Western Bypass Update
(Last month’s letter here)
Revealing two “significantly more expensive” designs for the Southern Terminus of the Western “Bypass” of Charlottesville, VDOT subtly confirmed May 23 that the original Skanska-Branch design was never considered functional.
Project manager Hal Jones pursed his lips and would say nothing when asked whether political pressure pushed VDOT to certify the original design which is so unsafe that truckers—for whom the $300 million highway is being built—couldn’t use Skanska’s “accepted” Southern Terminus plans. He, and four other engineers, all agreed that the new designs will run up the tab that taxpayers must borrow.
The two new designs, one a “loop” design and one back to the original 1997 “flyovers,” require moving and lowering existing U.S. 250 while building at least one new bridge and roughly doubling the amount of pavement. Engineers indicated the flyover design would be the most efficient for drivers but cost the most money, while refusing to predict exactly how much either of the new designs would add to the $244 million already allocated.
Recently, bypass proponent The Daily Progress editorialized that costs will climb $56 million to build a Southern Terminus that decreases, rather than increases like the accepted design, the amount of time it takes to bypass four miles of existing U.S. 29.
Bypass proponent Ken Boyd confirmed that the reason the highway “should be built” is to ensure overpasses at Rio and Hydraulic Road aren’t constructed. VDOT originally sequenced those overpasses first because they did the most for congestion and safety and said that any bypass should never be built unless the other Places29 projects all failed and there was money available.
The overpasses would “cost the small businesses (along 29N) millions during construction. That’s just too expensive for our ‘mainstreet’,” Boyd said.
VDOT puts the cost of building overpasses at $80 million, one-third the cost of the 6.2 mile bypass. The overpasses would change 29N “level of service” from an F to a B while building the bypass, VDOT says, will leave the intersections along 29 an F. Overpasses will address almost three-quarters of all accidents along 29N while the bypass might help 25 percent of the roughly 300 accidents annually.
Another VDOT engineer, Brent Sprinkel, agreed that the overpasses provide more benefits for less cost but implied political pressure overcame rational thinking.
“Yeah, we looked at those overpasses again, but the North Charlottesville business community didn’t want them,” he said.
Building the more expensive bypass for less public benefit is—in effect–the state choosing one business area over others. Spending $244 to $300 million will tie up half of all dollars coming to the entire nine counties in the Culpeper Transportation District through 2050 and all but assures there are no state transportation dollars for other parts of Albemarle County.
Meanwhile, similar design issues have shown up on the Northern Terminus of the bypass and VDOT has promised to adjust the route to miss an historic cemetery. Other expensive change orders are likely in the pipeline.
“Certainly, it (original design) was a bait and switch,” former Commonwealth Transportation Board member Jim Rich concluded. “We were not told about any issues on the Southern Terminus or elsewhere when we allocated money last summer. We weren’t told about any potential issues. And that’s illegal. I’m asking the attorney general to open an investigation.”
Rich, a 20-year member of Virginia’s GOP executive committee, was fired last fall by a Republican governor and secretary of transportation for continuing to talk fiscal reality about the Western Bypass.