Tag Archives: Charlottesville Bypass

Safety Last?

The McDonnell administration’s defense of the $244 million+ Charlottesville Bypass as a boon to traffic safety on U.S. 29 falls apart under close scrutiny.

Accident on U.S. 29 in Albemarle County. Photo credit: NBC 29.

Accident on U.S. 29 in Albemarle County. Photo credit: NBC 29.

by Randy Salzman

With apologies to Lewis Carroll, Charlottesville’s so-called Western “Bypass” project gets “curiouser and curiouser.”

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 by Virginia to make it usable and then will save truckers, VDOT analyzes, only 66 seconds off the 10-hour drive from Lynchburg to NYC. Would any manufacturer build a plant anywhere on the planet to save a minute off full-day travel, as downstate proponents argue?

VDOT, meanwhile, consistently reports the “Bypass” will do nothing for Albemarle County 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 while 90 percent are local, the intersections along 29N will remain an F level of service after Virginia borrows a fortune to build this expensive four-lane highway, which terminates south of two large, growing neighborhoods and the area’s largest shopping mall.

Recently, the safety argument also fell by the wayside. According to VDOT Traffic Engineer Robert Rasmussen, in a letter forwarded to Albemarle County supervisors, in 2010 there were 260 accidents, or 305 per 100 million vehicle miles of travel, along 3.3 miles of U.S. 29 that the “Bypass” is supposed to relieve.

That’s a stiff rate; one of the highest in the state.

All but a handful of accidents, however, take place at the intersections of Hydraulic and Rio Roads with U.S. 29. If the intersections are excluded, the accident rate drops to 77 per 100 million vehicle miles of travel. Nearly four four in five wrecks would be prevented if Virginia stuck to its original “three-party agreement,” which promoted overpasses at Rio and Hydraulic.

In the early 1990s, VDOT’s three-party agreement sequenced possible projects along U.S. 29 north of Charlottesville and concluded the overpasses should be built first. Only if all the other improvements failed to solve traffic issues, and if funding was available, would a bypass be considered. It was clear then that a bypass would not solve local congestion or local intersection accidents.

Yet in 2012 Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton tried to make safety a primary justification for the bypass, stating in correspondence 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 the secretary not only can’t fathom the borrowed dollars he’s dumping on future generations, he also has trouble with third-grade math. Of the 7,103 crashes over three years that VDOT notes along U.S. 29 in Virginia, 887 are indeed in Albemarle County. Run the numbers. That’s about one accident in every 12 and nowhere close to “almost 50%.” Read more.

The Stroad to Hell …

The Midlothian Turnpike in Chesterfield County: a classic stroad. Photo courtesy of the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

by James A. Bacon

Americans, asserts Charles Marohn in his book “Thoughts on Building Strong Towns,” do not understand the difference between streets and roads. That conceptual confusion has resulted in untold billions of dollars in bad investment as traffic engineers have melded the two in what Marohn and others have contemptuously term “stroads.”

I bring this up because I cannot imagine that any state suffers more from the affliction of stroads than Virginia does. Worse, I don’t see that anyone writing editorials, commentary or white papers in the Old Dominion who understands what we have done to ourselves. All I see is the relentless call to increase taxes so we can spend more money to “fix” the problem that we created through  carelessness and ignorance.

As Marohn explains:

Roads move people between places while streets provide a framework for capturing value within a place.

The value of a road is in the speed and efficiency that it provides for movement between places. Anything … that reduces the speed and efficiency of a road devalues that road. If we want to maximize the value of a road, we eliminate anything that reduces the speed and efficiency of travel.

The value of a street comes from its ability to support land use patterns that create a financial return. The street with the highest value is the one that creates the greatest amount of tax revenue with the least amount of public expense over multiple life cycles. If we want to maximize the value of a street, we design it in such a way that it supports an adjacent development pattern that is financially resilient, architecturally timeless and socially enduring.

Rather than maximizing the efficiency of streets and roads, we have combined their functions to the detriment of both. Stroads, designed to move traffic at 45 or so miles per hour, create the worst of both worlds. Rather than accommodating complete streets that allow for automobiles, transit, bikers and pedestrians, stroads focus on moving automobiles exclusively. In exchange for bumping up local speed limits 10 or 20 mph that save motorists a few fractions of a minute in driving time, stroads effectively banish other modes of transportation from the scene. In so doing, as I noted in a previous post (“Wealth-Destroying Streets“), they destroy property values and dampen tax revenues.

