By. Neil Williamson, President
This Sunday’s (3/12) Daily Progress Editorial discusses “Beginning Anew on Hydraulic” painting a rather optimistic picture of the regulatory and political process planned to design, secure funding and build improvements to the Hydraulic and US29 intersection.
But the Editorial forgot Pocahontas.
Please let me explain.
Regular readers are aware of the Free Enterprise Forum’s position opposing the Rio/US29 grade separated interchange. Despite that opposition, we have been impressed with the manner the project was completed. Now the Daily Progress editorial board is comparing the Rio intersection process with Hydraulic:
And the process through which the Rio project was completed did, in fact, contribute to its success. That process can be replicated, regardless of what kind of engineering design it eventually produces.
In fact, it is being replicated. The meeting last week of state and community leaders follows the pattern used in the Rio project: A panel of local elected officials, business owners and citizens is meeting regularly to discuss the Hydraulic venture, provide input and help guide decision-making. Their involvement is aimed at ensuring that local interests are represented in the state’s drive to speed traffic through a congested bottleneck.
What I love most about rivers is you can’t step in the same river twice – The water’s always changing, always flowing
Just prior to the seating of the so called “29 Solutions” panel, there was significant state and federal dollars allocated and a contract awarded to a project (the western bypass) that had enjoyed (4-2) support from Albemarle’s Board of Supervisors and then Republican Governor Robert McDonnell. In November 2013 elections, the balance of power on the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors shifted left and Democratic Governor Terrance McAuliffe was elected. Then in February 2014, the project was effectively prohibited by a letter from the Obama Administration’s Environmental Protection Agency.
Cvillepedia described the situation in the manner:
With the project [Western Bypass] presumed dead, former VDOT commissioner Philip Shucet has recommended alternate uses for at least $200 million that had been allocated to the bypass. The alternatives include $54 million to extend Berkmar Drive across the South Fork Rivanna River, an additional $10 million to further extend Hillsdale Drive Extended to Holiday Lane in Charlottesville, and $81 million to build a grade-separated intersection at Rio Road and U.S. 29. The Commonwealth Transportation Board adopted a new six-year improvement program that included the projects at its meeting on June 18, 2014.  That meant the Western Bypass project was defunded. 
In addition, in a deft politically savvy move, McAuliffe required ALL the Route 29 “solutions” be completed by October 31, 2017 (coincidentally just prior to Election Day 2017).
The Pocahontas lesson that was not lost on Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) contract facilitator Philip Shucet. In the first meeting of The Hydraulic Planning Advisory Panel last week, he highlighted that unlike the previous panel which was considering how to spend a pot of money already allocated to the district the project or projects would have to compete for limited transportation dollars via VDOT’s Smart Scale evaluation program in 2018.
Secretary Layne’s charge to the Hydraulic panel includes this concern as well as hinting at the potential political in fighting at an intersection that is 3/4 in the City of Charlottesville and 1/4 in Albemarle County:
Secretary of Transportation Aubrey Layne’s charge to the Panel:
To provide general advice and input to the City of Charlottesville, Albemarle County, VDOT and the Commonwealth Transportation Board regarding future land use and mobility improvements in the general area near the Hydraulic Road and Rt. 29 intersection.
The Secretary understands that land use decisions are in the hands of the localities, but also emphasizes that decisions to submit a future Smart Scale application for state-funded transportation improvements are also in the hands of the localities.
The multi jurisdictional work (land use, design and funding) of Hydraulic Road will be significantly more involved than the challenges at Rio Road. While we agree that the process will be informed by the work of Rio, we are also reminded that Pocahontas quote is actually derivative of the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus:
No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.
Not only is Hydraulic a very different intersection than Rio,the land use work ahead is different and the funding is nowhere near secure.
Yes the facilitator is the same, as are some of the panel members, but this multi-jurisdictional land use and transportation effort will be a VERY different process and the outcomes (and their timing) are far from certain.
Neil Williamson, President
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.
Photo Credits: Disney
Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.
Sir Winston Churchill – November 1942
This Churchill quote came to mind as the Charlottesville Albemarle Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) voted 3-2 (Szakos and Huja opposed) to move forward with the US29 Western Bypass that had been authorized for funding by the Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB) just one week prior. While the endeavor to improve transportation is nowhere near as important as the Second World War, the quote provides the proper context to where we stand today – and the way ahead.
The Charlottesville City Representatives on the MPO (City Councilors Kristin Szakos and Satyendra Huja) were pressing for a delay in the decision as one important piece of information, a letter from Virginia Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton (photo), was received less than a half hour prior to the start of the meeting. Szakos expressed concern that neither the balance of City Council not the City Attorney were provided the opportunity to review the letter. After a motion to defer failed 2-3. The motions to move the projects forward passed 3-2.
After the vote, long time bypass opponent and former MPO member, Supervisor Dennis Rooker (Jack Jouett) spoke to the Board under other matters from the public. He indicated in his long tenure of public service he had never seen a board operate in the manner the MPO just did. He was “ashamed” of their actions.
Earlier in the evening, some of the speakers mentioned how this vote would influence their thinking regarding how they would vote for their local representation. Others suggested, despite the anticipated loss on this vote, their organizations would fight on – and win.
All of this is to suggest that the energized and polarized atmosphere that has been evident in the region shows no sign of dissipating and in fact will likely increase in pitch as local elections draw near.
One need only look at the approved (and previously permitted) community water supply plan or the long awaited Meadowcreek Parkway to see how an energized opposition can create legal, political, and regulatory roadblocks to projects.
In addition, the fact that the MPO was split along City/County lines does not speak well for future cooperation. There are some in the community that have suggested this dissention will lead to future conflict on the Community Water Supply Plan. While we hope this is not the case, there was an air of resentment in the air after the vote to defer failed 2-3 last night. Szakos stated her “disappointment” with her fellow MPO members for pushing the vote through.
The Free Enterprise Forum is pleased that the western bypass project is moving forward; it has been a long time coming and once built it will serve both thru and local traffic. In addition it will promote economic vitality not only in Charlottesville/Albemarle but throughout the Commonwealth.
The vote, both for and against, required courage and conviction from the MPO members. While we hope that both sides respect the other and put this issue in the rearview mirror, we recognize this will likely be a legal issue and a campaign issue for 2011, 2013 and beyond.
The issues and the politics that go with them are heating up as August approaches. Stay engaged.
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