The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has told the Virginia Department of Transportation that it will require an analysis of alternatives to the Western Bypass before it will issue a permit allowing for full construction.
“We concur with the Environmental Protection Agency that it would be prudent to allow for a comprehensive reevaluation of the project,” wrote William T. Walker, chief of the Corps’ Norfolk District regulatory branch, in a Nov. 9 letter to VDOT.
Charlottesville Tomorrow obtained the letter through a Freedom of Information Act request.
VDOT is in the process of producing an environmental assessment for the Federal Highway Administration so the agency can determine if its previous approvals in 1993 and 2003 are still valid.
In June, the Commonwealth Transportation Board awarded a $136 million design and construction contract for the planned 6.2-mile highway in Albemarle County to the team of Skanska-USA and Branch Highways.
However, work on final design and right-of-way purchase cannot begin until the FHWA issues a document called a “finding of no significant impact.”
“At the end of November, VDOT submitted a working draft of a revised EA for our review,” said Doug Hecox, a spokesman for the FHWA. “We are currently reviewing it, the summary of comments and responses to them. The FHWA will meet with VDOT to discuss it, and continue making progress toward a finalized EA.”
The FHWA could choose to order VDOT to perform a more thorough environmental review known as a supplemental environmental impact statement.
Both the Corps of Engineers and the federal Environmental Protection Agency have suggested that an SEIS be prepared.
According to VDOT’s previous and current studies, the bypass will impact 2.8 acres of wetlands, as well as 7,040 linear feet of streams at 43 locations.
Before construction can begin, the Corps of Engineers has to be satisfied that any impacts to those waterways will be mitigated. Section 404 of the Clean Water Act gives the agency this regulatory authority.
The primary purpose of the bypass, according to language in the EA, is “to find a solution to existing and future congestion on a 3-mile section of U.S. 29 between the U.S. 250 Bypass and the South Fork Rivanna River.”
When the 1993 EIS was prepared, VDOT performed a full analysis of several alternative alignments that would satisfy the purpose and need of the bypass. However, the contemporary EA did not do so because VDOT contends the FHWA’s 2003 approval is still valid.
“We encourage you to conduct a thorough alternatives analysis as part of your current study to avoid future delays and repetition of effort, particularly given the extent of time that has passed since your prior studies,” Walker wrote. He added that the Corps can only issue a permit to the “least environmentally damaging practicable alternative.”
Walker also wrote that an August 2012 traffic study submitted with the EA projects that there would be little difference in “level of service” at several traffic signals on existing U.S. 29.
Levels of service, or LOS, use letter grades to indicate the ability of traffic to pass through uncongested.
“The only changes in LOS occur at Route 29 at Hilton Heights Road, which goes from an F to a D, and Route 29 at Rio Road, which goes from an E to a D,” Walker said. He adds that four intersections will remain at an F and three will remain at D.
“Thus it is not clear that the proposed project will provide much relief to traffic congestion,” Walker said.
Walker also pointed out that the August traffic study indicates most of the traffic in the corridor is local rather than through-traffic.
“The project purpose of reducing congestion along three miles of the existing Route 29 may be better served by a more localized improvement of series of improvements,” Walker wrote.
The Corps also wants more information on what elements of the Places29 plan will be built and wants an explanation of why a grade-separated interchange at Hydraulic Road was eliminated from consideration.
The letter has been welcomed by opponents of the bypass.
“The Corps of Engineers letter demonstrates that the draft Environmental Analysis is woefully inadequate and that VDOT has made a significant strategic error in trying to rush this project forward while ignoring good process,” said Albemarle County Supervisor Dennis S. Rooker.
Rooker said he believes the Corps letter represents a major hurdle that VDOT has to climb before the bypass can proceed.
“They have said they won’t permit it without the work they outline in their letter and without a showing after it is completed that that project is the least environmentally damaging practicable alternative,” Rooker said. “I don’t think that showing can be made.”
“These comments are completely consistent with issues raised for the past 18 months by the Piedmont Environmental Council and others opposed to this extremely wasteful project,” said Jeff Werner, field officer for the PEC.
However, one supporter of the bypass expressed concern that the Corps’ letter may have been overly influenced by the Southern Environmental Law Center.
“The Free Enterprise Forum is troubled that the Army Corps of Engineers, citing their heavy work load and incomplete project files, relied significantly on biased data provided by the Southern Environmental Law Center,” said Neil Williamson, of the Free Enterprise Forum. “The usually apolitical project review process was clearly impacted by SELC advocating a dubious shadow of doubt on the Western Bypass project.”