At the same time, we have ruined state highways across the Old Dominion by allowing them to evolve into commercial streets cluttered with driveways, cut-throughs and stop lights. Thus, to pick an example frequently mentioned on this blog, government officials in Charlottesville and Albemarle County enacted policies over the past three or four decades that gradually converted U.S. 29 north of Charlottesville from a state highway into a local street that now requires a $244 million bypass to circumvent. Of course, local government officials have done the same thing in Danville, Lynchburg, Warrenton, Gainesville and even in rural counties in between. State officials have awakened to the need for “access management” but they have done so way too late in the game — the damage is irreparable. Virginia does not have the money to fix its ruined highways.

One of the dangers of the Governor Bob McDonnell’s tax increase is that it will absolve transportation policy makers of the need to return to first principles. Rather than re-think how we invest our transportation dollars, we will continue to degrade more highways into stroads and build more stroads that degrade property values. We will continue merrily upon our wealth-destroying ways until the money runs out.

Bend, Buckle and Crack

The southern terminus

The case for the proposed Charlottesville Bypass is collapsing like an old bridge. Even a VDOT consultant questions how well Skanska-Branch’s design for the controversial highway can handle projected traffic loads.

by James A. Bacon

Suspicions confirmed: Northbound trucks on the proposed Charlottesville Bypass would take nearly two minutes longer to pass through the southern interchange under contractor Skanska-Branch Joint Venture’s preliminary design than under VDOT’s original design — nullifying much of the purpose of building the bypass in the first place.

The travel-time estimates come not from citizen activists opposed to the Bypass, whose concerns I have detailed on Bacon’s Rebellion (see “A Bypass for Trucks that Trucks Won’t Use.”) It comes from VDOT’s own consultant, Parsons Brinckerhoff.

A Jan. 17, 2013, draft memo from Michael Fendrick with Parsons Brinckerhoff included a chart that listed computer-modeled travel times through the interchange under various scenarios. Under the original VDOT design, which used a “flyover” ramp allowing for 45 mile-per-hour travel, trucks would take 58.3 seconds on average to clear the interchange. Under the “3 lane diamond” design, adopted by Skanska-Branch for purposes of actual construction, the trip would take 167.7 seconds on average.

“As would be expected, the flyover is the best from a traffic and operations perspective,” wrote Fendrick. “The 3 lane diamond with steep grades is substantially slower than the other alternatives due to signal delay plus truck acceleration issues.” Given the steepness of the grade, trucks would have to travel 1,400 feet before accelerating to 45 miles per hour.

The difference between the two designs is 110 seconds — offsetting much of the roughly 150-second travel-time savings the $244 million project was supposed to gain for north-bound trucks seeking to skirt a congested stretch of U.S. 29 north of Charlottesville. And that doesn’t include other problems identified by Parsons Brinckerhoff and VDOT officials in documents obtained by the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) under the Freedom of Information Act.

The Skanska-Branch design also would create a problem with a “weaving” traffic pattern between the southern terminus and the Ivy Road interchange on the U.S. 250 Bypass. Weaving occurs when traffic entering a limited-access highway from one interchange conflicts with traffic on the highway seeking to exit at the next interchange. When interchanges are closely spaced or when conditions are already congested, the complex pattern can slow traffic, worsen congestion and increase the risk of traffic accidents.

Furthermore, the three-diamond design would create problems for south-bound drivers where the two-lane Bypass would split as it approached the southern terminus and merged with U.S. 250. “From a capacity standpoint,” wrote Fendrick, “the merge will cause flow operation issues, particularly if the single lane to the right is at a low design speed.”

When the Commonwealth Transportation Board approved $244 million in 2012 to fund the project, VDOT displayed schematics from an earlier design in its presentation to the board. No one had informed board members that engineers in the Richmond central office were questioning whether the project could be delivered for that price. The McDonnell administration finessed those concerns by setting up the Bypass as a design-build contract on the expectation that outside, private-sector bidders might find creative ways to redesign the 6.5-mile highway at lower cost.

Skanska-Branch submitted a low bid of $135 million to handle design and construction — not including funds for preliminary engineering and Right of Way acquisition — coming in just under the authorized amount. The company’s conceptual design saved millions of dollars of construction costs by eliminating the southern-terminus flyovers, vastly reducing the amount of excavation, fill and new roadway construction work required. Despite the radical design changes — drivers now would encounter two stoplights on a steep grade — VDOT awarded the contract to Skanska-Branch.

