In Their Own Words – Are Bypass Opponents Arguments Intellectually Consistent?

By Neil Williamson, President

What a difference a year or two makes.  Later today the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) will hold a public hearing regarding the so-called Route29 Solutions projects (US29/Rio Interchange, Berkmar Extended and US29 Widening north of Polo Grounds Road).

In conductinus-29-logo_thumb.jpgg our research prior to the public hearing, we reviewed previous testimony about the US29 corridor and found a number of concerns that were raised regarding the now defunded bypass that are not being brought forward on consideration of the Route29 Solutions.

Have these projects truly answered these concerns or are the bypass opponents standing down in face of this “better than a bypass” solution?

In their own words –

Environmental Review: “NEPA requires that careful consideration be given to projects like this before the federal government will approve them,” [Southern Environmental Law Center’s Morgan] Butler said. “It’s about looking at the impacts of a project on the environment, health and community…. We desperately need people to weigh in with both federal and state officials voicing their opposition to this project and demanding a thorough analysis of its impacts be done,” Butler said.” – Sean Tubbs “Environmental groups continue fight against bypass” Charlottesville Tomorrow January 19, 2012

VDOT Vision: “The reality is that VDOT has a vision for Route 29 becoming an interstate highway. Localities must realize that if they do not plan for their portion of Rt. 29, VDOT will do it for them. In lieu of progressive, locally driven, and forward thinking solutions, VDOT will mandate the narrow-minded default: a bypass. In Albemarle, VDOT manipulated the political process—leaving local residents without Places29 and in its place a quarter-billion-dollar project that will not alleviate congestion.” – Jeff Werner “Charlottesville Western Bypass: Not just a local issue” Piedmont Environmental Council 17 September 2012

Design Build I: “Unfortunately, because of the nontransparent design-build process that Connaughton has utilized, no public hearings have been allowed on the current contract design, and there will be very large cost overruns and change orders in the future unless this project is terminated.” – Jim Rich “Road to Nowhere” The Hook 2/7/13

Induced Traffic: “Called “induced traffic” by transportation economists, almost every time a highway network capacity is expanded by 10 percent, instantly there is a four percent growth in the number of vehicles. In a few years – generally less than five – the increase in cars and trucks climbs to 10 percent and the congestion “benefit” is gone as the relieved roads are carrying more than they were before construction. A Virginia transportation study in 1998 called it “a futile exercise” to attempt to build out of congestion and national research over 15 years of 70” – Randy Salzman Congestion “Relief” Western “Bypass”

Design Build II: “[Dennis] Rooker has an even bigger problem with the “design-build” project, in which the construction companies design the road based on VDOT specs.” – Hawes Spencer “Bypass spins: Low bid cheers some, not others”– The Hook 5/11/2012

Design-Build III: As part of the fast-track process, VDOT is giving contractors the right to hundreds of change of orders which will increase construction cost. Since the state is required bids PRIOR to discovering many necessary facts and even identifying relevant regulations, contractors will be able to request massive numbers of changes and cost overruns are guaranteed “ – Randy Salzman Western “Bypass” All Pain, No Gain

Noise: As VDOT, has already removed landscaping and other amenities from the bidding process, there is little chance that the state will afford the concrete barriers to adequately protect neighborhoods. – Randy Salzman Western “Bypass” All Pain, No Gain

It will be interesting to see if any of these concerns are voiced this evening – somehow I have my doubts.

Respectfully Submitted,

Neil Williamson

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20070731williamson Neil Williamson is the President of The Free Enterprise Forum, a 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

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2 responses

  1. Neil cherry picks quotes out of context and fails to mention that there is actually a design hearing to receive public input on these projects tonight, well in advance of awarding a contract. Also, all of the projects in the Rt. 29 Solutions Package, except Berkmar (which doesn’t go through any built areas), will be built almost entirely in existing right of way. That was certainly not the case with the bypass which went through or adjacent to seven neighborhoods, a retirement community, several churches and eight schools. Finally, if Neil is looking for inconsistent statements, i would suggest he search through his own editorials and compare his comments on the process for the bypass with his comments on the process for the Rt. 29 Solutions improvements. Neil had no problem with the “Midnight Vote” which resurrected the bypass, despite harsh condemnation of this action by every media outlet in the area and ultimately the voters of Albemarle County. It might also be instructive for Neil to list the donors for the Free Enterprise Forum who indirectly pay his salary.

  2. Presuming that Mr. Williamson wants to begin a dialogue with this re-cap of old thoughts, I think a discussion is greatly in order. Thank you, Mr. Williamson.

    First, nothing that VDOT asked at last night’s public hearing had anything to do with “design-build,” “induced traffic” or “sound barriers.” So I didn’t say anything about those in my written comments. Since Mr. Williamson was likely there, I’m sure he realizes that these subjects were not a part of ANY form, any poster, any VDOT employee’s comments to citizens. With one exception: I did ask about sound buffering on Berkmar extended and was told that the extension ran through forested areas, not suburbs, and therefore sound barriers weren’t a part.

