The deadline to submit comments on the Virginia Department of Transportation’s draft environmental assessment of the Western Bypass has passed, and the Southern Environmental Law Center has submitted an extensive document that calls for the Federal Highway Administration to require another environmental study of the 6.2-mile highway.
“It is critical that VDOT and the FHWA use the process required under the National Environmental Policy Act to remedy the serious information gaps and to take a hard look at the proposed bypass,” reads an Oct. 9 letter to VDOT written by Morgan Butler and Deborah Murray, senior attorneys with the SELC.
When the bypass project was revived in the summer of 2011, the FHWA determined that VDOT must complete an environmental assessment of the project that addresses changes that have occurred along the bypass alignment since 1993. That was the year that the FHWA first issued a go-ahead for the project.
Once it receives a final EA, the FHWA will either require a further study called a “supplemental environmental impact statement” or it will issue a “finding of no significant impact.” That will allow the project to proceed to final design and construction.
The SELC’s 45-page comment to VDOT argues the case that an SEIS is necessary. The comment is broken down into nine major sections, each of which makes a specific argument explaining why the organization feels the EA is flawed. Titles range from “The draft EPA inadequately addresses indirect and cumulative impacts” to “the draft EPA improperly fails to consider the most current design for the project.”
The conceptual plans evaluated previously by the FHWA describe an approximately 3.7 percent grade as the bypass crosses Stillhouse Mountain. However, the preliminary design created by the team of Skanska-USA and Branch Highways shows the road crossing the mountain at a 6 percent grade.
The EA is based on the original design.
“These grade increases may likewise produce significant noise and air pollution impacts that the draft EA fails to address,” wrote Butler and Murray.
Other sections of the SELC letter argue that the EA violates NEPA by not examining alternatives to the bypass; that the EA does not take a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency mandate to clean up the Chesapeake Bay into account; and that traffic forecasts used in the EA are “flawed and arbitrary.”
Another argument is that VDOT failed to evaluate the transportation components of the Places29 Master Plan as a viable alternative to the Western Bypass.
“Since completion of the SEIS, the community has developed a comprehensive solution to improve traffic flow along U.S. 29 for both local and through-traffic in lieu of the defunct bypass,” Butler and Murray wrote.
Places29, which was adopted in February 2011, calls for the eventual construction of grade-separated interchanges at several intersections, as well as construction of parallel roads to take traffic off U.S. 29.
“The Route 29 corridor is dramatically different now than it was two decades ago, yet VDOT has refused to reassess alternatives to the bypass that demonstrably will relieve traffic congestion more effectively than the bypass, and with far fewer harmful impacts,” Butler and Murray wrote.
The SELC also argues that the EA fails to acknowledge the impacts the bypass’s southern terminus will have on the Rivanna Trail. They specifically argue that VDOT has to perform an analysis called a Section 4(f) evaluation because the trails are a recreational amenity.
“The entire Rivanna Trail was designated as a National Recreation Trail in 2002 due to its importance in providing outdoor recreational opportunities for residents in the
Charlottesville-Albemarle urban area, and portions of the trail have been incorporated into the Virginia Birding and Wildlife Trail system since 2004,” reads the document.
The SELC document is just one of several hundred comments that VDOT received during the public input process for the EA. The Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce sent a letter asking for the project to move forward as soon as possible.
“The time to proceed with this project is now,” wrote chamber President Timothy Hulbert. “Our chamber continues to urge the commonwealth and the U.S. Federal Highway Administration to move forward expeditiously with final design and construction of this important highway safety and improved access project.”
VDOT is working on revising the EA based on public input.
“At this point in the process, we do not have a specific date for completing the process and submitting the revised EA,” said Lou Hatter, spokesman for VDOT’s Culpeper District. “The substantive comments VDOT received will be addressed in the revised EA.”