A competing bidder, American Infrastructure, disputed the contract award, arguing that Skanska-Branch had failed to meet the specifications of VDOT’s Request for Proposal. In a June 1, 2102, letter to Jeff Roby with VDOT’s Alternate Project Delivery Office, the firm honed in on the southern terminus, specifically citing the problems created by the traffic signals, the weave traffic pattern, and the inability to handle large traffic volumes during special events at the nearby University of Virginia. Read more.

Raising Taxes, Building Roads, Inducing Traffic

by Randy Salzman

In fighting the waste of taxpayer dollars on the so-called “Western Bypass” of Charlottesville, I met a woman who favored the bypass because her family owns a beach house in Virginia Beach. As best as  I could decipher her logic, she was willing to drive 15 miles out of her way to save approximately one minute to bypass congestion north of Charlottesville on her six-hour trip from the Appalachian foothills to the Atlantic Ocean.

Even if the bypass allowed her to drive 60 miles per hour for the entire 6.2 miles, and even if she hit every light along the existing U.S. 29, it will always take her more time to drive the bypass, which is literally taking her the opposite direction from her beach house.

There is no planning model to calculate this kind of “induced traffic” but every time the before- and after- reality of a newly constructed highway project has been researched, induced traffic has been found. We drive more times more places with less thought whenever government makes it seem easier or cheaper to drive, which, of course, creates more pollution, more fuel consumption, more global warming, more need to fight in the Middle East, more reason for oil companies to drill in the Arctic and, in the end, more congestion.

Every highway project has slightly different effects, but overall the data show that more lanes of highway induce more people to drive farther until not only is the new roadway oversubscribed but the roadways it was intended to relieve are again backed up. Donald Chen, in a 1998 Surface Transportation Policy Project titled, “If you Built it, They Will Come: Why We Can’t Build Ourselves Out of Congestion,” found that 90 percent of new urban roadways in America are overwhelmed within five years. And those roadways are never cheap. Indeed, an analysis of roadway construction across 70 urban areas over 15 years concluded:

Metro areas that invested heavily in road capacity expansion fared no better in easing congestion than metro areas that did not. Trends in congestion show that areas that exhibited greater growth in lane capacity spent roughly $22 billion more on road construction than those that didn’t, yet ended up with slightly higher congestion costs per person, wasted fuel, and travel delay. … On average the cost to relieve the congestion reported by [Texas Transportation Institute] just by building roads could be thousands of dollars per family per year.

In the case of the Western “Bypass,” the Virginia Department of Transportation does not even claim that spending $240 million on a locally unwanted highway will make U.S. 29 easier to drive. Both before and after spending money the state does not have, VDOT reports U.S. 29 north of Charlottesville will have an “F” level of service.

Unfortunately for those of us who want our tax dollars spent wisely, as a nation and a people we’re invested in outdated, short-term thinking because no politician – or media – dares question the American love affair with the automobile. Because the vast majority of voters are also drivers, we keep denying reality and producing policy that digs us ever deeper into a vast hole.

Just days ago, the General Assembly passed a budget compromise that decreases the Commonwealth’s meager gasoline tax and charges everyone more money for milk, whether they drive or not, primarily in order to ease the cost of driving which will, every economist notes, lead to more driving.

It is not primarily population growth that creates congestion, it is new driving ,which grows at an annual rate of at least twice population, regardless of where the rate is measured. Since 1970, U.S. vehicle miles traveled have increased 121 percent — four times population growth. Read more.

Tell Us What You Really Think, Jim

by James A. Bacon

A month after getting the sack from the Commonwealth Transportation Board, James E. Rich, former Culpeper District representative, has unloaded on the $245 million Charlottesville Bypass and Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton in far harsher terms than he did immediately after his resignation. (See “Our Way or the Highway.”)

“Despite the contrary advice of senior VDOT engineers and a $1.5 million Route 29 study conducted by VDOT, Virginia Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton is hell bent on resurrecting a thoroughly discredited 20-year-old bypass proposal,” Rich wrote in The Hook, a Charlottesville tabloid.

