The Virginia Department of Transportation’s environmental office is putting the finishing touches on a document intended to persuade the Federal Highway Administration that work can proceed on the Western Bypass of U.S. 29 in Albemarle County.

To comply with the National Environmental Policy Act, VDOT has conducted an environmental assessment to explain to the FHWA why its most recent approval of the road, from 2003, is still valid.
“We expect to have that in Federal Highway Administration hands this week,” said Harold Jones, VDOT’s project manager for the bypass. He briefed the Metropolitan Planning Organization’s policy board on Tuesday.
Earlier this year, the Commonwealth Transportation Board awarded a $136 million contract to the team of Skanska USA and Branch Highways to design and build the 6.2-mile highway. 
Work cannot begin on final engineering or right-of-way purchase until the FHWA issues a notice to proceed.
“Preliminary engineering is the only work that is allowed to occur now,” Jones said.
One component of that work is to submit an additional document known as “interchange justification reports” to the FHWA to explain how the southern and northern termini would work. Engineers with Skanska-Branch are conducting traffic studies to prepare those reports.
VDOT is asking the federal government to issue a “finding of no significant impact,” which will allow Skanska-Branch to proceed. That is the same decision reached in 2003 for the road’s previous design.
“We anticipate a decision from them by the end of the month so that we can either move forward with the project or they may decide that additional environmental studies are needed,” Jones said.
Several groups, including the Southern Environmental Law Center and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, have asked for further review. Other groups such as the Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce have asked for the project to move forward.
If the FHWA does give the go-ahead, VDOT will hold a citizens information meeting on the bypass in February, followed by a design public hearing in April. A briefing will be held with the public before construction begins.
“All the activities for next year are contingent on FHWA action,” Jones said.
All landscaping associated with the bypass will be handled under a separate contract. Jones said the public would be involved with that effort, as well.
Skanska-Branch also will be responsible for obtaining permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for impacts to stream crossings, wetlands and other places where waterways are to be affected. However, construction work can begin on areas that do not need further federal permission.
Forest Lakes survey
In other bypass news, the Forest Lakes Community Association has conducted a survey to determine how residents of the northern Albemarle neighborhood might change their driving habits once the Western Bypass is opened just to the south of Ashwood Boulevard.
“[The] traffic survey finds that the proposed bypass would be used for about 25 percent of total southbound trips leaving Forest Lakes, while 75 percent of trips would continue to use Route 29,” reads the first paragraph of the survey results, which were unveiled Sunday.
More than 300 people responded to the survey, which was posted on the community association’s website for the past two months.
However, a supporter of the bypass said the poll is subjective and its results are not meaningful.
“Professional surveys cost thousands of dollars and the contractor is required to do a professional updated traffic study which will be available to the public at a future public meeting,” said Supervisor Kenneth C. Boyd. “I have asked the [community association] board to be patient and hope they are not wasting scarce association funds on expensive surveys.”
$193,000 grant
In other news, Stephen Williams, executive director of the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission, announced that the MPO will receive a $193,000 grant from the FHWA’s Strategic Highway Research program.
“It will allow a team composed of the MPO, VDOT’s Center for Transportation Innovation and Research and the University of Virginia’s Center for Survey Research to do a project related to the update of the long-range transportation plan,” Williams said.
Williams said the funding will help transportation planners analyze public input on future transportation choices. Work will begin in January.