Western Bypass faces roadblocks
Federal administration recommends more research for potential highway
The proposal to construct a western U.S. Route 29 bypass ran into a pair of roadblocks last week, as the Federal Highways Administration requested the Virginia Department of Transportation further review the project and the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors passed a resolution asking Gov. Terry McAuliffe to direct funds away from the project.
The project would create a 6-mile road around the Charlottesville metropolitan area to allow people to bypass University and city traffic.
Last Tuesday, FHWA Division Administrator Irene Rico sent a letter to VDOT asking the department to prepare another Environmental Impact Statement before proceeding, saying environmental assessments have been “convoluted” and that a lot has changed since the project was first proposed 20 years ago.
“A supplemental EIS would allow both FHWA and VDOT to take a fresh look at the needs that exist in the Route 29 corridor and develop a solution that is supported by the public and localities in general,” Rico wrote.
Though the FHWA has not put a definitive stop to moving forward with the project, they suggested the project may not be worth the risk.
“[It] is expected that a reassessment of the purpose and need will find that [the bypass] is no longer adequate to support the investment in the corridor,” Rico wrote.
During the 20-year period since the project was initially proposed, plans for a bypass have undergone extensive environmental tests, including multiple EISs, or reviews required by the Environmental Protection Agency for projects which could drastically impact the environment, as well as numerous Environmental Assessments. Such assessments have come back with inconclusive data about impact to the corridor.
The FHWA letter came just one day before the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors was set to block the project. Kenneth Boyd was the lone Board member to support the decision to create the corridor, and said he was surprised by the federal decision.
“This is unprecedented that we have withdrawn our support after a contract is awarded with VDOT,” Boyd said.
Prior to the vote, more than 100 residents of Albemarle County spoke at a public hearing on the construction. The majority of attendees advocated against construction. Opposition to the Western Bypass was a key issue many candidates ran on last November in the Board elections.
Boyd said further research needed to complete the new statement could add another two years onto the project — a long time to spend evaluating a project which is likely to die. Boyd said $54 million has already been spent on the project, and there is likely some obligation to the company that was awarded the building contract. He emphasized the Western Bypass is not intended to solve traffic problems in the area in itself, but is rather part of a group of roads and negotiations which will mediate the situation.
The FHWA letter suggested redirecting the project funds to other construction needs, an idea reflected in the 5-1 resolution passed by the Board.
According to the FHWA, VDOT will make the final decision on whether or not construction on the highway will continue.