Image of FHWA letter sent to VDOT

On the same day the Albemarle Board of Supervisors voted 5-1 to request the Virginia Department of Transportation defund the Western Bypass in favor of other projects, the state’s main transportation decision-making body discussed the matter for half an hour.

The conversation before the Commonwealth Transportation Board took place after members received a letter from the Federal Highway Administration stating that an approval for the $244.5 million project would not come without further study.

“Based on the Federal Highway Administration’s review and upon advice of their counsel, they have informed Commissioner [Charles Kilpatrick] that VDOT should update the purpose and need for the project and reopen the process to consideration of alternatives,” said Aubrey Layne, Virginia’s secretary of transportation.

Layne said he has been directed by Governor Terry McAuliffe to draft a response to the FHWA letter. This may include preliminary concepts for alternatives to the 6.2 mile four-lane highway.

“We are going to look at how we are going to mitigate congestion in the Route 29 Charlottesville area in the future,” Layne said. “The answer to do nothing is just as unacceptable to us as maybe this finding is to some others.”

Layne said the federal government reached their conclusion because the corridor has become further congested since the current bypass alignment was originally selected by the CTB in November 1990.

CTB members who are proponents of the road expressed concern that the federal government seems to have changed its tune. The FHWA previously issued approvals – known as “records of decision” — in 1993 and 2003.

However, the Charlottesville-Albemarle Metropolitan Planning Organization opposed the project until late July 2011 and had blocked construction funding.

Former Gov. Bob McDonnell revived the bypass as a key priority after that local opposition was dropped.

VDOT had been waiting on a response from the federal government about whether those previous approvals were still valid, or if conditions had changed.

“I think this illustrates quite frankly the problem we have with developing road projects in a timely fashion,” said Allen Louderback, a rural at-large district representative on the CTB.

“You have environmental issues and all these things that drag down the timelines on a road project,” Louderback continued.

Layne said the political will of the project has also changed since the project was revived.

“This did lay fallow a long time,” Layne said. “It’s not like we were going forward with a project, working with everyone. This lay fallow and all of a sudden it was back on.”

Mark Peake, Lynchburg’s representative on the CTB, said he was disappointed by the letter.

“We’re half a billion into this project and their governments changed and they’ve decided they don’t like this,” Peake said. “We’re out half a billion dollars to try to protect this corridor of statewide significance.”

The CTB has actually approved only half that amount, $244.5 million, for the current design of the Western Bypass.  The price tag was expected to rise with design changes to improve interchanges and avoid historic resources.

There is no clear sense yet as to what VDOT’s response to FHWA may look like. One question will be what will happen with the $33 million that has been spent to date on right of way for the project. The first parcels of land for the project were purchased in 1990’s.

“In some discussions with the U.S. Department of Transportation, they indicated the right of way could be sold as long as the funds were used for an additional federally-funded project and no reimbursement would be necessary on the part of the Commonwealth,” said Nick Donahue, the deputy secretary of transportation.

That news satisfied the Culpeper District’s representative on the CTB.

“I’m relieved to hear that we do not have to reimburse any funds back to federal highways,” said Allison De Tuncq.

“Well, that’s what we believe,” Layne said. “We don’t know that for sure. That’s all going to hinge on how we move forward. This is not about penalizing anyone. I want to make that clear. We have to find a solution here.”

A plan for how to respond to the letter will be crafted before the Commonwealth Transportation Board’s next meeting in March.

“I’m glad that doing nothing is not the answer,” De Tuncq said.

“I want to see some agreement from them about what they want done in the next year that’s really going to help U.S. 29,” Peake said. “It is frustrating.”