As the Virginia Department of Transportation continues to revise an environmental assessment for the proposed Western Bypass of U.S. 29, one debate centers around a claim made by a VDOT engineer about how many vehicles the limited-access highway will actually serve.
“One point to be made is that most of the traffic on Route 29 is from traffic going through Charlottesville and not local traffic,” wrote VDOT engineer Steve Damron in an Aug. 31 email. “Hence the reason for the bypass.”
Damron’s email and others were among documents made available to Charlottesville Tomorrow through a Freedom of Information Act request for correspondence between VDOT and the Federal Highway Administration.
VDOT now says the emails, which suggest the road would have much greater utility for relieving traffic congestion, should not be considered official policy.
The FHWA will make a determination of whether construction of the project can proceed or whether further environmental study is required. VDOT published a draft environmental assessment in August, but will not release a final version until after the FHWA has made its determination.
Neither VDOT nor the FHWA could provide a timeline for when that will happen. The correspondence shows the agencies are continuing to evaluate comments received from the public.
One of those comments triggered Damron’s claim.
“The project will not benefit Charlottesville traffic as Route 29 traffic is mostly local,” reads one of the hundreds of citizen comments submitted in response to the environmental assessment.
VDOT responded that a traffic model conducted by the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission in January 2012 forecasted a reduction of traffic volumes on existing U.S. 29 by 28 percent.
“By diverting traffic from existing Route 29, the average delay per vehicle at intersections on existing Route 29 would be reduced when compared to the no-build alternative,” VDOT responded.
However, the response did not address the citizen’s claim about what traffic would be served, prompting the FHWA to press the issue.
“Has this ‘local traffic’ argument been verified or are we just accepting it at face value?” asked Ed Sundra, an FHWA official coordinating the agency’s review of the environmental assessment.
“In layman terms, through-traffic would be traffic whose origin or destination is not in the Charlottesville area,” Damron wrote on Dec. 20. He went on to explain how VDOT’s Road Network System database can be used to collect traffic counts on an ongoing basis.
“Route 29 Business from the downtown area of Charlottesville has [average daily traffic] of 14,000 vehicles,” Damron continued. “Route 29 north of the U.S. 250 Interchange has an [average daily traffic] of 55,000 vehicles. [That is] 41,000 through-volumes and 14,000 local. Route 29 north of Airport Road has an [average daily traffic] of 47,000, indicating that most of the traffic on Route 29 passing through the area is not local traffic.”
Stephen Williams, executive director of the Planning District Commission, said Damron’s analysis is problematic.
“The approach that this traffic engineer suggests for adding and subtracting traffic counts to determine how much is local traffic and how much is through-traffic is simply not correct,” Williams said.
Williams said studies conducted in the late 1990s show that most traffic on U.S. 29 is local.
“We do not believe that the situation has changed significantly since that last origin-destination study was done,” Williams said. “That being said, our traffic modeling shows that the Western Bypass will reduce local traffic on existing U.S. 29 and improve the level of service.”
Damron’s interpretations also differ strongly from comments made by VDOT engineer John Giometti to the Albemarle CountyCountyCounty Planning Commission in July 2007, when the county was still crafting the Places29 Master Plan.
“Twelve percent of the trips … originate and finish outside of the urbanized area of Albemarle County, so it’s important to realize that it’s not a big number as a lot of people would think that number would be,” Giometti said at the time.
That regional traffic model used 1998 data and was analyzed by the firm Meyer, Mohaddes Associates on behalf of Albemarle County and the Planning District Commission for Places29. It was built by collecting vehicle data from 19 locations throughout the county.
Giometti has since left VDOT and now is assistant transportation director at Rinker Design Associates in Fredericksburg.
While VDOT’s environmental staff solicited Damron’s input on the “citizen’s assertions,” a VDOT spokesman is now saying the engineer’s explanations, which were provided directly to the FHWA, should now be dismissed.
“Mr. Damron’s comments are contained in an email and do not represent an official position of VDOT,” said Lou Hatter, spokesman for the agency’s Culpeper District. “[The Road Network System database] is a repository of historical traffic data, not a traffic modeling or forecasting tool.”
“The bypass would primarily benefit out-of-town drivers who are passing through our area, and VDOT has consistently maintained that those folks make up a very small percentage of the traffic on 29 in the Charlottesville area,” said Morgan Butler, of the Southern Environmental Law Center.
Butler added that grade-separated interchanges, which were eliminated from the Places29 plan, would improve traffic congestion for both local drivers and motorists who are just passing through.