To the Editor: Bypass Boondoggle
The so-called Western “Bypass” of Charlottesville will dry up future state money that will be needed for Crozet-area road improvements by tying up half of all state dollars coming to the Culpeper District of Virginia’s Commonwealth Transportation Board between now and 2050. In building the bypass, Albemarle will have gotten more than its share of funding for the nine northern Piedmont counties making up the district.
Each argument for the 6.2-mile highway collapses quickly if anyone does third-grade math. This highway built for trucks that trucks can’t use will need another $56 million added to the $244 million already allocated to make it usable and will then only save truckers, according to VDOT’s analysis, 66 seconds off the 10-hour drive from Lynchburg to NYC. No manufacturer would build a plant anywhere on the planet to save a minute off any full-day drive, slamming reality into the proponents’ main argument.
Meanwhile, VDOT has consistently reported that the “Bypass” will do nothing for local congestion. Since only 10 to 12 percent of the 47,641 to 51,939 vehicles per day on U.S. 29N pass through the area—90 percent is local traffic—the intersections along 29N will remain an “‘F’ level of service” even after the state borrows a fortune to build this so-called “Bypass.”
Last week, the highway’s safety argument fell by the wayside. According to VDOT Traffic Engineer Robert Rasmussen, in a letter forwarded to all Albemarle County supervisors, there were 260 accidents, or 304.83 per 100 million vehicle miles of travel, in 2010 along the 3.3 miles of US 29N the “Bypass” is supposed to relieve.
That’s a stiff rate; one of the highest in the state.
All but a handful of those accidents, however, take place at the intersections of Hydraulic and Rio Roads with 29N. If you exclude the intersections, the accident rate drops to 76.92 per 100 million vehicle miles of travel, meaning that over three in four of the accidents would be prevented if Virginia continued its original “three-party agreement” which promoted overpasses at Rio and Hydraulic before other traffic improvements.
In the early 1990s, the three-party agreement sequenced possible projects along 29N and concluded the overpasses should be first and that only IF all the other improvements failed to solve traffic issues and funding was available would any bypass be considered. No matter how expensive, no bypass, after all, can solve local congestion or local intersection accidents.
Yet in 2012 letters Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton tried to make 29N safety the primary issue, saying that “900 crashes in Albemarle County” represent “almost 50% of all crashes along the entire Route 29 corridor from North Carolina to the Fauquier/Prince William County Line.”
VDOT’s April 2010 report illustrates that the secretary not only can’t fathom the dollars he’s borrowing for future generations to pay back, he can’t do arithmetic either. Of the 7,103 crashes over three years that VDOT notes along the 218 miles of U.S. 29 in Virginia, 887 are indeed in Albemarle County. Do the math. That’s about one accident in every 12 and certainly nowhere close to “almost 50%.”
Assuming that the bypass diverted 10 percent of all traffic from the congested stretch of U.S. 29, as VDOT argues, and assuming that there is a direct correlation between the volume of traffic and the number of accidents, building a $300-million “Bypass” might prevent 89 crashes over three years, or about 30 yearly.
Alternatively, assume Rio and Hydraulic Roads were given grade-separated interchanges at an estimated cost of $80 million. The two intersections accounted for 738 of the 887 crashes along that stretch of U.S. 29. Assuming that those interchanges cut the accident rate by 75%, 553 crashes would be prevented over three years, or 184 yearly.
Put another way, fixing Rio and Hydraulic Roads would cost roughly $435,000 per yearly accident prevented, while building the bypass would cost $10 million per yearly accident prevented. Change the assumptions and you still get a vast cost-benefit discrepancy between the two alternatives.
Every single “Bypass” study over 20 years, indeed, illustrates this kind of fiscal irrationality. VDOT has announced several times that any Charlottesville Bypass is “no longer an effective option to serve corridor-wide trips,” including after completing 2009’s $1.5 million Route 29 Corridor Study. Albemarle County’s comprehensive plan is just as specific: “The (Bypass) project as planned does not meet community or regional needs and has been determined to be too costly for the transportation benefits to be gained. The transportation goals of the Bypass can be more effectively realized with improvements to the existing Route 29 corridor.”
Instead, we taxpayers are on the verge of borrowing $48,133 per daily vehicle or $4.54 million per second saved in order to reap, according to the only cost-benefit analysis, less than $8 million in public benefits.
What happened to rational planning?
Rational planning, again, sequenced 29N projects beginning with overpasses at Rio and Hydraulic Roads, but it fell under the influence of a car dealer who managed to get himself appointed to the Commonwealth Transportation Board in 1994. He became the driving force in the CTB’s 1995 resolution eliminating the overpasses and advancing the “Bypass.”
Worried that drop-in buyers might decline if an overpass was nearby, he also formed a group called the North Charlottesville Business Council in 1993 and slowly convinced other businessmen that his concepts were good for business everywhere. While he’s protecting his business, however, what is slowly dawning on other business people is that, if the “Bypass” is built, there’ll be zero state dollars for transportation projects in Crozet or Pantops or downtown Charlottesville.
Albemarle Planning Commissioner Mac Lafferty notes that “Bypass” funding, even before the coming change orders begin boosting costs left and right, will tie up half of all moneys coming to the entire Culpepper District of the CTB through 2050. And Jim Rich, the former Culpepper district representative, fired for talking fiscal sense over this so-called “Bypass,” confirms that analysis and blatantly calls the project a “colossal waste of taxpayer money.”
If the “Bypass” is built, the car dealer and his friends in state government, however, will have tied up so much money that there will never be enough to build the overpasses—the projects VDOT originally sequenced to go first because they did the most good for the least cost.
Plus, there will be nothing for any other Albemarle transportation need.
Letters reflect the opinions of their authors and not necessarily those of the Crozet Gazette. Send letters to firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 863, Crozet, VA 22932.