By Sean Tubbs

Charlottesville Tomorrow

Sunday, July 10, 2011

A committee that advises the

Metropolitan Planning Organization

is concerned that additional funding for the

U.S. 29 Western Bypass

could decrease the chances of building projects called for in the Places29 Master Plan.

“We would hope that the MPO would … establish whether they are at risk from the financing of the bypass,” said city resident Bruce Odell, a member of the

Charlottesville-Albemarle Regional Transportation Plan Citizen Advisory Committee

(CHART).


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The MPO Policy Board will hold public hearings on Thursday and July 27 to consider amending language in its transportation improvement program to allow the Virginia Department of Transportation to allocate funds for construction of the bypass.






Russell “Mac” Lafferty

CHART member and Albemarle County Planning Commissioner

Russell “Mac” Lafferty

has issued a statement calling on the MPO to postpone its vote until more information is known.

“Without a more realistic description of the true costs and benefits of the revived Bypass project and more precise assurances that the project will not impede other more highly prioritized transportation investments, the community represented by the CHART committee will not support the Western Bypass,” Lafferty wrote.

Last month, Virginia Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton sent an email to Del. David J. Toscano, D-Charlottesville, indicating he would request that the

Commonwealth Transportation Board

amend its six-year improvement plan to include $196 million for the Western Bypass and $34 million to

widen U.S. 29 to six lanes

between

Hollymead Town Center

and the South Fork of the

Rivanna River

.

Connaughton has not yet detailed how money from other projects will be reallocated, but he is expected to do so by the CTB’s next meeting on July 20.

As a purely advisory body, CHART has no power to affect the outcome of the MPO’s public hearings. However, its members agreed last week to issue a statement expressing concern over the project’s funding and to question whether it would have any local benefits.

They did so after a nearly two-hour discussion that began with public comments from several former members of CHART who are opposed to the bypass.

“Do you really think that after they spend a quarter of a billion dollars on this road they’re going to supply more funds to this area?” asked George Larie, who served on a predecessor to CHART in the late 1990s. “I urge you to reject this request and insist on funding our Places29 projects already approved.”

The transportation components of the

Places29 Master Plan

were designed to reduce congestion by building a parallel road network and building grade-separated interchanges at key intersections along the U.S. 29 corridor. However, the interchanges were de-emphasized before the plan was adopted in February due to opposition from the business community.

Previous boards of supervisors did not allow the Western Bypass to be considered as part of that plan.

CHART members wanted data from traffic models that would show how many vehicles would be removed from the road.

A traffic forecast conducted in 1997 by the firm Parsons, Brinkerhoff, Quade and Douglas suggested that the bypass would be used by as many as 24,000 vehicles a day but daily traffic on existing U.S 29 would still be close to 70,000 vehicles a day, said

Stephen Williams

, executive director of the

Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission

.

Williams added that no additional forecasts modeling the potential effects of the bypass have been conducted since then because it was not considered to be an active project after 2002.

Albemarle resident Brad Sheffield said he was not necessarily in favor of the road, but said existing U.S. 29 could become more pedestrian friendly if some traffic is removed.

“When you take traffic that doesn’t belong on U.S. 29 and move it away, Places29 has a better chance of coming into fruition because you don’t have through traffic who are trying to go 60 miles an hour in a 35 mile per hour zone,” Sheffield said.

City resident Stephen Bach had a differing opinion.

“I think it might be a really positive thing if nothing got done,” Bach said. “The price of gasoline is not always going to be $4 a gallon and I think that the idea that we’re going to have the era of happy motoring forever is just ridiculous.”

Bach wanted Lafferty to tell the five voting members that the project is ill-advised.

However, Odell had a different approach.

“Can we find a package that we can sell that says we want to have a much more transit-friendly, pedestrian- and bike-friendly, environment-friendly 29 North instead of this continuous strip mall we have now?” Odell asked.

Albemarle resident

David Shreve

said he wanted VDOT to illustrate any benefits that might come to the community.

“We should not pretend that this is going to be undertaken with substantial benefits for our region when, in my mind, it does not contain them,” Shreve said.

Connaughton has previously said he believes the road can be advertised for construction by the end of the year. However, Williams said several steps remain before that can happen.

For instance, VDOT does not own all of the right of way for the bypass and owns no land north of the South Fork of the Rivanna River. As a result, VDOT says the engineering for the project is incomplete and VDOT does not have permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to disturb impacted wetlands.

“Even if after the MPO Policy Board takes action, if they take action, there are a number of steps that have to take place before equipment rolls out,” Williams said.

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