A 10-member panel of business leaders and local officials has 55 days to engineer a solution to a problem with a 30-year history.
The Western Bypass of U.S. 29 won’t be part of the equation.
By May 14, state Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne wants the group to provide options for alleviating congestion on Albemarle County’s main artery. Officials unveiled the timeline Wednesday during a meeting of the state Commonwealth Transportation Board in Richmond.
One decades-old question was answered with a resounding no.
“A bypass is not something we would consider,” Norfolk-based consultant Philip A. Shucet, the head of the advisory panel and former commissioner of the Virginia Department of Transportation, told the board.
Nearly two years after officials awarded a contract for the bypass, and after $54 million was spent on the project, the planned 6.2-mile road has become a footnote.
The transportation board, a 17-member panel of gubernatorial appointees that presides over Virginia’s transportation system, will determine what happens to unspent money from a project state officials had valued at more than $244 million.
The Federal Highway Administration effectively froze the project last month with a letter to state transportation officials urging them to find alternatives to the Western Bypass.
Now, Shucet – appointed by Layne last week – and his panel must find another option to unclogging U.S. 29.
“I’ve been given a clear charge … and I know how to meet deadlines,” Shucet said. “But we’re not going to sacrifice good solutions to a timetable.
Layne on Wednesday admonished the board and public against incivility ahead of Shucet’s presentation, prompting an apology from Lynchburg District representative Mark Peake for comments he made last month.
“We’ll study everything to death and get nothing done, because you can’t make up your minds,” Peake said at the February meeting of the transportation board.
Lynchburg business and political leaders have slammed the bypass reversal as a betrayal of a promise made decades ago, when the region joined the cities of Lynchburg, Culpeper and Danville in a pledge to construct an interconnected system of alternate routes along U.S. 29.
Layne said past discussion on the project took a political tone that has no place in deliberations moving forward.
“Very little was said about congestion mitigation … most of it was about why some people were wrong about this process and why some people were right,” he said.
Although about $200 million allocated to the project remains tied to U.S. 29 improvements, he said, delays could change the equation.
“There are some people who think the stall tactic is the way to go,” Layne said. “We’re not going down that road. If the stall tactic is the way to go, we’re going to move the money.”
A Fredericksburg District representative asked the board whether the money might be better spent on improving Interstate 95 in Northern Virginia.
“This board is ultimately responsible for allocating transportation dollars in the commonwealth,” Layne replied.
Lynchburg’s mayor and a chamber of commerce representative will be on Shucet’s panel, which is slated to hold its first meeting March 27 in Charlottesville. All panel meetings will be open to the public, he said.
“I think it’s ambitious, but doable,” Albemarle County Supervisor Brad Sheffield said of the mid-May deadline. “I think [Layne] has made it very clear that doing nothing is not an option, and that he’s going to protect those funds while we develop a plan.”
The panel also will include Albemarle County Supervisor Jane Dittmar, Charlottesville Mayor Satyendra Huja and Councilor Kristin Szakos; the mayor of Warrenton; a representative from the Southern Environmental Law Center; and a representative from the Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce.
“I am confident that the views and concerns of all the stakeholders will be represented and considered,” said Alison DeTuncq, of Albemarle County, a Culpeper District representative on the transportation board.
DeTuncq said she heard from people on both sides of the bypass issue ahead of Wednesday’s meeting, but had not formed an opinion about the region’s needs.
“I am keeping an open mind as to the possible alternatives that address the need of all stakeholders and provide reasonable and cost-effective solutions to the congestion on the [U.S. 29] corridor,” she said.
Sheffield said Layne put to bed speculation that the county could have to repay the money spent toward the failed bypass.
“The feds are going to expect that we get the most we possibly can out of those dollars and move forward,” Sheffield said. “[The speculation] was used as a threat to make people think we would be penalized for moving forward.”
Shucet pledged to put his 42 years in transportation experience to work on building consensus.
“We appreciate Secretary Layne making clear that it makes no sense for the advisory panel to consider the doomed Charlottesville bypass proposal any further following the Federal Highway Administration’s recent pronouncement on that project and its other fatal flaws,” Morgan Butler, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, said in a release.
Former Albemarle Supervisor Rodney S. Thomas, a staunch bypass proponent, said he was disappointed in the outcome but holds no animosity toward the road’s well-organized foes.
“They got what they wanted,” he said. “They are the squeaky wheel.”