Unfortunately, because of the nontransparent design-build process that Connaughton has utilized, no public hearings have been allowed on the current contract design, and there will be very large cost overruns and change orders in the future unless this project is terminated. This a colossal waste of taxpayer money from which any fiscal conservative should recoil. …

Why would Connaughton propose such a project and do so in such a nontransparent manner? The answer is arrogance, politics over engineering and a complete lack of vision for Charlottesville-Albemarle. Much like the fiscal situation in Washington, Connaughton kicks the can down the road for somebody else to deal with.

Those aren’t partisan potshots. Rich served on the executive committee of the Republican Party of Virginia for 20 years.

Unquestionably the strongest personality in Governor Bob McDonnell’s cabinet, Connaughton has earned the reputation of someone who “gets the job done.”  One way he gets things done is is willingness to play hardball in a Virginia political culture that is still genteel in many respects. Under his watch, the administration swept clean the board of directors of the Virginia Port Authority, installed new appointees on the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority and canned Rich, an irritatingly independent voice on the CTB. Rest assured that other gubernatorial appointees subject to Connaughton’s reach have gotten the message.

Decision-making for mega-transportation projects is so complex, so process-driven and so easy for determined opponents to run off track that some observers find Connaughton’s approach refreshing. If all goes well, he will look like a hero. But if his damn-the-torpedoes approach leads to cost overruns or defaulted bonds, history may remember him the way Jim Rich describes him.

$240 Million to Save One Minute Travel Time?

Trucks on I-64 at Afton Mountain struggle to maintain posted speeds on a grade that is half as steep as a short slope at the southern terminus of the proposed Charlottesville Bypass. How fast can trucks drive when starting from a dead stop at a traffic signal?

by James A. Bacon

Spending roughly $240 million to build the Charlottesville Bypass will save motorists less than one minute of travel time compared to driving on U.S. 29, according to a new analysis by the Charlottesville-Albemarle Transportation Coalition (CATCO).

The installation of synchronized stoplights in 2007 has cut travel time on the congested stretch of stoplight-infested highway by 30% to  50%, and traffic volumes have increased less than predicted by the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) when the Bypass was originally proposed 20 years ago. At the same time, design changes to the Bypass made by winning contract bidder Skanska/Branch have diminished the performance of the highway, creating the potential for significant slowdowns at its southern terminus.

While some might dismiss the CATCO analysis as the work of a group that has long opposed the Bypass, it is the only travel-time analysis that anyone has conducted on the basis of published roadway design specifications. As the report notes, “VDOT has  never publicly released any travel time information regarding the proposed Rt. 29 Bypass.”

Lead author Bob Humphris is a retired University of Virginia civil engineer professor. Having followed the Bypass controversy for 20 years, he has amassed the largest collection of Bypass-related documents anywhere outside VDOT. Last year he exposed the fact that the redesigned southern terminus would create safety problems (see “A Bypass Built for Trucks… that Trucks Won’t Use“). The Virginia Trucking Association subsequently confirmed that the safety issues he raised were valid, although the association still supports the project.

The preliminary Skanska/Branch design, which still may be modified under the design-build contract with VDOT, reduces travel time savings compared to the original VDOT design that was deemed too expensive. North-bound traffic from the U.S. 250 Bypass must detour onto a ramp and the local street system (Leonard Sandridge Road), which includes two stoplights, an 11.4% grade for a distance of 162 feet, and a 4.3% grade for 500 feet before entering the Bypass. States the report:

The CATCO-calculated travel time, using posted and estimated speeds for various segments, for the north-bound 6.56 mile Skanska design WITH the proposed Bypass is 8.26 minutes, and the calculated time for the 6.18 mile present route WITHOUT the Bypass is 9.11 minutes.

The CATCO calculation of a 51-second time savings comes with an important caveat. It represents an “ideal situation” in which traffic flows at the posted speed. In point of fact, even with synchronized lights, travel times frequently fall beneath posted speeds on the congested U.S. 29 business corridor. But Bypass travel times will fall short, too. North-bound tractor-trailers will encounter two stoplights at steep grades and, depending upon traffic conditions, could require multiple signalling cycles to get through.

Bypass foes have argued that for roughly the same price as building the Bypass, VDOT could make major improvements along the existing U.S. 29 that would alleviate more congestion and improve travel times for local traffic as well as for pass-through traffic. Albemarle County Supervisor Dennis Rooker also has been promoting the deployment of more advanced signalization controls on U.S. 29, such as those used successfully in a pilot project on U.S. 250 at Pantops Mountain.

