Opponents and supporters of the Western Bypass of U.S. 29 spent time last week reviewing a document that is central to the future of the proposed four-lane highway.
In order to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act, the Virginia Department of Transportation was required to complete an environmental assessment to determine if previous approvals from the Federal Highway Administration are still valid.
The FHWA is expected to determine by the end of the year whether VDOT can proceed with design and construction of the bypass, or if the agency will need to conduct a more rigorous study known as a “supplemental environmental impact statement.”
The Southern Environmental Law Center, long an opponent of the bypass, is pushing for the more extensive study and for consideration of alternative transportation solutions.
“The document does not provide some of the most basic information the public and decision-makers need in order to assess the merits of the bypass proposal and to understand its impacts,” said Morgan Butler, an attorney with the SELC.
In 2001, the SELC was successful in getting an SEIS conducted as a result of a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Transportation. The FHWA issued an approval for the road in September 2003, but the road remained dormant until last summer due to local opposition.
In July, the Commonwealth Transportation Board awarded a $136 million contract to the team of Skanska USA and Branch Highways to design and build the bypass.
Butler said the EA is flawed because it does not examine the companies’ preliminary design.
“The assessment analyzes a decade-old design that has major differences from the design VDOT is now pursuing,” Butler said. “It doesn’t evaluate the current project so it’s not an accurate picture of what all the impacts would be.”
Opponents of the bypass such as the SELC and the Piedmont Environmental Council have argued that VDOT needs to evaluate transportation alternatives called for in the Places29 Plan. Those include grade-separated interchanges at Rio and Hydraulic roads, improvements at the intersection of U.S. 29 and the U.S. 250 Bypass, and the extension of Hillsdale Drive.
“In reading the new VDOT draft environmental assessment, I could not see that Places 29 was considered as a legitimate alternative, although it was passed in February 2011 and would answer all of the concerns that are now being voiced about the proposed [bypass],” said Albemarle resident Elly Tucker, a member of Supervisor Dennis S. Rooker’s bypass advisory task force.
In the EA, VDOT claims it is no under obligation to evaluate Places29 because the FHWA’s 2003 approval — known as a “record of decision” — is still valid. However, the document does make a passing mention of the projects.
“While these additional projects are helpful in addressing overall travel needs in the corridor, they do not provide the same level of congestion relief that would be provided by the proposed Route 29 bypass, nor do they provide a limited-access highway that offers higher speeds,” reads the EA.
The EA also stated that there will be an expected 84,000 vehicles per day on existing U.S. 29 in 2040, but that 28 percent will use the bypass if and when it is built.
Those numbers do not add up for Scott Elliff, a member of the Forest Lakes’ Association’s Board of Directors, as well as member of the PEC’s Board of Directors.
“For the first time in over 20 years, VDOT has indicated how much traffic they believe would use the bypass,” Elliff said. “It’s apparently based entirely on computer models and they have never once asked any actual residents or drivers where they are coming from, where they are going, or whether the bypass would be used by them.”
One supporter of the road, Neil Williamson of the Free Enterprise Forum, read the document and found it to be complete and thorough.
“The Free Enterprise Forum believes the concerns that have been raised by the public have been heard and discussed within the document,” Williamson said. “The Free Enterprise Forum hopes that the construction of this long anticipated roadway will begin soon.”
A citizen information hearing on the environmental assessment will be held at Jack Jouett Middle School from 6 to 9 p.m. Sept. 27.
The meeting had originally been scheduled to be held at a different school but the location was changed after Rooker suggested that it should be held closer to the area that will be affected by the construction of the bypass.
VDOT will be taking written comments on the EA through Oct. 9 at Route29BypassEA@vdot.virginia.gov.
The EA also acknowledges that VDOT and the Rivanna Water & Sewer Authority may need to coordinate construction of the bypass and the 9-mile pipeline to connect the Ragged Mountain Reservoir and South Fork Rivanna Reservoir. The pipeline is a major component of the community water supply plan approved in January.
“The Route 29 Bypass project location begins in the middle of the proposed pipeline corridor and, between approximately Barracks Road and Lambs Road, travels along the northern limit of the pipeline corridor,” the EA said.
“Until design of both projects is ongoing, impacts cannot be assessed,” it reads. “As such, coordination between the design of the pipeline and design of the bypass will be needed to minimize potential conflicts.”
Thomas L. Frederick Jr., executive director of the RWSA, said he has only had preliminary contact with VDOT about the pipeline. However, if the bypass proceeds, he will be interested to have further talks.
“Those conversations would jointly determine the best path to provide for both public needs, and would identify what easements would be needed by RWSA, and also determine to what extent design and/or construction would be needed when the bypass is designed and built, as well as what could be designed and built later,” Frederick said.