Close-up of Skanska-Branch "flyover" option Credit: Credit: Virginia Department of Transportation

Nearly 300 people dropped by a ballroom at the Holiday Inn on Emmet Street on Thursday to review two new alternatives for the southern terminus of the U.S. 29 Western Bypass.

The Federal Highway Administration requires the Virginia Department of Transportation to complete an “interchange modification report” any time it proposes changes to existing limited-access highways. The alternatives were developed as part of the process.
The first option is the original design for the interchange developed last year by the team of Skanska and Branch-Highway. Under this arrangement, traffic seeking to enter or exit the new bypass from the existing U.S. 29/250 Bypass would have to travel through up to two traffic signals.
However, the two alternatives shared by VDOT both would allow for motorists to avoid those signals when heading north onto the bypass.
“With the loop option, we’re putting in a 30-mph loop, which allows that movement to be free-flow,” said Shawn Reynolds, an engineer with Johnson Mirmiran and Thompson, a subcontractor working with Skanska-Branch on the design. 
The other option features a “fly-over ramp” to carry eastbound motorists to the new road across the existing U.S. 29/250 Bypass.
“This is getting closer to the original design of the bypass,” said Reynolds. “The rest of the interchange, for local movements, would be a diamond interchange, but we’ve taken the higher-volume movements out.”
The two options also shift the existing U.S. 29/250 highway, which will allow for its elevation to be slightly lowered. That will allow engineers to avoid the 11 percent grade that vehicles would experience while entering the bypass.
However, both alternatives would feature more roadway and bridges, which could significantly raise the cost of the project.
“Obviously, there will be cost differences but we haven’t looked at that,” Reynolds said. ”As the decision-making process continues, that will be something to be considered.”
“There aren’t any cost implications yet, and I’ve been assured it’s not going to be that much more expensive,” said Supervisor Kenneth C. Boyd, a supporter of the project. “I am excited to see that VDOT has reacted to public comment and has come up with a better design.”
Supervisor Dennis S. Rooker, an opponent of the bypass, said he was glad that VDOT held a meeting to get public input.
“The first design they presented for this interchange did not work and did not even meet the RFP requirements and should never have been accepted,” Rooker said. “I’m glad they’ve put back on the table virtually the original design.”
Rooker said he estimated the flyover would cost an additional $30 million to $60 million.
The only member of the Commonwealth Transportation Board to vote against the project when it was revived in 2011 traveled to Charlottesville to view the alternatives.
“I came down to find out what they didn’t tell the CTB when we voted on this,” said Jim Rich, the former Culpeper District representative who was removed from his position earlier this year for continuing to oppose the project.
Rich has said that he believes that Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton withheld information from CTB members before a vote to allocate $197 million to the project was taken in July 2011.
“When we voted on this, none of us knew that there was a problem down here, and then after the fact, we realized it was a serious problem,” Rich said. “It’s going to cost a lot more money to fix.”
Rich has not yet been replaced on the CTB.
The project has a current total cost estimate of $244.6 million. Skanska-Branch’s construction contract is $136 million, and some of the project’s right-of-way must still be purchased.
Lou Hatter, spokesman for VDOT’s Culpeper District, said it is too early to attach cost estimates to the alternative interchanges.
“The preliminary engineering that has been done to develop the concepts is not the sort of detailed engineering that needs to be done to provide solid cost estimates,” Hatter said. 
“If the cost were to go up, and that’s a hypothetical situation at this point, then additional money would have to be allocated towards the project,” Hatter added.
The final decision on which option will move forward will be made by VDOT and Skanska-Branch. Officials said a decision will be made this summer.
Not all of the public comments at the meeting related to the project’s costs.
“The Rivanna Trail is not shown on [the plans],” said Diana Foster, president of the Rivanna Trail Foundation. “I’ve talked with both VDOT and Skanska people asking how the trail will be preserved, and everyone is telling me it’s in process and they’re sending out surveyors to get the Rivanna Trail on the maps.”
“We would like alternatives to be considered for the entire project,” said county resident Paul Shepherd. “We think the design itself has been shown to be flawed and there’s not much trust when VDOT tells us that the problem is being solved.”
Electronic copies of the three alternatives are available on VDOT’s website for the bypass project. Written comments can be submitted through June 3.
The next opportunity for public comment will come when a final design is completed. That cannot occur until the FHWA approves an environmental assessment, which will allow Skanska-Branch to begin final design.