Bacon’s bottom line: If the CATCO calculation is accurate, it would prove devastating to the economic case for the Bypass. The McDonnell administration has justified the project largely on the grounds that U.S. 29 is a corridor of statewide significance critical to the inter-regional movement of trucks. Likewise, the business communities of Lynchburg and Danville have supported the project thinking that it will make local manufacturers more competitive. But the notion that shaving 51 seconds off a five- to 10-hour trip to Northeastern markets would provide a measurable economic boost to Southside manufacturers is hard to maintain. That time savings would quickly be swamped by the ongoing encroachment of cut-throughs and stoplights along the length of the U.S. 29 corridor.

Army Corp Wants New Analysis of Cville Bypass

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) isn’t the only federal agency that would like to see a comprehensive environmental reevaluation of the Charlottesville Bypass. The Army Corps of Engineers contends that previous environmental studies, conducted in 1990 and 2002, may be outdated and do not fully explore alternatives to the bypass.

The Norfolk District of the Army Corps claims jurisdiction over 2.8 acres of wetlands and 7,040 linear feet of streams impacted by the proposed U.S. 29 bypass north of Charlottesville. In a Nov. 9 letter to state and federal highway officials, William T. Walker, chief-regulatory branch, said the state’s Environmental Assessment (EA), an update of previous environmental studies, is “insufficient” for the Corps to make a Least Environmentally Damaging Practical Alternative (LEDPA) determination.

The letter enumerated upon several concerns, including the Virginia Department of Transportation’s use of possibly flawed traffic data as well as the use of information that is between 10 and 20 years old in analyzing less environmentally damaging alternatives to the proposed 6.3-mile bypass. Walker specifically noted the “Places 29” plan developed in the 2000s, which proposed improving traffic flow on U.S. 29 by building two grade-separated interchanges, upgrading two parallel roads, and making other spot improvements.

Combinations of some or all of the components of these effort should be evaluated as stand-alone alternatives to the [bypass]. In light of the fact that these alternatives appear to have less environmental impact than the [bypass], all of these factors need to be thoroughly and carefully evaluated, in comparison with the [bypass].

Walker said a new environmental impact statement was needed “to address all the issues raised in this letter, as well as those raised by others … and to provide an up-to-date alternatives analysis….”

The Army Corp’s opinion matters because design-build contractor Skanska-Branch must obtain permits for impacts to stream crossings, wetlands and other places where waterways would be affected.

Undercutting the thrust of his message, however, Walker apologized for missing the deadline for filing his comments, due Oct. 19 in response to VDOT’s environmental assessment. He blamed workload, belated notification that the assessment was available for review and “the complexity of matters at hand.”


A Bump in the Road for the Cville Bypass?

Foes of the Charlottesville Bypass have won an important ally. In an advisory opinion, the Environmental Protection Agency has recommended that the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) consider alternatives to the 6.5-mile bypass of U.S. 29 north of Charlottesville.

Sean Tubbs fleshes out the details in Charlottesville Tomorrow:

“Alternatives analysis is the heart of [the National Environmental Policy Act],” reads an addendum to a letter sent by EPA officials to VDOT in October in response to a draft version of the environmental assessment. “Given the time that has passed since the original study, an alternative that is sensitive to the environmental and social concerns [should] be considered in addition to the preferred bypass.”

VDOT officials are currently revising a 62-page environmental assessment released in late August to consider comments from the public, nonprofit organizations and government agencies. VDOT is expected to send the final environmental assessment to the [Federal Highway Administration] in December.

In their letter, EPA officials argue that many conditions have changed since the last comprehensive Environmental Impact Statement was made in 2003.

“It might be appropriate for the lead agencies to provide an updated or new [supplemental environmental impact statement] to reflect the environmental conditions since the last NEPA document [and] provide an up-to-date alternatives analysis reflecting current status of roadways and land use in the area,” reads an Oct. 9 letter signed by Jeffrey D. Lapp, associate director of EPA’s office of environmental programs.

As part of the environmental assessment, VDOT opted not to conduct an analysis of alternatives that serve the same purpose as the bypass. The EPA said the department should reconsider.

The EPA letter is purely advisory. The decision of whether to accept the Environmental Assessment submitted by VDOT rests with the Federal Highway Administration. But the EPA letter supports the argument offered by local bypass foes.

Bypass supporters dismissed the significance of the EPA letter. “The EPA letter is as surprising as a zebra with stripes [because] the organization has not endorsed any bypass in 20 years,” Neil Williamson with the Free Enterprise Forum told Charlottesville Tomorrow.

