By. Neil Williamson, President
Last week’s (6/8) Board of Supervisors split decision (4-2) “not to oppose” the Western Bypass of US 29 may prevent the loss of this transportation alternative forever. While we would have preferred the vote occurred as a scheduled agenda item, the Free Enterprise Forum believes this is a courageous and most timely decision.
Let me explain.
Back in September 1992 (18 years ago) the first parcel was acquired for the Western Bypass Right of Way. Since that time an additional 61 parcels have been acquired. A total of $47.2 Million dollars have been spent on right of way acquisition and preliminary engineering.
The Free Enterprise Forum recently contacted the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) regarding the “Federal Clock” and the “State Clock” that were ticking regarding positive action on the US 29 Bypass project.
VDOT directed us to Section 112 Code of Federal Regulations – Title 23 Highways (23 CFR 630.112 – Agreement provisions)
(c) The State must stipulate that as a condition to payment of the Federal funds obligated, it accepts and will comply with the following applicable provisions: (1) Project for acquisition of rights-of-way. In the event that actual construction of a road on this right-of-way is not undertaken by the close of the twentieth fiscal year following the fiscal year in which the project is authorized, the STD will repay to the FHWA the sum or sums of Federal funds paid to the transportation department under the terms of the agreement. The State may request a time extension beyond the 20-year limit with no repayment of Federal funds, and the FHWA may approve this request if it is considered reasonable.
(2) Preliminary engineering project. In the event that right-of-way acquisition for, or actual construction of, the road for which this preliminary engineering is undertaken is not started by the close of the tenth fiscal year following the fiscal year in which the project is authorized, the STD will repay to the FHWA the sum or sums of Federal funds paid to the transportation department under the terms of the agreement. The State may request a time extension for any preliminary engineering project beyond the 10-year limit with no repayment of Federal funds, and the FHWA may approve this request if it is considered reasonable.
[Emphasis added – nw]
In addition to the Federal clock that was clearly ticking toward repayment of funds, Virginia State Code § 33.1-90 stipulates:
If the transportation project contemplated, or project as defined in § 33.1-268, has not been let to contract or construction commenced within a period of twenty years from the date of the acquisition of such property and a need for the use of such property has not been determined for any alternative transportation project, upon written demand of the owner or owners, their heirs or assigns, received within ninety days from the expiration of such twenty-year period or such extension as provided for in this section or within thirty days from publication in a newspaper of general circulation in the political subdivision in which the property is located of a notice of the Commissioner’s intent to dispose of such property and shall notify to the extent practical, the last known owner(s) of said property by certified mail, such property shall be reconveyed by the Commonwealth of Virginia to such owner or owners, their heirs or assigns, upon repayment of the original purchase price, without interest.
[Emphasis added – nw]
Put bluntly the regulations mandate you have 20 years to either “Fish or Cut Bait” (with limited relief provisions).
The Lynchburg News Advance trumpeted last week’s change as “A Major Break Through” and cited Virginia Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton’s role in the discussion as well as other individuals and organizations:
Key to Albemarle’s official change of heart was a conversation [Albemarle County Supervisor Lindsay] Dorrier had with state Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton, who promised to find the dollars in the state’s transportation coffers for a badly needed project in Albemarle that’s also gone unfunded.
Also of untold importance to this development have been the efforts of many civic, business and political leaders in Central Virginia. They’ve toiled for years, fighting to get state dollars to upgrade the U.S. 29 corridor from Danville in Southside to its intersection with Interstate 66 in Gainesville. Major upgrades of every urban bottleneck were addressed, save for one: Charlottesville.
There were times when it was hard to be optimistic, but folks such as Sen. Steve Newman of Lynchburg, Rex Hammond of the Lynchburg Regional Chamber of Commerce, Commonwealth Transportation Board members Jim Candler, Kenneth White and Marke Peake, Will Mays of Amherst and a host of others kept plugging away.
It would be remiss not to include The Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce their North Charlottesville Business Council in this list of influential parties.
This decision sets forth a number of dominos and it does not necessarily mean the Western Bypass will obtain the required approvals to move forward. As has been the case in many major decisions over the last 36 months the City of Charlottesville may have an important role to play. As Charlottesville Tomorrow reported:
At least one of the Charlottesville City Council’s representatives will have to vote to also change the language.
“This council hasn’t taken a position on the Western Bypass,” said Councilor Satyendra Huja. “Former councils were supporters of the bypass. I will consult with this council to see what their position is.”
In addition, this recent action by the Board of Supervisors will make the Bypass (along with water, sewer, and taxes) among the key campaign issues.
With the Federal and State clocks steadfastly ticking toward a potential required return of property and/or funding, the future of the US 29 Bypass may hang in the balance at the ballot box and at Charlottesville City Hall.
As the clocks continue to tick, expect a long, hot summer of debate.
It really is all about timing. September 2012 is fast approaching.
Neil Williamson is the President of The Free Enterprise Forum, a privately funded public policy organization covering the City of Charlottesville as well as Albemarle, Greene, Fluvanna, Louisa and Nelson County. For more information visit the website www.freeenterpriseforum.org