The Virginia Department of Transportation has published a key document required before the Federal Highway Administration can authorize design and construction of the Western Bypass of U.S. 29.
To comply with the National Environmental Policy Act, VDOT officials have written a 62-page environmental assessment that examines what changes have occurred since 2003, when the federal government last issued an approval for the 6.2 mile four-lane highway.
“The preparation of this EA is a continuation of the NEPA process that was initiated on this project in the late 1980s,” reads the document’s introduction. “It does not represent an initiation of that NEPA process anew.”
The bypass project was first conceived in the late 1970’s and the Commonwealth Transportation Board selected the current alignment in November 1990. After the FHWA issued a “finding of no significant impact,” the Southern Environmental Law Center filed a lawsuit against the FHWA alleging violations of NEPA.
A judge sided with the FHWA on most of the counts, but ordered the agency to complete a supplementary environmental impact statement. After that was completed and approved, the FHWA issued another approval in September 2003.
However, the Charlottesville-Albemarle Metropolitan Planning Organization issued a resolution blocking any further funding for the road. That decision was reversed in July 2011. Soon afterwards, the FHWA directed VDOT to perform a new environmental assessment.
VDOT officials begin the document by stating the road is needed to address congestion on existing U.S. 29.
“2011 daily volumes on Route 29 exceed 60,000 just north of Hydraulic Road and 54,000 just south of the South Fork Rivanna Reservoir,” it reads. “There are 13 signalized intersections and 10 un-signalized intersections within this 3.5 mile section of Route 29.”
The document cites a 2012 traffic model generated by the MPO that forecasts existing U.S. 29 will have a daily traffic volume of 84,000 vehicles in 2040. Using the same data, it claims that 28 percent of that amount will be diverted to the bypass if it is built.
Section 3 of the EA analyzes regulatory and land use changes that have occurred since 2003 to determine whether they would mean additional impacts from the roadway.
Since then, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has updated its National Ambient Air Quality Standards for ozone, fine particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide and lead. However, the authors of the EA claim this is not a concern.
“The project is located in a region that has not been designated nonattainment for any of these new standards,” reads the EA. “Continuing improvements in vehicle and fuel technology and resulting cleaner emissions will more than offset adverse effects in volumes of vehicles.”
The MPO and the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors held several public hearings after the project was revived last summer. The EA addresses many concerns expressed in those forums.
Several citizens have said building a highway so close to schools would pose a health risk to students. Greer Elementary School, Jack Jouett Middle School and five other schools are along the route.
The EA acknowledges this input, but describes at length why VDOT believes the bypass will result in less air pollution in the region overall, as opposed to the no-build alternative.
“All of the schools in the project area … will not experience noise impacts at the school buildings, either internally or externally, because of their distance from the bypass, the topography, and the wooded areas separating the bypass from many of the school facilities,” VDOT responded.
The EA acknowledges that another piece of new information is that the FHWA issued new noise regulations on July 13, 2011. VDOT has concluded that additional noise studies will be required after final design to determine where noise barriers may be built.
The document says there are 77 locations where noise effects will be modeled.
“If noise levels are predicted to ‘approach’ or ‘exceed’ the absolute FHWA/VDOT Noise Abatement Criteria for the design year build scenario at any receptor, then an impact is said to occur and a noise abatement evaluation is warranted,” reads the EA.
The EA also responds to several concerns by neighbors of the road, such as residents of the Colonnades assisted living center. Residents and employees have asked VDOT to build the road further away from the facility because it will harm their quality of life.
“The road, as proposed, would be located more than 1,000 feet from facilities at the Colonnades and would be located on the other side of Stillhouse Mountain from where the proposed bypass would cross Barracks Road, effectively screening the community from the roadway,” reads the EA.
“Per FHWA noise policy and guidance, highway traffic noise is not usually a serious problem for people who live more than 500 feet from heavily traveled freeways,” officials wrote in another section of the EA that addresses noise.
The EA also claims that waste from the area’s nuclear power plants is not likely to pass through Charlottesville.
“The use of U.S. 29 for hazardous material transport, including nuclear material, is not expected to increase from either local or national sources,” it reads. “Interstate 81 is considered a better route and is the most heavily used for such shipments in Virginia.”
A citizens information on the draft EA will be held on Thursday, Sept. 27 at Sutherland Middle School from 6:00 to 9:00 pm. VDOT will amend the EA before submitting a final version to the FHWA. VDOT expects the FHWA to determine whether additional study is required sometime before the end of the year.
Skanska-Branch, the team awarded a $136 million contract to design and build the road by the CTB, cannot begin final design or purchase right of way until the FHWA has given a final go-ahead.