Western Bypass Public Hearing: Playing to an Audience of One?

FORUM WATCH EDITORIAL

By Neil Williamson, President

three-fingersMuch of local government (and most levels of government) is simply learning how to count.

In yet another example of the dysfunctional City/County relationship, the stage is now set for the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) to cast the swing vote for or against the proposed Western US 29 Bypass at the July 27th Charlottesville Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CA-MPO or MPO).

Please let me first  explain this acronym heavy alphabet soup.

Who is the MPO?

The Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission (TJPDC) serves as the staff of the (CA-MPO).  The TJPDC is led by Executive Director Stephen Williams.   According to the most recently approved FY12 Unified Planning and Work Program (UPWP):

The Charlottesville-Albemarle Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) provides a forum for conducting continuing, comprehensive, and coordinated (3-C) transportation decision-making among the City, County, UVA, JAUNT, CAT, DRPT and VDOT officials. The local governments of Charlottesville and Albemarle established the MPO in response to a federal mandate through a memorandum of understanding signed by the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission (PDC), JAUNT, VDOT and the two localities in 1982.

The MPO conducts transportation studies and ongoing planning activities, including an annual Transportation Improvement Program (TIP), which lists road and transit improvements approved for federal funding, and the 20-year long range plan for the overall transportation network, which is updated every five years. Projects funded in the TIP are required to be in the long range plan.

Transportation and land use issues in urban areas affect development and decision making in the suburban and rural areas and therefore, planning should consider the regional effects. The UnJAM 2035 Long Range Transportation Plan focuses specifically on projects within the MPO, but considers the long term effects of these projects on the entire region.

The policy making body of the CA-MPO is its Board, which consists of five voting members. The voting membership of the Policy Board consists of two representatives from the City of Charlottesville and two representatives from the County of Albemarle. The fifth representative is from the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT). Emphasis Added NW

Where the members of the MPO come from is critically important because their voting on any particular issue is supposed to represent the official position of their organization not their own personal political position.  This helps form the basis of getting to three votes on the MPO.  This concept was made very clear by a resolution that was drafted by Albemarle County Supervisor Dennis Rooker (Jack Jouett)  and passed by the Board earlier this month, prior to the vote on US 29 Bypass:

NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, that Board members who are appointed to boards, committees and commissions are required to vote on matters that come before those entities in a manner which is consistent with the policies and positions of the Board as reflected in previously adopted resolutions or official action of the Board on such matters.

Regular readers of the Free Enterprise Forum blog know Albemarle County in a 4-2 vote dropped their opposition to the Western US 29 Bypass earlier this month.  Monday night Charlottesville’s City Council on a 4-0 vote (Huja abstain) instructed their representatives to vote in opposition to the roadway.

It is important to note the fifth vote on the MPO belongs to Jim Utterback, the District Administrator for Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT).

In a phone interview yesterday (6/22) with The Free Enterprise Forum, Utterback indicated to date he has not had any conversations with anyone from Richmond regarding the Western Bypass MPO vote.

In the chain of VDOT command, Utterback reports directly to Virginia Transportation Commissioner Gregory Whirley.    Utterback reported that  if any direction was to be provided, he anticipated it would come through the Commissioner’s office.

Whirley was appointed by Governor Bob McDonnell in 2010 and reports to Virginia Secretary of Transportation Sean T. Connaughton who serves in the Governor’s cabinet. The Free Enterprise Forum understands Secretary Connaughton has been in touch with several Albemarle County Board of Supervisors members throughout this process.

Bypass Headline April 2011In April, VDOT’s Freight study endorsed the idea of a Western US 29 Bypass.

The Free Enterprise Forum found the description of the Charlottesville Bypass on page 318 (of 523 pages) to be most interesting as the road is described as having a “High Impact” on Freight Transportation.

On June 15, 2011, after many months of delay, the Commonwealth Transportation Board approved the Route 29 Corridor Study final report that included the language:

Plan to improve mobility and accessibility north of Charlottesville, evaluating various alternatives, and not limited to prior proposals

So now we have the program for the public hearing, 2 votes for the US 29 Bypass from Albemarle County, 2 votes in opposition from City of Charlottesville with VDOT vote not yet decided.

Federal regulations require any amendment to the TIP must have a public hearing.  If it is determined to be an “update” two hearings are required.

Yes, the public must be heard and they will.  The Free Enterprise Forum anticipates a lengthy public hearing with three to four hours of public comment on both sides (likely limited to two minutes each).

Utterback_j

VDOT Culpeper District Administrator James Utterback (Credit: VDOT)

Speaking to an audience of one?

Four of our voters already have their lines and the only way to change them would be for their organizations to change their positions, that won’t happen due to the public hearing.

The fifth vote, VDOT, will be getting a great deal of attention in the coming weeks to attempt to sway his vote.

On July 14th, pack your popcorn because it will be a long night in Lane Auditorium without any conclusion.   Based on our research, unless something dramatic changes the vote on this issue will not take place until the second MPO Policy Board meeting on July 27th.

The Free Enterprise Forum believes the opportunity to build the Western Bypass should not be taken lightly.  The type of statewide funding only comes around every 20 years or so.

It now comes down to the unelected VDOT District Administrator.  regardless of his decision, he will upset a cohort of people.  VDOT has already spent $47 million dollars on preliminary engineering and right of way acquisition.  These funds will need to be repaid if the project does not move forward.

What decision is in the best interest of the community and the state transportation program?

Our answer is simple – Build the Bypass – now.

Respectfully Submitted,

Neil Williamson

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20070731williamson 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 and Nelson County.  For more information visit the website www.freeenterpriseforum.org

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One response

  1. OK, Let’s think about this one folks – Charlottesville Reps are locked in to vote No – Albemarle Reps are locked in to vote Yes – the guy that casts the tiebreaker works for: The governor (who is in favor of it) the State Secretary of Transportation (who is in favor of it) PLUS if he votes against it, stands to have the $47 Million bongo-bucks clawed back out of the Culpeper district – of which HE is the Administrator. The hearings will be full of sound and fury (generating more heat than light) but I think we know how this will come out…. Let up hope sanity prevails in the end – WE NEED THE BYPASS!

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