By Sean Tubbs
Wednesday, November 2, 2011
Two environmental organizations that oppose the U.S. 29
are asking that the project be reconsidered, even as the Virginia Department of Transportation continues the process of soliciting bids for its design and construction.
Piedmont Environmental Council
has sent a four-page newsletter to 15,000 homes in Albemarle County asking for citizens to contact local and officials to ask for the bypass to be canceled.
“We don’t think the bypass is a good use of the limited transportation funding available for our community,” said Rose Jenkins, a senior writer for the PEC.
Southern Environmental Law Center
released a report last week that calls into question the underlying traffic assumptions cited in the request for proposals VDOT issued in late September.
“We think there is a gross overestimation of future demand for the bypass based on the studies that have been done in the past,” said Norm Marshall of the Vermont-based firm Smart Mobility.
Download Smart Mobility report on the Western Bypass
The RFP asks contractors to design a bypass that can carry 32,300 vehicles a day in 2036.
That number is extrapolated from data collected in 1988, the last time a full origin and destination study was conducted along U.S. 29. The information resulted in a 1990 study that modeled various alignments for the bypass.
No additional data was collected in a 1996 study conducted as part of a supplemental environmental impact statement required by the Federal Highway Administration after the existing alignment was selected by the Commonwealth Transportation Board.
Marshall said he has been unable to reproduce the calculations that VDOT officials used in the RFP.
“The only way I can get somewhat near what they did is by extrapolating the past extrapolations,” Marshall said.
Marshall points to actual traffic counts to back up his claim that VDOT has overestimated how much use the road will get.
The 1990 study forecast that 60,900 vehicles per day would use U.S 29 between Hydraulic Road and Rio Road by the year 2010.
In 2000, the actual count was 58,000 vehicles per day.
Actual traffic counts conducted by VDOT in 2010 recorded the average annual daily traffic volume at 57,000, a decline of 1,000 vehicles per day.
Marshall said possible reasons for the lower counts over the ten year period could be the recession, additional retail development outside of Albemarle County, and demographic changes as more people choose to drive less.
Marshall said the bypass needs a new traffic study similar to the one conducted in 1988, but one local transportation official said that is unlikely to occur in the same fashion.
“Standard origin and destination studies involve stopping traffic at key locations over the course of an entire day and asking each driver to either answer questions on the spot or to fill out a survey card and return it through the mail,” said Stephen Williams, the executive director of the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission.
Williams said many people view such studies as a government intrusion and are unwilling to participate. Another option would be to use photo-capture technology to record license plates.
“By doing this over the course of a full day and several different locations it is possible to capture the license plate when it goes past the other locations,” Williams said.
VDOT will conduct a new traffic study for the area as part of the update of an environmental assessment required by the Federal Highway Administration, though the exact scope of the study is unknown.
VDOT officials had no comment on the SELC report.
Neil Williamson of the Free Enterprise Forum said the SELC study is flawed.
“The Smart Mobility study produced for SELC cherry picks data points from a potpourri of US 29 reports that support their contention, while ignoring significant data points that oppose their position in the very same reports,” Williamson said.
Both the SELC and the PEC argue that VDOT should instead be investing in grade-separated interchanges at Hydraulic, Rio and other key intersections along existing U.S. 29.
However, the Albemarle Board of Supervisors voted to deemphasize those improvements in the Places29 Master Plan, and voted on June 8 to proceed with the bypass. The Commonwealth Transportation Board voted in July to allocate $197 million in funding to finish design and to construct the project.
Supervisor Dennis S. Rooker, an opponent of the road and a property owner adjacent to its route, said in an interview that he agrees with the SELC and PEC’s position that the road is not inevitable.
However, in the event the bypass does proceed, Rooker said he formed a task force to give input an addendum to the RFP that VDOT will issue on Nov. 8.
“There are a lot of people on my task force who oppose the road but I made it clear for the purposes of this committee we’re assuming the road will be built and we want to make it fit in as best we can,” Rooker said.
Rooker will ask the Albemarle Supervisors today to pass a resolution calling for his task force’s recommendations to be included in the addendum to the RFP.