Well over 500 people packed the auditorium at Jack Jouett Middle School on Thursday to weigh in on an environmental assessment that the Virginia Department of Transportation has conducted on the Western Bypass of U.S. 29.
VDOT produced a draft EA in order to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act. The last environmental study was conducted in 2003.
“Public input is a key component of NEPA,” said Morgan Butler, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, a group opposed to the 6.2-mile four-lane highway. “Not only are the agencies required to provide complete and accurate information, but they must also give the public an opportunity to comment on the quality of that information before they make a decision.”
To get into the auditorium, citizens had to pass a series of displays set up by advocacy groups opposed to the road. An overwhelming number of attendees sported stickers that advertised an alternative plan called “GO29” that is being promoted by the SELC and the Piedmont Environmental Council.
“I think the alternative of building overpasses over the existing 29 corridor and extending the parallel roads would solve problems for locals and for people passing through,” said Katie Storer, who talked to an oral stenographer with a young child on her shoulder.
Phillip Seay and Glenna Slosson bought their home in Squirrel Ridge at a time when the project was believed to be dormant. The bypass will pass through a section of the road, and their house will become the last house on their street. VDOT has taken a section of their driveway, and the couple has many concerns.
“Our concerns are about sound, about what’s going to happen while the road is being built, what’s going to happen after the road is built?” Slosson said. “We have no idea where the driveway is going to be [relocated]. They will not come mark it. They will not answer any questions.”
“I don’t think they’ve taken into account the true environmental impact on our residence and no one will give me a straight answer,” Seay said.
As well as giving her own comment to a stenographer, Elizabeth Ike delivered a written statement on behalf of a friend who could not make the meeting.
“She is the parent of children in all three of the schools, including the one we are sitting in right now,” Ike said. She added her friend is worried about the health effects of air pollution on school children.
However, Ike did not restrict her statement to the environmental assessment.
“Lynchburg and Danville have true bypasses,” Ike said. “I appreciate that looking for a new route is a long process and in fact everyone I’ve spoken to about this proposed road who is for it, including [Supervisor] Rodney Thomas, has told me they understood this isn’t the right solution.”
Lucas Levine, a Charlottesville High School student, was at the event as part of his government class.
“For such a big impact on the environment and state money, it’s not going to be that practical,” Levine said. “I’ve heard statistics that say it will save only five minutes, or maybe even less than that. It just seems nonsensical.”
Robert Johnson attended the meeting because he wanted more information about how noise from the bypass would be mitigated.
“I would like a bit clearer understanding of what is required to put up a noise abatement wall,” Johnson said. “It would appear that even if you really, really mess up some people with a tremendous amount of extra noise, as long as it’s just a few people in a given stretch of road, then they don’t do any noise abatement.”
L.F. Wood of the North Charlottesville Business Council said his written comment asked the FHWA to allow the bypass to proceed because the need for the road outweighs its impact on the environment.
“I was the first meeting they had at the Doubletree 20 years ago,” Wood said. “Since then, there have been numerous traffic increases. We’re up to 55,000 cars a day. And, we had 8,800 accidents between the Rivanna River and the [U.S. 29-250] Bypass in a two-year period over the last two years.”
Wood also said not much has changed in the area since the last environmental study was conducted.
Written comments can be submitted through Oct. 9 on VDOT’s website.
“We review all comments received, we’ll categorize them, we address substantive comments to the action that we’re taking and submit it to the FHWA,” said Angel Deem, project manager for VDOT’s environmental review. She said the FHWA would make a decision within 30 days.
“It will either be a ‘finding of no significant impact’ or the finding will be that we need to a supplementary environmental impact statement,” Deem said.
The latter option could require several years of study.