Area planners have responded to a request from the Virginia Department of Transportation for details on major land use changes that have occurred since the federal government last gave clearance for the Western Bypass of U.S. 29.
VDOT made its request in late January as part of a process mandated by the Federal Highway Administration to determine whether a supplemental environmental impact statement (EIS) issued in 2003 is sufficient to comply with federal law.
A Feb. 17 letter from Stephen Williams , executive director of the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission , is based in part on public comments received during the Metropolitan Planning Organization’s public review period last summer.
“At a minimum, we request [study of] a no-build alternative and an alternative that includes proposals from the joint VDOT / Albemarle County Places29 transportation plan,” Williams wrote in a letter to Chris Collins in VDOT’s environmental division.
The Places29 master plan was unanimously adopted by the Albemarle Board of Supervisors in February 2011 and serves as a framework for transportation improvements. The bypass was kept out of the plan because of a long-standing policy statement calling for other transportation improvements to be made first.
The Albemarle supervisors reversed that policy in a 4-2 vote in June, allowing the proposed 6.2-mile four-lane roadway to move forward.
A letter written to Collins by Mark Graham, Albemarle’s director of community development, points out that the Places29 plan calls for the northward extension of Berkmar Drive to Hollymead Town Center.
“The alignment of Berkmar Drive and the proposed bypass will intersect somewhere on the north side of the South Fork of the Rivanna River,” Graham wrote. “We hope that any assessment of the bypass would include consideration of how VDOT would assure the bypass does not preclude or increase the cost of building the Berkmar Road extension.”
Both letters point out citizen concerns that data produced for the 2003 statement, as well an original review conducted in 1993, could be out-of-date.
For instance, Graham wrote that the transportation models used for the conceptual design of the bypass are based on data that is over two decades old.
“With respect to the effectiveness of this bypass versus other transportation infrastructure, updated origin and destination data seems important,” Graham said.
Williams’ letter notes that many citizens have pointed out what they see as flaws in the assumptions for the bypass.
“The travel demand modeling used for the [1993 and 2003 impact statements] assumed that interchanges would be included in the project at intermediate points and that the modeling had not been updated since the mid-1990’s,” Williams wrote.
However, in the 1990’s, the Board of Supervisors eliminated consideration of those interchanges, leaving the bypass a limited-access highway, and the interchanges are not called for in VDOT’s request for proposals.
Williams’ letter notes that architectural evaluations required to document cultural resources have not been conducted for 20 years.
“Since 20 years have passed since the former evaluations, it is possible that structures are now eligible for the National Register of Historic Properties that were not eligible in the early 1990’s,” Williams wrote, adding a request that a full evaluation of properties be conducted within half a mile on either side of the bypass route.
Williams also requests that a full noise analysis be conducted as part of the assessment based on new travel demand forecasts. Williams also asked that a full analysis of the effects the road would have on stormwater be conducted, given that requirements are more stringent than they were in 1993 and 2003.
Both letters were copied directly to officials at the FHWA.
VDOT officials were unavailable to comment on questions for this story.
Nine companies are preparing proposals to both design and build the bypass. Those proposals are due April 12. The Commonwealth Transportation Board is expected to award a contract to the lowest qualified bidder at its meeting in June.
However, VDOT has not completed its instructions specifying what the proposals should contain. A second addendum to the request for proposals was expected to be issued in late February, but that has not yet happened.
The winning bidder will not be allowed to begin construction or finalize design work until the federal government gives its final clearance.
If the FHWA determines the 2003 document is still valid, that could happen as early as this fall. If the agency seeks more information before making a decision, the planning process could extend for many years.
At their meeting Wednesday, Albemarle supervisors will discuss the possibility of formally asking the FHWA to conduct a fuller review.
Doug Hecox, a spokesman for the FHWA, said a new supplemental environmental impact statement would be required if new information revealed that “significant” impacts were not evaluated in the original statement. Significance is determined by regulations promulgated by the White House.
“Based on a number of letters that we have received, there is a misperception among the public and environmental groups that new information in and of itself, without any consideration to significance, triggers a supplemental EIS,” Hecox said.