Speaking of considering alternatives, Albemarle County supervisors are exploring the alternative of using an integrated traffic signal network to reduce congestion in the U.S. 29 corridor. The installation of such a system on U.S. 29 would require between 23 and 25 signals, according to VDOT. Supervisor Dennis Rooker says that, based on his conversations with Rhythm Engineering, the equipment would cost about $33,000 per intersection. That implies a project cost of roughly $1 million — compared to the $244 million cost of building the bypass. However, VDOT officials warned that the benefits could be limited if the capacity of the U.S. 29 corridor is maxed out. Tubbs has that story here.

Bacon’s bottom line: VDOT never gave serious analysis to the detailed Places 29 plan devised by Charlottesville-area officials as an alternative to the Bypass. That plan proposed separated-grade intersections at Hydraulic and Rio roads, the extension of two parallel roads to divert local traffic, and spot improvements along U.S. 29. That plan itself could be updated and improved by adding an integrated traffic signal network.

For roughly the same cost as the Bypass, it could be argued, Places 29 could provide comparable improvement in travel times — not just for travelers passing through the Charlottesville area but for Charlottesville and Albemarle residents themselves.


Truckers Question Safety of Cville Bypass Design, Still Support Project

Conceptual design of Charlottesville Bypass southern terminus. Graphic credit: Bob Humphris.

Virginia trucking companies are concerned that a new design of the Charlottesville Bypass would create safety issues, says Dale Bennett, executive director of the Virginia Trucking Association (VTA), but he doesn’t know of any company that would avoid using the Bypass. And he stands by the association’s long-stated support for the $244 million project.

In a written response to questions submitted by Bacon’s Rebellion, Bennett confirmed some claims leveled by the Charlottesville-Albemarle Transportation Coalition (CATCO) about deficiencies in the design of the Bypass’ southern terminus but disputed others.

As described in “A Bypass Built for Trucks… that Trucks Won’t Use,” Bob Humphris, author of the CATCO report, documented how a conceptual design submitted by winning design-build contractor Skanska-Branch shaved millions of dollars from costs where the proposed bypass joins the U.S 250 Bypass. Northbound trucks using the Bypass would encounter a tight turning radius, two stoplights and extremely steep grades. South-bound trucks exiting east would face stoplights at the bottom of a very steep grade, which could pose problems in bad weather. The Virginia Department of Transportation’s original design had connected the terminus with the U.S. 250 Bypass with longer, free-flowing ramps that avoided stoplights.

“From a safety point of view [the design] doesn’t make sense,” agreed Bennett. Nobody at the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) or Skanska/Branch asked the association what it thought about the new, money-saving approach.

Bennett quoted a senior executive of a trucking company in the Lynchburg area: “I think the gentleman (Humphris) is correct in stating that a 4.7% and 11.36% grade for trucks plus stop lights will be challenging for loaded trucks and trailers.”

Added Bennett: “Our organization would certainly not advocate ignoring identified and documented safety concerns in the design and construction of any project. We believe that VDOT has a responsibility to ensure that safety issues are properly addressed in projects.”

Ironically, the VTA supports the bypass mainly for reasons of safety, with time savings a “secondary but valid” consideration. Wrote Bennett:

Traffic congested areas pose increased risks for crashes.  The numerous retail accesses, stoplights and center turn lanes on current Route 29 pose a particular challenge for commercial trucks and other large vehicles having to interact with passenger vehicles.  Eliminating the traffic signals and other hazards will improve safety and reducing the risk of crashes along the corridor by allowing through trucks and cars to avoid having to interact with local traffic.

However, in talking to executives with trucking associations cited by Humphris, Bennett could not find any who said they would avoid using the Bypass. In his report, Humphris stated that he had talked to four local trucking companies and had been told that heavy trucks (70,000 pounds or more) would likely avoid the bypass.

Humphris stood by his analysis, sharing with Bacon’s Rebellion the notes he made from his interviews a couple of months ago. Estes Express Lines, none of whose loads exceeded 35,000-40,000 pounds, would not have a problem. UPS, which also uses lighter trucks, also said the design would not pose an issue, other than noting that it “wouldn’t want to [use the bypass] in bad weather.”

