By Sean Tubbs

Charlottesville Tomorrow

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Supervisor

Kenneth C. Boyd

has assembled a 12-member task force to provide citizen input as the Virginia Department of Transportation prepares a design for the northern terminus of the

Western Bypass

.

While VDOT is moving quickly to put the project to bid and indicating no other public hearings will be required, federal officials have to ensure that prior environmental reviews are adequate, which may open the project to further public scrutiny.

“This [is] a shining example of how we can involve the citizenry of my district particularly in some of the process that’s involved with the Western Bypass, particularly the northern terminus,” Boyd said.


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The 6.2 mile Western Bypass was revived this summer after a series of public hearings that concluded with

the Metropolitan Planning Organization voting 3-2 on July 27

to authorize funding for construction of the bypass.

The Commonwealth Transportation Board has allocated nearly $200 million to fund the project

.

Contributing to the total project’s cost uncertainty is that no design for the northern terminus has been completed because the bypass plans were changed in the late 1990’s to extend the road over the South Fork of the Rivanna River. In 2002, the MPO approved a resolution to block further funding and design work was halted.

VDOT’s conceptual plans for the terminus show a sprawling interchange that appears to intersect with Ashwood Boulevard at U.S. 29. In July, Boyd held a town hall meeting to connect members of the Forest Lakes and Hollymead neighborhoods with VDOT engineers to explain that the design would be revisited in part to address neighborhood concerns.

“It was obvious to me that the conceptual design wasn’t giving them all the information they needed, so I went to VDOT and asked if they would be alright with me setting up a committee that could work with them on the design and provide input,” Boyd said.

One of the members of the task force is Jim Grace, a bypass supporter and former board member of the Forest Lakes Community Association.

“My only concern with the bypass is the northern terminus,” Grace said. “I’ve also been very concerned about Ashwood Boulevard’s interchange with U.S. 29.”

Ann Thornber, another task force member, said she was an opponent of the bypass but is now taking a pragmatic approach.

“Because of where I live, right inside [Forest Lakes] on Ashwood, I want to be sure we have the best possible northern terminus,” Thornber said. “If I can have an input, then I want to.”






Supervisor Ken Boyd

Boyd said the committee is not officially a county-sanctioned body and its meetings will not be open to the public. He said they will meet three times in September before holding a public meeting to discuss its results.

“This group has no authority to enforce anything at all,” Boyd said. “It’s really just getting the citizens involved in what’s going to go in their neighborhood. They’re very concerned about that, so this was the best vehicle I felt to do that.”

Morgan Butler with the Southern Environmental Law Center attended Boyd’s press conference and said the task force’s efforts would not amount to much.

“When asked how—or even if—the task force’s input will be incorporated into the design of the interchange, there were no clear answers,” Butler said. “The community’s input should have been sought before, not after, our local officials voted for the bypass and gave all control over the design of the interchange to the state.”

“We committed to Mr. Boyd back at his town hall meeting back in July that we want to listen to the community and get community input on this,” said VDOT spokesman Lou Hatter. “This project is moving forward very quickly.”

Earlier this month, Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton told an audience in Lynchburg that he hopes to advertise the project for construction bids by the end of September.

“VDOT plans to advance the Route 29 Bypass project using a Design Build procurement method,” Connaughton said in an e-mail to Charlottesville Tomorrow. “The successful team will be responsible for [both] the final design and construction of the project.”

Connaughton added that VDOT will continue to acquire right of way while a contractor is found.

VDOT’s website lists around 20 active projects currently underway that were procured using the design-build approach.

Scott Collins, an engineer who is serving on the task force, suggested the bypass project may be broken up in order to speed up its construction as happened with another controversial road.

“Just look at the Meadow Creek Parkway which has been broken up into three distinct projects – the intersection, a city portion, and a county portion,” Collins said. “I can see that happening [with the bypass].”

Even if the project goes to bid this fall, construction cannot begin until the Federal Highways Administration conducts an environmental assessment of the project to see if previous studies remain valid. That process will take at least six months, and VDOT has not yet submitted that paperwork to FHWA.

“We look forward to reviewing the documentation from the state, and as the process continues, we will consider opportunities for public input,” said Doug Hecox, a spokesman with the FHWA.

However, in a follow-up interview, Hatter said there would be no official venue for public input.

“The northern interchange will not require a public hearing,” Hatter said.


LIST OF TASK FORCE MEMBERS

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