By Sean Tubbs
Friday, September 2, 2011
Editor’s note: This article was updated to reflect new information as well as subsequent publication in the September 2, 2011 Daily Progress.
The Virginia Department of Transportation is moving quickly to prepare a design for the northern terminus of the U.S. 29 Western Bypass so the project can be put out to bid this fall, but opportunities for public input will be limited.
“The northern interchange will not require a public hearing,” said Lou Hatter, a spokesman for VDOT.
However, Hatter later clarified that federal law will require a public hearing as part of the process to ensure that prior environmental reviews for the entire bypass project are still adequate.
“A public hearing will be held before the re-evaluation is completed in accordance with [National Environmental Protection Act] requirements,” Hatter said.
Meanwhile, a task force appointed by Albemarle County Supervisor Kenneth C. Boyd to help design the northern terminus of the Western Bypass is expected to provide an immediate opportunity for citizen input. Boyd’s announcement Wednesday upset some other supervisors who say the full board should have been involved in the discussion.
“I don’t think it’s appropriate for a committee selected by one board member, who has self-appointed himself to chair the committee, to be the ‘citizen’ input into design for the northern interchange,” said Supervisor Dennis S. Rooker in an email obtained by Charlottesville Tomorrow.
The 6.2-mile bypass was revived this summer after a series of public hearings that concluded with
the Metropolitan Planning Organization voting 3-2 on July 27
to authorize funding for its construction. The Commonwealth Transportation Board
has allocated nearly $200 million to fund the project
Contributing to the total project’s cost uncertainty is that no design for the northern terminus has been completed because the bypass plans were changed in the late 1990s to extend the road over the South Fork of the Rivanna River. In 2002, the MPO approved a resolution to block further funding, and design work was halted.
VDOT’s conceptual plans for the terminus show a sprawling interchange that appears to intersect with Ashwood Boulevard at U.S. 29. In July, Boyd held a town hall meeting to connect members of the Forest Lakes and Hollymead neighborhoods with VDOT engineers to explain that the design would be revisited in part to address neighborhood concerns.
“It was obvious to me that the conceptual design wasn’t giving them all the information they needed, so I went to VDOT and asked if they would be alright with me setting up a committee that could work with them on the design and provide input,” Boyd said.
Boyd said the task force is not officially a county-sanctioned body and its meetings will not be open to the public. He said it will meet three times in September before holding a public meeting to discuss its results.
“This group has no authority to enforce anything at all,” Boyd said. “It’s really just getting the citizens involved in what’s going to go in their neighborhood. They’re very concerned about that, so this was the best vehicle I felt to do that.”
Morgan Butler, with the Southern Environmental Law Center, attended Boyd’s news conference Wednesday and said the task force’s efforts would not amount to much.
“When asked how — or even if — the task force’s input will be incorporated into the design of the interchange, there were no clear answers,” Butler said. “The community’s input should have been sought before, not after, our local officials voted for the bypass and gave all control over the design of the interchange to the state.”
Hatter said it remained unclear how VDOT will incorporate the work of the task force into the final design for the terminus.
Earlier this month, state Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton told an audience in Lynchburg that he hopes to advertise the project for construction bids by the end of September.
“VDOT plans to advance the Route 29 Bypass project using a Design Build procurement method,” Connaughton said in an email to Charlottesville Tomorrow. “The successful team will be responsible for [both] the final design and construction of the project.”
Connaughton added that VDOT will continue to acquire right of way while a contractor is found.
VDOT’s website lists about 20 active projects currently under way that were procured using the design-build approach.
Scott Collins, an engineer who is serving on the task force, suggested the bypass project may be broken up in order to speed up its construction as happened with another controversial road.
“Just look at the Meadow Creek Parkway, which has been broken up into three distinct projects — the intersection, a city portion and a county portion,” Collins said. “I can see that happening [with the bypass].”
Even if the project goes to bid this fall, construction cannot begin until the Federal Highways Administration conducts an environmental assessment of the project to see if previous studies remain valid. That process will take at least six months, and VDOT has not yet submitted that paperwork to FHWA.
“We look forward to reviewing the documentation from the state, and as the process continues, we will consider opportunities for public input,” said Doug Hecox, a spokesman with the FHWA.