A pair of environmental groups claimed Thursday that construction of the $244 million
of U.S. 29 might be prevented through the federally mandated environmental review process.
“This is not a done deal,” said Jeff Werner of the
Piedmont Environmental Council
. “Local residents have every right to demand answers to their questions and to their concerns.”
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The bypass was revived this summer following a series of public hearings that ended with the Metropolitan Planning Organization voting on July 27 to allow construction funding to be allocated to the project.
Trip Pollard, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said overwhelming community opposition to the project has not been acknowledged by the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors, the Virginia Department of Transportation or Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton.
“[They] pulled this project out of the deep freeze, reviving it first with an unannounced late night vote, and then pushed it through several steps without adequate information and with little respect for public input,” Pollard said.
At the end of this month, VDOT will issue a request for proposals for firms to complete the design and then build the bypass. Public input into the request for proposal will not occur until VDOT issues an addendum in November.
“It is clear that they are adopting a backwards ‘ready, fire, aim’ approach,” Pollard said. “This approach is not adequate to get the data to make an informed decision, and the public involvement they suggest would be too little, too late.”
Werner asked the Albemarle supervisors to approve a resolution offered by Supervisor Dennis S. Rooker calling on VDOT to seek more public input before proceeding with the issuance of the RFP.
“The county could still influence how this project moves forward and how VDOT answers these questions,” Werner said. “It’s up to the county’s elected officials to decide if they have the will to do that.”
Pollard said the National Environmental Policy Act must be followed and it will provide a way for the public to weigh in on the project.
“The Federal Highway Administration has remaining critical decisions to make on this proposal,” Pollard added. “Careful consideration must be given to the environment, health and community impacts of choosing a particular option, and a hard look at alternatives is required.”
However, VDOT spokesman Lou Hatter disagreed that other bypass options would have to be considered.
“The reassessment that VDOT is going to do does not include looking at other alternatives,” Hatter said. “It will look at previously approved environmental impact statement and update the various pieces.”
The FHWA issued an environmental impact statement in 1995 that gave the go-ahead for construction of the bypass. The SELC and PEC filed suit against the FHWA, which resulted in a ruling in 2001 from U.S. District Court Judge Norman K. Moon that ordered a supplemental statement to further analyzed the potential effects on the reservoir.
The project stalled after the MPO amended its transportation improvement program in 2002 to block construction funding.
Supervisor Kenneth C. Boyd, an advocate for the project, said he expected the SELC and the PEC to file a lawsuit to try to halt the project.
“This is the same thing they’ve done before,” Boyd said in an interview. “They tried this back 10 years ago and that’s what got the bypass put on hold for such a long time.”
Pollard said he was not sure if his organization would file a lawsuit.
“At this time we don’t know because there are a lot of decisions still to be made,” Pollard said. “We do plan to make sure the law is followed.”
Werner said he wants the environmental review to also address what will be done to address U.S. 29 north of the bypass.
“Far from bypassing the development segments of Route 29, as downstate interests and local residents have been led to believe, this bypass returns traffic to a point south of the Hollymead Town Center, south of North Pointe and south of the National Ground Intelligence Center,” Werner said.
Boyd agreed that traffic congestion north of the bypass would continue to be a problem if the bypass is built, but said a second project to widen U.S. 29 to six lanes would provide some relief. However, he said planning to extend the bypass further north should begin now.
“Everyone agrees the bypass needs to go further around and that’s something I think we can talk about as early as now,” Boyd said.