Virginia’s secretary of transportation returned to Charlottesville on Thursday to brief officials on rapid progress being made on several projects under construction on U.S. 29.

“Back in March 2014, we weren’t even sure we were going to have any projects here and then 11 months later the first contracts were signed,” said Aubrey Layne. “I’m very pleased with the progress that’s being made.”

Layne was last officially in Charlottesville at that time to kick off an advisory panel convened by Gov. Terry McAuliffe after federal officials signaled they would not approve an environmental clearance for the now-defunct Western Bypass.

The Route 29 Solutions Panel had been charged with helping make recommendations on how money allocated to the bypass could otherwise be spent to improve traffic flow on the highway.

Three of those projects, costing $117 million, are now well under construction. This week Rio Road temporarily closed over U.S. 29 to accommodate construction of a grade-separated interchange.

Layne viewed construction work on that project Wednesday night and said he is pleased with how work is proceeding. As of Thursday morning, 13 out of 47 deck-beams that will carry Rio Road over U.S 29 had been installed.

Work also is proceeding on two other projects being built by the joint venture of Lane Corman.

Abutments have been built for a bridge to carry Berkmar Drive Extended across the South Fork Rivanna River. Stormwater retention ponds are in place to accommodate additional stormwater that will be generated by a widened U.S. 29.

“That’s well over a couple hundred million dollars’ worth of work going on,” Layne told the Project Delivery Advisory Panel, a successor group to the Route 29 Solutions Panel that has overseen design and implementation of the projects.

Several members of the second panel resigned last spring out of protest.

“We had no voting capacity,” Chuck Lebo, president of Lebo Commercial Properties, said in an interview Thursday. “I have served thousands of hours on boards and commissions over my last 42 years in this community, but on this one there was no decision-making ability on our part.”

“If 10 years from now people look back on this and say it’s a mess, I didn’t want my name on it,” he added.

However, Lebo said he believes he and his colleagues helped to improve the aesthetics of the project.

Layne said the Project Delivery Advisory Panel also has been responsible for helping to ensure signage was erected to assist businesses affected by the construction.

He said the community disagreed on the Western Bypass for 40 years before a final decision was made to suspend the project.

“This was a controversial project and it’s not the ultimate answer for [U.S. 29],” Layne said. “The key is communication, and what we’ve done here is what we’re going to be utilizing across the state with new projects.”

Philip Shucet, a former commissioner of the Virginia Department of Transportation hired to oversee the projects, acknowledges there has been dissent and said he respects it.

“The individual that is disagreeing with you the most is paying the same share of the cost as everyone else,” he said. “It’s not VDOT’s money. It’s the public’s money, and keeping that in front of you at all times is vital.”

Layne said he knows there will continue to be differing opinions in the community.

“There are some that to this day absolutely believe we should have built the bypass,” Layne said. “I appreciate the critics who have added to this process.”

Henry Weinshenk, the former owner of a business near the U.S. 29-Hydraulic Road intersection, is among those who wanted the bypass to be built. VDOT is in the process of selling back property purchased for the bypass.

“Is there anybody in VDOT thinking about where a future bypass would be?” Weinshenk asked. “One way or another, there is a missing interstate in Virginia.”

Layne said officials elsewhere in the U.S. 29 corridor also are interested in planning such a road, but the days of building new infrastructure on undeveloped land are over for now.

“[Federal officials] will make you exhaust any opportunity on existing right of way before they will approve a greenfield project,” Layne said. However, he said VDOT is working on a corridor study that will analyze areas where existing roads can be expanded for the benefit of through-traffic.

“I don’t know where that line is on the map, but we’re looking at it,” he said.
 

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