By Sean Tubbs

Charlottesville Tomorrow

Monday, July 18, 2011

Virginia Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton will ask the Commonwealth Transportation Board on Wednesday to reallocate $230 million set aside for public-private partnerships and future projects in order to fully fund the Western Bypass of U.S. 29.

“Those funds were set aside for what we consider to be mega-projects,” Connaughton said in an interview.






Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton at the June 2011 CTB meeting


In June, the CTB approved a six-year improvement program that contains $160 million in a funding category called “scoping of future projects.”

Connaughton will request the CTB approve a transfer of that entire balance to the

Western Bypass

as well as

a second project to widen U.S. 29 to six lanes from Polo Grounds Road to the Hollymead Town Center

.

The six-year plan also includes $256.9 million in a fund for “private-partnership transportation initiatives.” One of the objectives of that program is to encourage private-sector investment in transportation projects, possibly in exchange for toll revenues.

Connaughton will request that the CTB transfer a quarter of that money for the bypass and the widening project.

“Usually that money is reserved for projects where the private sector will be involved,” said James Rich, who represents the Culpeper district on the CTB. “No one in the private sector would touch this project, I assure you.”

However, Connaughton acknowledged that it was highly unlikely the bypass would be a toll road, even though it is a limited access route.

Rich said he would vote against the transfer because he felt it would take away from other statewide priorities.







Some examples of public-private partnerships currently under consideration include improvements to the

U.S. Route 460 corridor

,

high-occupancy lanes on Interstate 95 and Interstate 395

, and a new project in the

Hampton Roads area known as the Mid-Town Tunnel

.

However, other members of the CTB see the Western Bypass project as an important one for the state.

“U.S. 29 is an important corridor to get from Greensboro to Washington all the way through Lynchburg and Danville,” said Jim Bowie, who represents VDOT’s Bristol district. “I think it is a shame that it wasn’t built 25 years ago when it would have cost less. It’s going to be a lot of money we don’t have.”

“It’s been on the agenda for years and it is one of the most controversial projects,” said James Davis, who represents the Staunton district on the CTB. “It’s not going to be approved easily although [having] U.S. 29 be a lot more effective [is desirable].”

Davis could not comment on the transfer of funds because he said he had not seen the specifics of the proposal.

However, at least one member of the CTB approves of the transfer.

“We are looking for projects that are shovel-ready, and if that is a high priority, than I am in agreement,” said Aubrey Layne, who represents the Hampton Roads district. “I am very comfortable that an agreement on the mid-town tunnel will be done and this will not impact its successful completion.”

Last week, the administrator of VDOT’s Culpeper district told the

Metropolitan Planning Organization policy board

that much work still has to be done in order to prepare the plans.

“This is a design that has been dormant for essentially 15 years,” said James Utterback. “We’re in kind of a suspended state right now because we’re not working on it, and we can’t really work on it because of the position the MPO has had.”

Utterback said the design for the project is in metric, which means all of the calculations will have to be converted to the U.S. standard. He also said the stormwater management facilities and erosion control measures are not up to contemporary standards and that the design for the northern terminus is incomplete.

Since 2002, the local MPO has prevented funding for construction from being allocated to the project.

In advance of Wednesday’s CTB meeting,

the MPO policy board has sent a letter to Connaughton outlining the conditions under which it will drop its objections to construction funding

. These include the extension of Hillsdale Drive, interchange improvements at the intersection of U.S. 29 and U.S 250 and full funding of the replacement of the Belmont Bridge by fiscal year 2014.

None of those projects are included in the request Connaughton will make on Wednesday.

Connaughton said he could not guarantee those projects would be funded on a quid pro quo basis.

“These are projects we’ll end up taking a look at anyway,” Connaughton said. “The funds that are being set aside are for the U.S. 29 bypass and the widening project.”

In total, Connaughton is asking for an additional $196 million for the bypass and $34 million for the widening project.

Rich said he believes that Connaughton is trying to rush through an expensive project that needs further study. He pointed out that no updated traffic forecasts have been made to determine how many vehicles would use the road on a daily basis.

“There should be a complete and thoughtful review of what is going to work,” Rich said.

“The only thing we have before us is a 20-year old project that is completely out of date. You can’t just pull something out of mothballs that probably won’t work.”

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