    Now, to continue a dialogue:

    About sound buffering: It’s actually not very effective. Even barrier proponents admit that huge concrete panels stop only about 15 percent of sound and most of that is in the higher (towards treble) end of the sound spectrum. While the “whine” of tires sound are helped here, sound barriers don’t do anything for the bass waves, like truck engines, and at an average cost of $1 million per mile, the taxpayer in me believes its better to work to decrease traffic than to try and build our way out of sound pollution.

    About design build: Yep, DB is tailor-made for costly change orders once construction is underway and the media/public isn’t paying attention to financial issues. Congressman Mike Capuano (Boston) made just this point in a “public-private partnership” hearing in March. I urge Mr. Williamson (and I believe he will) to follow DB closely, as I’ve been promised by the SELC will do, over these projects. One of the key reasons that public sentiment turned against the “bypass” (which didn’t) was that Skanska’s accepted DB bid was $136 million when VDOT engineers were saying construction should cost between $297 and $413 million. No one, not VDOT, not truckers, not any engineer, ever thought that building an 11.4 percent grade over U.S. 250 was a reasonable blueprint for dealing with traffic through our area. Yet, that canard was a part of Skanska’s accepted $136 million DB bid. VDOT and Skanska, before the ink was dry, were already meeting to re-design the “bypass” Southern Terminus and held a public meeting 10 months later to announce two significantly more expense options. At that point in time, no one paying any attention could trust the rest of Skanska’s DB design.

    Any construction firm today bidding on the package of 29N solutions will be aware of this history and — hopefully — will not throw out any unworkable aspects to get the bid and then build those projects on the change orders. Hopefully. Like SELC, I hope Mr. Williamson that you and your staff/salary spend time monitoring this process as this goes forward to benefit taxpayers. I wasn’t asked about DB versus “design-bid-build” (the traditional manner) last night, but if I’d have been asked, I would have said, “Monitor it closely from the gitgo. Does the original DB blueprint make sense from an engineering and geographical perspective?” After the signing of the contract, I urge you, Mr. Williamson — as I did on the bypass but unsuccessfully — to nudge local media into digging into those projects’ designs and budgets. Since you have a salary and position, I hope you will have more success getting the media to do its job than I did.

    About “induced” traffic. Yep, that’s the rule of thumb. A 10 percent increase in capacity leads generally to an immediate four percent increase in traffic and quickly maxes out to the entire new capacity. In the last couple years, however, there have been several indications that Americans, especially young Americans, are using their vehicles less and, hopefully, this will continue. The latest, from U.S. PIRG, (http://uspirg.org/reports/usp/millennials-motion) illustrates that young Americans are driving about 3/4 quarters as much as we older Americans. (I think this decline in per-capita vehicle miles traveled is a good trend, for many reasons). So that rule of thumb might — and I submit should — be changing.

    There is, however, one HUGE difference between traffic induced — however much it is — by the “bypass” and this package of solutions. When traffic on I-81, the nation’s “NAFTA highway jams up (and it does daily because, according to VDOT, it is carrying over three times the traffic it was designed for) drivers — including truckers — look at maps and click GPSs to determine alternative routes. Some percentage of them, as far south as U.S. 460 in Lynchburg, would have cut over to U.S. 29 should the “bypass” around Charlottesville been built. Except, as all of us know who have been paying attention, the “bypass” didn’t bypass yet out-of-towners, like NAFTA truckers, would not know this. Seeing/hearing the semantic term “bypass,” some percentage would have come over on, for example, I-64 and been dumped in Hollymead and Forest Lakes. Why do I make an issue out of truckers? Because VDOT tells us that 30 percent of the vehicles on I-81 are 18-wheelers. Many of them will be headed to D.C. or Baltimore and cutting 100 miles or so off their route is already an advantage so they would be incentivized to come here by that semantic term, “bypass.” Conversely, no out-of-town driver will know the state of any of these three 29N solution projects and will, therefroe, be less likely to cut over and end up creating more traffic in Albemarle County. A trucker doesn’t know, for example, whether Berkmar Extended allows 18-wheels and, while he’s stuck in I-81 traffic, his mental calculations will more likely keep him/her there.

    Please remember that VDOT’s traffic counts put only 10-12 percent of 29N traffic as pass thru. The rest of it is local and all we local drivers will soon “learn” the best method of getting where we need to go based on the new construction. Forest Lakes drivers will learn, for example, that the Rio overpass allows them south to downtown Cville quicker than Berkmar UNLESS Walmart is having a big sale (or something like that) and we locals can adapt quickly. Truckers on I-81 will have little, if any, localized, pertinent data and, therefore, are more likely to stay over there.

    All of the above is off the top of my head, Mr. Williamson, so please excuse any typos, etc. I don’t make money writing/thinking about these things. It’s not my job.

    And, again, I wasn’t asked about “DB,” or “induced traffic” or “sound buffering” at last night’s public hearing.

    Please, however, Mr. Williamson, please monitor the DB project(s) in the package to ensure that they are not “built on change orders.”

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