The operations manager of Lawrence Transportation Systems, which hauls heavy loads of paper, often more than 80,000 pounds, saw lots of problems with the terminus, saying that the company “would not use the Bypass much.” Likewise, a manager for Wilson Trucking said the terminus “is going to cause problems for trucking. ” Humphris’ notes say, “We have big loads — probably not use.”

Bennett’s source at Wilson Trucking could not find anyone with the firm who recalled being contacted about the issue. His source for Lawrence Transportation, the vice president of human resources and safety, offers a different recollection of the conversation with Humphris:

Our manager in Waynesboro did recall speaking to someone a few months ago about the 29 By-Pass. He said they discussed the percentage of grade and two stoplights to enter the highway but he never stated that our trucks would not use the By-Pass. He felt those issues were not particularly significant and the stoplights more a nuisance and simply questioned why stoplights rather than an entry ramp. Our people in Waynesboro support a 29 By-Pass around Charlottesville.

Despite the newly surfaced safety concerns, the association remains firm in its commitment to the Bypass. Says Bennett: “Charlottesville is the largest major population center in the Route 29 corridor without a Bypass so it should be a top priority.”

Please, Please, Please, Pay Attention to the Situation in Charlottesville!

Dear Governor McDonnell,

I know you’re a busy man. You oversee the entire breadth and scope of state government. You don’t have time to get involved in every local controversy. But every once in a while, if you don’t step in to correct a bad decision, you can wind up with a big mess on your hands.

The Charlottesville Bypass is turning into a Big Mess. Your administration has committed $244 million to build a 6.5-mile highway to bypass one of the more congested stretches of U.S. 29. You made the project a priority in order to preserve the integrity of U.S. 29, a Corridor of Statewide Significance, which Lynchburg, Danville and other communities regard as an economic lifeline for their manufacturing-based economies. That makes sense. You are “the jobs governor,” after all, and Lynchburg and Danville need good highway connections to stay economically competitive.

But there’s a lot about that project that you don’t know (unless you read Bacon’s Rebellion faithfully).

You probably don’t know, for example, that the magnitude of the traffic congestion is greatly exaggerated. Thanks to a modest investment in traffic light sequencing, the Virginia Department of Transportation has greatly improved travel times through the congested area north of Charlottesville. Trucks and cars using the Bypass (as originally designed) could expect to save only three minutes or so of travel time. The rush hour “congestion” in Albemarle County would be considered ideal driving conditions in Northern Virginia. Go visit sometime. See for yourself.

You probably don’t know that the original $244 million cost estimate of the project was gravely flawed and that there was considerable disagreement inside VDOT on what the final cost would be. You probably don’t know that the Commonwealth Transportation Board approved the project without hearing these concerns. And you probably don’t know that VDOT managed to bring the project within the cost parameters approved by the CTB only by accepting radically different designs for the bypass’ northern and southern termini.

You probably don’t know that the winning design/build contractor, Skanska/Branch, submitted a lower bid than other competitors by introducing design changes that would seriously limit the Bypass’ usefulness for heavy trucks. The configuration of the southern terminus is so flawed that three trucking companies have said they would not even use it for north-bound traffic. Moreover, the configuration would create a safety hazard for south-bound traffic in bad weather. By accepting the design changes, VDOT has undermined the entire justification for building the Bypass in the first place!

Finally, you probably don’t know that Charlottesville and Albemarle County were far advanced in developing an alternative to the Bypass before you resurrected the project. For a comparable sum of money, the Places 29 plan would build interchanges at the busiest intersections of U.S. 29, extend parallel roads to siphon off traffic and make other spot improvements. These changes would benefit everyone who uses the U.S. 29, not just those who seek to drive through Charlottesville on the way to somewhere else, creating a much bigger bang for the buck.

If you knew in early 2011 what you should know now, I suspect you never would have made the decision to fund the Bypass. But the project kept chugging along and information dribbled out so slowly that there was never an “aha” moment that would prompt you to change your mind. Until now. The “aha” moment is the revelation that trucking companies won’t use the Bypass for north-bound trips.

Don’t believe me. Don’t believe the Charlottesville Albemarle Transportation Coalition (CATCO), the citizens’ group that took the trouble to show the plans to local trucking operations and ask what they thought. Don’t even believe the local trucking managers to whom CATCO talked. Just make a single call to the Virginia Trucking Association. I’m sure they’d be happy to get their people to look at the current design and give you an authoritative opinion.

Just one little phone call, that’s all it takes. Don’t let the Bypass go down in history as “McDonnell’s Folly.”

— James A. Bacon