By Sean Tubbs
Charlottesville Tomorrow
Thursday, May 26, 2011

Albemarle County Supervisor Rodney S. Thomas has called for the Metropolitan Policy Organization to reconsider a 2002 resolution that prevents funding from being allocated for construction of the proposed Western Bypass of U.S. 29 .

“I’ve been trying to get the U.S. 29 [bypass] back on the burner for a long time,” said Thomas at an MPO meeting Wednesday. “I thought it should have been part of Places29. I think it needs to part of our overall discussion of the U.S. 29 corridor.”

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The Western Bypass is a primary road project on the MPO’s Transportation Improvement Program. (Click to enlarge)

Thomas’ request was made during a discussion of the transportation improvement program (TIP), a document through which the MPO communicates priorities and coordinates funding with federal and state officials.

Since 2002, the TIP entry for the Western Bypass has contained a lengthy paragraph that explains the MPO’s opposition to the project’s current design.

“The project as designed does not meet community or regional needs, and has been determined too costly for the transportation benefits to be gained,” reads the text.

Estimates for construction of the four-lane, limited-access highway range from $161 million to nearly $300 million.  Critics have said the planned roadway is already obsolete because its northern terminus is located south of the Hollymead Town Center and other commercial developments that were not present when it was designed.

In November 2002, the MPO policy board passed a resolution limiting the project’s funding to preliminary engineering and right of way purchase. Members at the time were concerned the project would have an adverse impact on schools, neighborhoods and the South Fork Rivanna Reservoir .

“[The text] is there because it expresses the policy that this board adopted in 2002 by resolution after a fairly lengthy process about the bypass,” said Stephen Williams , the executive director of the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission . “That still essentially is the MPO policy board’s position.”

“It’s old information,” Thomas said. “To remove [the text] is to say we do not oppose it.”

Julia Monteith, a non-voting member of the MPO who represents the University of Virginia , said she felt the policy board needed input from more stakeholders before changing its policy.

“It would seem to me that if we were going to be discussing changing this, that this is something the city and county would have to get involved in,” Monteith said. “I think it would be well beyond the MPO.”

Supervisor and MPO Chair Rodney Thomas

Thomas disagreed with that view.

“I think it’s up to us to get it on the burner as an MPO,” Thomas said. “That’s our duty, to get it back on there.”

The Virginia Department of Transportation still lists the Western Bypass as a project on its six-year improvement program because $47.2 million has been spent on preliminary engineering and to buy right of way for the 6.1-mile route.

Thomas stopped short of making a formal motion to rescind the 2002 resolution, but said he would bring it forward at the MPO’s meeting in June.

Williams said if the MPO rescinds the resolution, the project will also have to be included in the MPO’s long-range transportation plan. The MPO is currently beginning an update of that plan, which will require multiple public hearings and is part of the TJPDC’s Livable Communities Planning Project .

City Councilor Kristin Szakos said after the meeting she would need to study the matter further. City Councilor Satyendra Huja said he believed the Council had supported the project in the past.

Supervisor Duane Snow said his top transportation priority is to widen U.S. 29 to six lanes between the South Fork of the Rivanna River and Hollymead Town Center. However, he also suggested he would be open to selling the right of way in order to free up money for other projects.

State law requires land obtained for “advance acquisition” of highway projects to be sold back to the original owner twenty years after the original sale if the project has not gone to construction.

“If they decide they don’t want to purchase it, then we can put it out on the open market and get fair market value for it,” said VDOT policy chief Rick Walton at the Commonwealth Transportation Board’s March meeting.

The first parcel of land for the project was purchased on October 28, 1991, according to Albemarle County’s geographical information system. VDOT bought a total of 62 parcels for a total cost of $33.7 million between then and April 20, 2001.

Environmental groups opposed to the road have actively sought the sale of the land to pay for other transportation projects in the area.

“The Southern Environmental Law Center believes the best outcome would be to remove the project from the [six year improvement plan] and sell the right-of-way so that the money can be put toward more cost-effective and less damaging solutions along the U.S. 29 corridor such as the Hillsdale Drive Extension ,“ said SELC attorney Morgan Butler.

Thomas’s request prompted outrage from two fellow members of the Board of Supervisors.

“This issue has been brought up a number of times at Board of Supervisors meetings and the Board has not changed its long standing opposition to this project,” said Supervisor Dennis Rooker in an e-mail to Thomas obtained by Charlottesville Tomorrow.

“Moreover, during the Board’s numerous Places 29 and transportation discussions, we all agreed to the priority projects in the Rt. 29 corridor,” Rooker said.

Supervisor Ann Mallek said reopening the bypass discussion would distract the community from more pressing issues.

“Let’s truly focus on economic vitality, on water, [and] on the projects we do support,” Mallek said.



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