Albemarle Supervisors declined to ask state highway officials to update an 18-year-old analysis of the Charlottesville Bypass before putting the project out for bids. It’s full speed ahead for the controversial, $245 million project.
by James A. Bacon
The Albemarle County Board of Supervisors nixed a resolution Wednesday to ask the state highway department to update a traffic and environmental analysis of the Charlottesville Bypass before putting the $245 million project out for bids. The board voted instead to ask the Virginia Department of Transportation to complete the update before construction commences.
Why the controversy? Ann H. Mallek, the board chair, and Dennis S. Rooker argued that it is crucial to get updated information in circulation before VDOT issues the Request for Proposal. That way, contractors will know exactly what they are bidding on and the state won’t have to come back later with expensive change orders.
But a majority of board members were satisfied that the project schedule laid out by VDOT at a previous board meeting would accommodate any needed changes. They worried that putting off bids until the completion of the Environmental Impact Statement would create unnecessary delays for a project that has languished for nearly 20 years.
In remarks after the board meeting, Mallek conceded that the compromise resolution “has no power.” VDOT is not obligated to honor the board’s request. Further, once a contract is awarded, it will be too late to request changes to the project design without incurring extra charges. Morgan Butler, senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, termed the final resolution “meaningless.” Even Neil Williamson, president of the Free Enterprise Forum, described it as a “toothless resolution.”
The original Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the U.S. 29 Bypass was written 18 years ago, and a supplemental impact statement, focused mainly on protecting the county’s drinking-water reservoir, was completed eight years ago. Although the project has received all necessary approvals, VDOT is required to conduct a written re-evaluation before construction begins. Mallek and Rooker contended that the data in the old evaluations are seriously out of date and that new data could influence the final design. Not only are the traffic numbers obsolete, but recent scientific research has documented the detrimental effects of highway pollutants on the health of children – a particularly sensitive issue given that six schools are located near the proposed Bypass route.
The resolution called on VDOT to update traffic modeling of the bypass, consider the scientific research on the effects of highway pollutants, conduct an analysis of health and noise impacts, engage with citizens in a public hearing, and consider a reduction in the bypass design speed from 60 miles per hour to 50 miles per hour.
Supervisor Kenneth Boyd contended that it was not necessary to hold up the RFP, which VDOT has scheduled for September. “They’ve told us they’re going to award a design-build contract with the caveat that they’ll come back after the public hearing and may make change orders.”