Western Bypass funding eliminated; CTB supports other U.S. 29 projects
The Commonwealth Transportation Board has eliminated funding for the defunct Western Bypass, and has transferred $230 million to other projects designed to increase mobility on U.S. 29.
“By 2015 at the latest, we will begin turning dirt on this key stretch of U.S. 29,” said Governor Terry McAuliffe in comments Wednesday to the CTB.
Money that had been allocated to the bypass by the CTB in July 2011 will now be used to design and build a grade-separated interchange at Rio Road, extend Berkmar Drive north to Hollymead Town Center, as well as other projects to add more options for people as they travel through the U.S. 29 corridor.
The alternatives were suggested by Philip Shucet, a former commissioner of the Virginia Department of Transportation who McAuliffe tasked with recommending alternatives to the bypass. Shucet will now chair an advisory panel that will oversee implementation of the projects.
All of Shucet’s recommendations are now included in VDOT’s Six Year Improvement Program. That includes $3.7 million to install an system of adaptive traffic signals on the U.S. 29 in Albemarle County.
Unanimous approval by the CTB came despite concerns from citizens who said in the public comment period that the Rio Road interchange would hurt businesses in the vicinity.
“I am so fearful that this road construction work will be very damaging to small businesses in the area,” said Peter Chandler of Chandler’s Bakery.
Jim Plotkin of Dunbarton Properties said elimination of a traffic light north of the Rio Road interchange would cut off access to Albemarle Square, a shopping center in the northeast quadrant of the intersection. In the late 1990’s Plotkin said his company was successful in convincing VDOT to install the signal.
“That crossover and the signal were necessary to preserve and ensure safe access and egress to and from the shops and the shopping center,” Plotkin said. “Without it, the shopping center and its merchants stand to lose their lifeblood. The decline in access will lead to declines in sales, which over a sustained period will cause small businesses to close.”
However, Albemarle Square has many empty storefronts today, including one where Chandler’s Bakery used to be. That shop moved to the Rio Hill Shopping Center in May.
Trip Pollard, director of the land and community program for the Southern Environmental Law Center, praised the six-year improvement program.
“It provides a template for refocusing spending on more efficient and more effective projects,” Pollard said. “The proposed bypass would have cost over $234 million and federal, state, and local officials have raised numerous problems with this project.”
McAuliffe said the adoption of the new six-year plan, including the Shucet recommendations, is the first step towards implementing his vision for Virginia’s transportation network. He pointed to new legislation that will require the CTB to evaluate all future transportation projects based on how they relieve congestion, how many jobs they create, and how they enhance safety.
“This is a new approach of how we fund transportation in Virginia,” McAuliffe said. “Before [the HB2 legislation], there was no consistent standard for new projects. Taxpayer funds were often spent based on outdated assumptions, bureaucratic inertia, and unfortunately, political favors.”
The possibility for the bypass being constructed decreased in February when the Federal Highway Administration told VDOT that they were unlikely to grant the project an environmental clearance.
“For over 30 years improvements to the 29 corridor through Charlottesville were stalled,” McAuliffe said. “When the federal government sent my administration a letter saying the [bypass] would not move forward, I decided we had to resolve the issue now and I decided we had to resolve it out in the open.”
The bypass has long been the preferred alternative for elected officials and business leaders in Danville and Lynchburg. That region’s newly-appointed representative on the CTB voted to remove funding.
“I told Secretary Layne that the only way that I could accept this position is if I could continue to work on a long-term solution and making sure every short-term solution would move forward in an appropriate manner,” said Shannon Valentine, a former member of the House of Delegates. .
Valentine said she sees the Shucet package as a first step to address a lack of mobility on U.S. 29.
“While not unanimous, the consensus is that doing nothing is no longer an option,” Valentine said. “There is no doubt that there is disappointment on the part of many people who have invested a great deal of time and energy.”
Allison DeTuncq, Charlottesville’s representative on the CTB, said she wants Berkmar as well as Hillsdale Drive Extended to be built before work begins on the Rio Road interchange.
“It’s going to be critical that local traffic and through traffic have a place to go during the construction period,” DeTuncq said. “If not, it’s going to be disastrous for everybody.”
The Shucet package also includes full-funding for rolling stock and track improvements that need to be made before Amtrak can run a second daily train between Lynchburg and Washington.
Kevin Page, chief operating officer for the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation, said he expected that service will be under way by the end of the McAuliffe administration.
“We have to sit down with CSX, Norfolk Southern and Amtrak and work on capacity modeling to get the time schedule set,” Page said.