investment in transportation infrastructure.
“Fifty years ago, our predecessors built the U.S. 250 Bypass,” Johnson said. “Can you imagine what traffic would be like if they hadn’t?”
Rick Edwards, a business owner from Lynchburg, said he frequently is delayed on business trips to Washington while driving through Charlottesville.
“The bottleneck traffic in Charlottesville makes travel time consuming and unsafe and the bypass will alleviate these concerns,” Edwards said.
Nancy Goodrich said she agreed with those from Lynchburg who say a bypass of Charlottesville is needed.
“There is no disagreement over that fact, but there is terrific disagreement about what that plan should be,” Goodrich said. “As it is resurrected and heading toward implementation, the plan raises many questions and we need answers.”
Area resident John Owen, a long-time opponent of the road, conceded defeat.
“What we should have done is made friends and not enemies with Lynchburg,” Owen said. “We should have worked with them on objective criteria on what makes a good bypass.”