A consortium of groups opposed to the construction of the Western Bypass of U.S. 29 is taking advantage of a lull in planning activity to coordinate efforts to have the project canceled.
“A lot of people think that this is a done deal, but it isn’t,” said Tom Olivier of the Piedmont Group of the Sierra Club .
The organization hosted a meeting Wednesday at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church to educate opponents of the road on steps that can be taken to influence the process at upcoming meetings.
The Federal Highway Administration is currently conducting an environmental assessment of the project to see if previous approvals of the 6.2-mile, four-lane highway are still valid. The review is not expected to be completed before the end of September, according to FHWA spokesman Doug Hecox. A public hearing associated with the review has not yet been scheduled.
“What we really need people to do is contact the Federal Highway Administration and let them know there are concerns about this project,” said Jeff Werner of the Piedmont Environmental Council .
Morgan Butler of the Southern Environmental Law Center said a federal law called the National Environmental Policy Act must be followed before the FHWA can approve construction of the bypass.
“NEPA requires that careful consideration be given to projects like this before the federal government will approve them,” Butler said. “It’s about looking at the impacts of a project on the environment, health and community.”
Butler said the SELC wants the Virginia Department of Transportation and the FHWA to conduct a thorough analysis of the impacts of the project because the last complete review of the bypass was conducted in 1993.
“That was also the last time a complete traffic study was done,” Butler added.
The SELC sued the FHWA in the late 1990s after the bypass route was extended north of the South Fork of the Rivanna River. The FHWA’s 1993 review did not address the expanded route.
In August 2001, federal Judge Norman K. Moon ordered the FHWA to conduct a supplemental review, which was completed in 2003. However, the bypass did not proceed due to local opposition from the Metropolitan Planning Organization.
When the project was revived last summer, VDOT was required by the FHWA to conduct the environmental assessment.
Morgan Butler addresses members of the Sierra Club
“It’s a cursory analysis of new information and changed circumstances to determine if the information is significant enough to require further study,” Butler said.
Butler said VDOT will be making the draft of the assessment public in the next few months in advance of the public hearing. The FHWA could either grant VDOT permission to proceed or could ask for further study.
“We desperately need people to weigh in with both federal and state officials voicing their opposition to this project and demanding a thorough analysis of its impacts be done,” Butler said.
Nine firms are currently putting together proposals to both design and build the project. Their bids are due on April 17. The Commonwealth Transportation Board will award a contract in June to the lowest bidder. Last summer, the CTB allocated $197 million in additional funding for right-of-way purchase, additional engineering and construction.
“If those bids come in significantly higher than the amount of money allocated to this project, hopefully some of the decision makers [on the CTB] will wake up and realize this significant chunk of money would go a lot further to reduce congestion on 29 If money goes to other projects,” Butler said.
Albemarle County resident Bob Brust said opponents of the road need to demonstrate to the CTB that they have a better alternative in mind because many in Lynchburg and Danville believe they deserve a bypass because their communities built them.
“If we just say no, they’re going to build the road because they’re so angry,” Brust said. “They’ll look at us and say we’ve done nothing, and it’s true.”
Werner said parallel roads and grade-separated interchanges called for in the Places29 Master Plan would be less damaging to the environment and would be more effective in addressing traffic congestion on existing U.S. 29.
He added that bypass proponents from communities farther down U.S. 29 may be disappointed when the $245 million bypass terminates in the middle of the county’s designated growth area.
“At North Pointe , there are 893 homes approved up there,” Werner said. “There are 675,000 square feet of shopping approved up there. Hollymead Town Center has half a million square feet of new retail. That’s an enormous amount of new development [not yet built].”