Before Albemarle County supervisors could decide Wednesday whether to block the bypass, the feds halted the project in its tracks.
In a letter dated Tuesday, the Federal Highway Administration informed Virginia’s transportation commissioner that the state cannot proceed with plans to build the Western Bypass of U.S. 29 because the “need appears to have expanded well beyond the project’s limits.”
The document stopped short of killing the project, calling for state road officials to reassess its need and purpose and to reconsider alternatives to relieving congestion on the section of U.S. 29 slicing through Albemarle County’s bustling urban ring.
State Secretary of Transportation Aubrey Layne gave the Virginia Department of Transportation 30 days to produce the alternatives, said Brian Coy, a spokesman for Gov. Terry McAuliffe.
News of the move spread rapidly in advance of a heavily anticipated public hearing Wednesday that filled Lane Auditorium at the County Office Building in downtown Charlottesville. Two days before the hearing, Supervisor Diantha McKeel circulated a resolution opposing the 6.2-mile road and calling for unspent bypass money to be directed to other projects.
County Executive Tom Foley read federal highway division administrator Irene Rico’s letter during the hearing, prompting some to leave late in the evening, but a crowd remained, speaking into the night. Supervisors approved McKeel’s resolution on a 5-1 vote.
The two-page missive to VDOT Commissioner Charlie Kilpatrick was the latest and most decisive blow for a project that has made an abrupt U-turn since last fall, when a slate of bypass skeptics won election to the board, just over two years after the so-called “midnight vote” backing the road.
Rico wrote that “because of the controversy associated with the project and the history of litigation,” lawyers for the state division of the federal highway agency asked lawyers in Washington to take part in a review of a revised environmental assessment.
“Our legal counsel has advised us to reassess the purpose and need of the project in light of the changes in the Route 29 corridor that have occurred over the past 20 years to determine if it remains appropriate,” Rico wrote.
“It is expected that a reassessment of the purpose and need will find that [the bypass project] is no longer adequate to support the investment in the corridor.”
Without the federally mandated environmental assessment, final design and construction on the bypass can’t start.
Whether the move effectively, if not actually, killed the project was unclear.
Foley said lawyers would need to review the document before its precise impact could be known.
Supervisor Kenneth C. Boyd, now the board’s lone bypass backer, said it means the project will be delayed by at least two years but the letter did not spell the road’s demise. Bypass supporter state Sen. Steve Newman, R-Lynchburg, called the decision “a slap in the face.”
Newman said the move interrupted recent progress toward a promise made more than 20 years ago, when Charlottesville joined the cities of Lynchburg, Culpeper and Danville in a pledge to construct alternate routes along U.S. 29.
“We really got a left hook from the Obama administration,” he said. “It just appears that they were waiting to get a new administration in Richmond so they could do this.”
McAuliffe has never taken an official stance on the project, Coy said, calling Newman’s comment “absurd.”
“It’s unfortunate that it’s become a partisan thing,” Coy said. “We’re about alleviating the [traffic] problem in a way that comports with what we learned today, and we’re committed to doing that.”
Federal Highway Administration officials said that whether the project proceeds is a question for VDOT.
An agency spokesman was not able to provide copies of the environmental report referenced in Rico’s letter by press time.
VDOT spokesman Lou Hatter said the document has not yet been made public.
Neither Rico nor Kilpatrick could be reached for comment.
Rico urged VDOT to produce a supplemental environmental impact statement, which is required in cases where certain actions significantly affect the environment. Such documents typically state the project’s purpose and need. In the case of the bypass, an impact statement is “the most appropriate tool for formally updating the purpose and need and reopening the consideration of alternatives,” Rico wrote.
McAuliffe learned of Rico’s letter Wednesday, Coy said. As word of the feds’ response rippled from Richmond to Albemarle, Layne issued his edict giving VDOT 30 days to produce alternatives, Coy said.
Kilpatrick will consult with local officials as he prepares a report on alternatives to the bypass for Layne, who will bring the plan to the Commonwealth Transportation Board for consideration, Coy said.
Because the directive came from the feds, House Minority Leader David J. Toscano said, it takes away a card frequently played by bypass proponents, who have charged that halting the bypass could imperil money for other projects in the area.
That assertion stems from a 2007 determination by then-Attorney General Bob McDonnell stipulating that a local decision to kill the bypass could spur Washington to demand that the state pay back federal tax money allocated for the project. Officials have pegged the project’s cost at more than $244 million and have said about $50 million has been spent so far.
“People here in Richmond don’t have much to do with the federal government, so in that respect, it’s a huge shock,” Toscano said of the feds’ decision. “But if you look at all the criticisms of the project, it’s not entirely surprising that they would do that.”
Coy said the McAuliffe administration was aware two weeks ago that a decision was coming from the feds but the governor didn’t know the outcome until Wednesday. Boyd said local officials knew what Toscano described as a federal order “back to square one” was a possibility.
“We knew they had the option to do that,” Boyd said.
Engineers previously have told Boyd that an update like the one the feds suggest is a two year process, he said.
“It took them two years to come to that conclusion – which is bad,” Boyd said.