Despite a recent request from Albemarle County to reallocate funding for the Western Bypass of U.S. 29, the project will continue to live on in the area’s long-range road plans until there is more certainty about alternatives.
The Metropolitan Planning Organization, the regional panel that oversees federal funding of local transportation projects, will include the 6.2-mile, four-lane bypass of Charlottesville in its planning in order to meet federal obligations.
“We’re at the phase where we’re closing out the plan,” said Sarah Rhodes, transportation manager for the MPO, at Thursday’s board meeting.
For a project to receive federal funding, it must be on the Metropolitan Planning Organization Policy Board’s long-range transportation plan.
The last plan was adopted in May 2009, but was amended in July 2011 to reflect additional funding allocated by the Commonwealth Transportation Board for both the bypass and a separate project to widen U.S. 29 between Polo Grounds Road and Hollymead Town Center.
However, the future of the bypass has been called into question by a pair of actions last month.
On Feb. 18, the Federal Highway Administration sent a letter to the Virginia Department of Transportation indicating it likely would not grant permission for the project to proceed without consideration of alternatives or a reexamination of its “purpose and need.”
The next day, Albemarle supervisors approved a resolution calling for funding to be reallocated to other projects in the Places29 Master Plan, including studies of grade-separated interchanges at Hydraulic Road and Rio Road.
The highway administration requires a new transportation plan to be adopted by May. However, traffic modeling that informs local road decisions may be out of date given the uncertainty of the bypass.
“Do we go ahead and submit it by the deadline and amend it later?” asked Councilor Kristin Szakos, chairwoman of the MPO.
Ivan Rucker of the highway administration said if the plan is not adopted by the deadline, the federal government will consider the previous plan to have expired, which could prevent the MPO from receiving any federal money.
“I encourage you to keep the need to have a plan adopted by the deadline in the front of your minds because there are consequences,” Rucker said. “You can always amend the plan.”
For example, Rucker said the federal government would not approve any new transportation spending until a plan would be adopted.
Szakos asked if it would be possible to meet the highway administration’s deadline and also recalculate the plan without the bypass.
“It would be impossible to do that in the two-month timeframe,” Rhodes said.
“We’re trying to be careful,” county Supervisor Ann H. Mallek said. “The most important thing is to have a plan in place by the deadline.”
If the MPO decides to cancel the bypass, it could be subject to a provision of state law that would require previously spent money on the bypass to be repaid.
Opponents of the road encouraged the MPO to signal its willingness to put money toward projects in the Places29 Master Plan.
“With the letter from the Federal Highway Administration, the bypass is essentially dead on arrival and is not likely to be resuscitated,” said Elly Tucker, a member of the Charlottesville Albemarle Transportation Coalition. She urged the MPO to stand behind the many projects listed in the Places29 plan.
Morgan Butler, an attorney with the Charlottesville-based Southern Environmental Law Center, encouraged the group not to remove the bypass from the long-range transportation plan until the Commonwealth Transportation Board decides how to respond to the highway administration letter.
That is expected to happen at a March 19 CTB meeting.
The MPO opted to retain the bypass and adopt the plan on schedule. Rhodes said the MPO could address the uncertainty in its resolution adopting the plan.
“You could note the local concerns you have about the plan and that you intend to address them,” Rhodes said.
The MPO will hold a public hearing on the long-range transportation plan on March 26. A final public hearing and adoption is scheduled for the group’s May 28 meeting.
The highway administration is expected to approve the plan in the summer.
The bypass also came up at this week’s meeting of Albemarle’s Board of Supervisors, where new Supervisor Brad Sheffield raised concerns about the condition of some homes purchased by VDOT in the Western Bypass right-of-way.
“No matter what’s happening with the bypass and U.S. 29, the homeowners [and neighborhoods] have been held hostages for way too long,” Sheffield said. “Squirrel Ridge is one of those where home values have declined because of seven homes that have [become] dilapidated.”
Sheffield said he would like VDOT to take action on the homes, including demolition of homes that have fallen into disrepair.
Supervisor Jane Dittmar said she is concerned about the future of the money allocated to the bypass.
“Our resolution asked for that money to be moved to Places29,” Dittmar said. “I think it’s critical not only for Albemarle County but everyone concerned about that route that those funds are not diverted to other areas that are road-starved as well.”
Supervisor Kenneth C. Boyd pointed out that two other localities already have asked for the money.
“If you think they’re just going to sit back in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads and say, ‘let them keep the money,’ I don’t think that’s going to happen,” Boyd said.