The political fight to push through the Western Bypass of U.S. 29 suddenly has become a lonely one.
Albemarle County Supervisor Kenneth C. Boyd said Wednesday he’s girding himself for an uphill battle without two Republican allies to help carry on the effort to get the $245-million road built.
In Tuesday’s election, Democrats Brad Sheffield and Liz Palmer topped GOP incumbent supervisors Rodney S. Thomas and Duane E. Snow, who teamed with Boyd to form a pro-bypass bloc. Two more newcomers — independent Diantha McKeel, a bypass opponent, and Democrat Jane Dittmar — also won Tuesday.
“Of course, one of the big questions is whether or not to reverse policy on the 29 Bypass,” Boyd said Wednesday. “My response to that would be, let’s find out what the ramifications of that are.”
McKeel, Palmer and Sheffield are scheduled to take office Jan. 8. Dittmar, who won a special election in the Scottsville District, is to be sworn in Monday.
The election shakeup’s biggest impact figures to relate to the bypass, the subject of decades of debate, with Thomas and Snow emerging in key roles in recent years.
Both are voting members of the Metropolitan Planning Organization, the group tasked with overseeing long-range transportation projects in Charlottesville and the county’s urban ring. Both also voted with Boyd and former Supervisor Lindsay G. Dorrier Jr. late June 8, 2011, to direct the planning organization to remove language blocking the state from allocating money to build the 6.1-mile bypass.
Because it took place after 11 p.m. and the topic was not on the meeting agenda, it became known as the “midnight vote,” a description that rankles Snow and Thomas.
Two years later, that night’s 4-2 decision was a topic of criticism in political ads run by bypass opponents leading up to Tuesday’s vote.
Still, the election was not a referendum on the bypass, Snow said, citing a poll indicating 60 percent of county residents support the project.
“If the polling data has shown otherwise, then it would be different,” Snow said. “I mean, the polls show that most people want the bypass.”
“I don’t believe in referendums,” Thomas said Tuesday night.
He blamed the election losses on the ads run by the nonprofit Charlottesville Bypass Truth Coalition. The campaign characterized Thomas and Snow’s talks with state transportation officials leading up to the 2011 vote as “backroom deals” that left the public out in the cold.
“They don’t know the truth,” Thomas said. “They think this was a done behind closed doors. It’s not true.”
Besides, backtracking on the bypass would be a challenge, Thomas said.
“I don’t know that the bypass can be stopped,” he said.
The newcomers to the board need to weigh the costs of abandoning the project this far along in the process, Boyd said. Reversing course on the road, he said, could mean losing other projects: the Hillsdale Drive Extension, Belmont Bridge and the widening of U.S. 29.
“We’d also have to pay back what could be $50 million to the state and federal government that’s already been spent on the bypass,” Boyd said. “I think that’s probably a bad deal and, hopefully, my colleagues on the board after January will recognize that.”
Even if a new state transportation secretary under Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic governor-elect, waived reimbursement requirements, Boyd said he wouldn’t budge on the bypass.
“I wouldn’t change my vote based on that,” he said. “[U.S.] 29 now is an expressway that has got a lot of traffic on it that I would like to see get off of it.”
Supervisors Chairwoman Ann H. Mallek, who voted in the minority in 2011, said the bypass is a nonstarter.
“It’s not in our court,” she said. “I think right now the Richmond and Washington folks have that ball and we need to [ensure] that they have all the information they need to figure it out.”