Business leaders from both Charlottesville and Lynchburg gathered at the Doubletree Hotel Wednesday to hear from the man who has overseen the resurrection of the Western Bypass of U.S. 29.
“This is a region that has grown quite a bit and you have a lot of congestion and, quite honestly, the state has not invested the type of money that you need,” said Sean T. Connaughton, Virginia’s secretary of transportation.
Connaughton was the guest of the North Charlottesville Business Council, a group of the Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce. The organization was formed in 1993 in part to lobby against alternatives to the bypass. NCBC member Henry Weinschenk, the owner of Express Car Wash, is a long-time opponent of one such alternative, converting signalized intersections along existing U.S. 29 to grade-separated interchanges.
“The bypass is logical, commonsense and it’s the way we’ve been suggesting for a long time,” Weinschenk said. “To build grade-separated interchanges, you’d essentially have to destroy most business along U.S. 29.”
The interchanges were discussed while the Places29 Master Plan was developed in the last decade, but their construction was de-prioritized before the Albemarle Board of Supervisors adopted the plan in February 2011.
Tim Hulbert, president of the chamber, said the election of Gov. Bob McDonnell paved the way for the bypass to be revived.
“I came here 11 years ago and people told me that project was dead, but I never believed it,” Hulbert said. “We need to build and are building this road to improve safe travel not only for our locality but for the people who drive through our community.”
The bypass was revived last summer after Albemarle County changed its long-standing opposition to the road. In July, supervisors and Metropolitan Planning Organization members Duane E. Snow and Rodney Thomas voted to change language that blocked funding from being allocated towards the bypass’s construction.
“It’s about partnership with the local governments, and we really have some great friends here in Albemarle,” Connaughton said.
Last week, the Commonwealth Transportation Board awarded a $136 million contract to the Skanska-Branch team to both design and build the 6.2-mile, four-lane highway. Connaughton said the project is part of an $11 billion six-year improvement program for the Virginia Department of Transportation.
“You are going to see a lot of work going on out here and I think it’s something you should all be very pleased with,” Connaughton said.
One of the projects fully funded in the six-year plan was the replacement of the Belmont Bridge in Charlottesville. However, the Hillsdale Drive Extended project, which, like the bridge, had been attached to bypass funding, did not receive any additional funds at this time.
“That was an oversight on our part,” Connaughton said. “We have the money for construction and next month when the CTB meets, we will fully fund that.”
Hillsdale Drive Extended has a $30.5 million cost estimate and its construction will depend on having property donated by the owners of several shopping centers along its route.
“We have made it clear from the very beginning that we’re going to be very helpful in helping the city secure the right-of-way,” said Chuck Rotgin, president and CEO of the Great Eastern Management Company. The company owns and manages the Seminole Square Shopping Center.
Several members of the Lynchburg Regional Chamber of Commerce were in attendance at the meeting.
“We’re very encouraged by what we’re hearing,” said Kenneth R. Garren, president of Lynchburg College. “We know this will help everyone when we get a bypass built, and we believe it’s going to happen.”
Garren travels frequently to Washington and said he was not bothered that the road’s northern terminus will be south of Hollymead Town Center and in the middle of Albemarle’s growth area.
“I think we’ll see there’s going to be an improvement over what we currently have,” Garren said. “I think we’ll always try to continually improve the highways.”
Connaughton said he is hopeful the road will be under construction early next year. Before that can happen, the Federal Highway Administration must give the Virginia Department of Transportation environmental clearance.
Connaughton said he is confident that an ongoing environmental assessment will be sufficient to persuade the FHWA to approve the project this fall.
“When you look at the U.S. 29 bypass and whether there are any changed conditions, we don’t see really see anything that leaps out,” Connaughton said. “There are still going to be public input opportunities.”