The public cannot view the final version of a key document on the environmental impacts of the Western Bypass of U.S. 29, said officials from the Virginia Department of Transportation, until the federal government decides whether construction can proceed.
“Once the Federal Highway Administration makes a decision, the environmental assessment will be made available,” said VDOT spokesman Lou Hatter.
VDOT and the FHWA have worked to finalize the EA since mid-November. Neither land acquisition nor final design on the 6.2-mile, four-lane highway can begin until the FHWA issues a “finding of no significant impact” document for the project.
Charlottesville Tomorrow has obtained numerous documents related to VDOT and FHWA’s collaboration through the Freedom of Information Act, including two spreadsheets that contain VDOT’s response to hundreds of comments from citizens and other government agencies.
An analysis of the correspondence shows that VDOT is steadfast in its view that the draft EA released to the public in August was adequate and that few if any new environmental concerns should stand in the way of construction of the Western Bypass.
After the draft EA was released, more than 600 people attended a Sept. 27 open house and hundreds more submitted their thoughts before the comment period ended.
Neil Williamson of the pro-bypass Free Enterprise Forum said his reading of the spreadsheets is that VDOT is taking citizen comments seriously.
“As one of the 600 who attended the open house, I would agree bypass supporters were in the minority,” Williamson said. “Those organizations and individuals opposed to a project tend to dominate such public input meetings.”
However, Morgan Butler of the Southern Environmental Law Center had a different opinion.
“They are only draft documents at this point, but they sure seem to indicate that the officials at FHWA who have been involved with the review thus far are not pushing for what clearly needs to be done,” Butler said. “They don’t seem to be taking seriously the public’s legitimate concerns with VDOT’s rushed and flawed analysis.”
Of the 3,257 comments VDOT received, 3,194 were either against construction of the bypass or believed further study of the bypass should be conducted before proceeding. That number includes around 1,900 signatures collected by the Charlottesville Albemarle Transportation Coalition, a group that opposes the bypass.
“The current project could have reasonably foreseeable environmental impacts not assessed previously that could be significant or could have changed in some significant way,” wrote one citizen. “A new or supplemental environmental impact statement is needed to address these impacts.”
“The EA was prepared to identify new information or circumstances relevant to environmental concerns and bearing on the proposed action or its impacts for the purpose of determining if the proposed action will have significant impacts not already evaluated,” VDOT responded. “Given that the comment does not provide any specifics about what environmental impacts it may be referring to, it is not possible to provide a more detailed response.”
Several commenters objected to how the bypass was approved at the local level. The Albemarle County Board of Supervisors voted 4-2 shortly before midnight on June 8, 2011 to change from opposition to the project to allowing allocation of construction funding for it.
VDOT’s response to this objection was that the board’s process is an irrelevant point.
“Issues related to that county decision-making process, and the manner in which the public was notified or asked for input on that process, are under the purview of the County and not under the purview of the Federal government.”
VDOT also defended the EA not taking the new conceptual design created by the team of Skanska-USA and Branch Highways into account. The Commonwealth Transportation Board awarded a $136 million contract for the team to design and build the road.
“The right-of way footprint upon which previous environmental analyses were based … best represents the current project design and the direct impacts footprint of the proposed project and environmental impacts were re-examined within this area accordingly,” VDOT responded. “As reported in the EA and in this Revised EA, no new significant impacts have been identified.”
Traffic projections in the EA are based on a Jan. 12, 2012 run of a traffic model developed by the Charlottesville Albemarle Metropolitan Planning Organization. According to that model, 28,000 vehicles would use the bypass.
The MPO later said an assumption in the model was incorrect, and subsequently performed a new model in February that estimated that 24,000 vehicles a day would use the bypass.
“It is unclear if it is based on the most current preliminary design, or based on a flawed traffic study model,” wrote an official with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. “If the current design and model criteria were not the basis, the study needs to be revisited.”
However, VDOT defended the use of the Jan. 12 model as what was available at the time.
“That model was the most current model available at the time of the forecasting efforts,” VDOT wrote.
The SELC and the Piedmont Environmental Council sponsored a campaign last year to encourage citizens to suggest that VDOT consider elements of the Places29 Master Plan as an alternative to the bypass. These include projects such as parallel roads and grade-separated interchanges.
“Places29 does not rule out both the bypass and Places29 improvements from proceeding concurrently nor does it present them as an either-or proposition,” VDOT responded. “The entity that adopted Places29 also adopted a resolution that allowed full funding for the bypass.”
Citizen concerns also touched on the southern terminus of the bypass, which will be located near the western edge of the University of Virginia.
“The proposed configuration of the southern terminus of the Western Bypass is unacceptable to the University of Virginia due to its impact to the stream located there and loss of 10 acres of forest,” wrote David Neuman, architect for the university.
“Opinion noted,” VDOT wrote in response.
“The southern terminus design is not realistic and will result in more congestion,” wrote another commenter. “It is overly complicated and not what travelers would expect to encounter. The mixing lane at the southern end is too short. Grade of 11 percent is not safe or feasible.”
VDOT responded that the Skanska-Branch design is only a concept for cost estimates, and has not yet been approved by VDOT officials.
“Once Skanska begins designing its concept for the bypass, then the project will need to be re-evaluated to determine if there are any changes associated with the Skanska proposal relative to the design that the EA was based upon,” VDOT responded.
As part of its comment, the Environmental Protection Agency told VDOT that the Army Corps of Engineers and other agencies will require an analysis of alternatives to the bypass before certain permits will be issued.
“Comment acknowledged,” VDOT responded.