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June 20, 2011

State and local officials disagree over next steps in bypass discussion

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By Sean Tubbs & Brian Wheeler
Charlottesville Tomorrow
Monday, June 20, 2011

Bypass-image  If you have downloaded Google Earth, you can use this overlay map compiled by Charlottesville Tomorrow to fly the bypass route detailed in VDOT's 2003 supplemental environmental impact statement

VDOT’s regional administrator and the director of the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission disagree on the number of public hearings that will be required before the Metropolitan Planning Organization can vote to change its policy on the Western Bypass of U.S. 29.

“A single public hearing, to be held on July 14, 2011, is all that will be required for the [MPO Policy] Board to decide if they want to add this project to the plans,” wrote James S. Utterback Friday in an e-mail to TJPDC executive director Stephen W. Williams.   Utterback is administrator of VDOT’s Culpeper District and a voting member of the MPO.

However, in the emails obtained by Charlottesville Tomorrow, Williams informs Utterback he will proceed as if two public hearings are required.

“I hope you understand it is my responsibility as MPO Executive Director to protect the MPO's interests,” Williams wrote in response.

Two planning documents must be changed before federal funding can be allocated to the project, which is estimated to cost between $260 million and $300 million.

The MPO’s long-range transportation plan, known as the United Jefferson Area Mobility Plan (UNJAM), was last updated in May 2009. Initial work to update the plan is being conducted as part of the Livable Communities project being managed by the TJPDC. A full update is expected to be complete by the spring of 2014.

Another document, the MPO’s transportation improvement program (TIP), must also be amended to remove language that blocks funding for construction from being allocated to the project.

Late in a meeting on June 8, the Albemarle Board of Supervisors voted 4-2 to direct its MPO representatives to remove the language opposing the bypass.  The vote, which reversed an almost 15-year old policy position of opposition to the bypass, was not on the meeting agenda and the two supervisors that voted against the change said they were not informed in advance the item would be brought up by the other members. 

A week earlier, the board had deadlocked 3-3 on a similar motion.  However Supervisor Lindsay Dorrier changed his vote after receiving a phone call from Virginia Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton who promised to find funding for the old Western Bypass proposal if it gained the MPO’s support.  Supervisors Ann H. Mallek and Dennis S. Rooker voted against the change.

The MPO’s public participation plan states that two public hearings must be held before the plan and the TIP can be updated. However, it only requires at least one public hearing to be held in the case of an amendment of either planning document.

Williams said he believes that both planning documents need to be updated, not amended, because of the scope of the Western Bypass.  He has requested that the board proceed with updates, which would allow for public hearings on July 14 and July 27 with action to be taken at the latter meeting.

Utterback said he thought a public hearing and action could be taken as early as July 14.

“The decision to treat these additions as plan updates as opposed to amendments seems excessive in light of the fact that only one project is being added to the documents,” wrote Utterback.

Williams responded by telling Utterback he is going to proceed as if the addition of the bypass is an update, and not an amendment, though he would take input from MPO members until later this week before setting the next meeting agenda.

“In my opinion there is ample justification for treating it as an update due to the fact that it is a very complex project with extensive impacts, and will represent a reversal of previous policy," Williams wrote in a response.

Utterback said in an interview Monday that he would accept Williams’ direction if it had the support of Supervisor Rodney S. Thomas.

“[Williams] is the director and if he and the chairman are on the same page than it's fine,” Utterback said.

Thomas was unavailable Monday for comment.


2035-unjam-clip
A chart from UNJAM 2035 which indicates the amount of funding expected to be received by the MPO between 2009 and 2035.(Click to enlarge)

Federal law also requires that the long-range plan be constrained, which means it can only include projects which have a reasonable chance of being paid for before within the timeline of the plan.

Last Wednesday, the Commonwealth Transportation Board adopted a six year improvement program that does not include any additional funding for the western bypass. Their next meeting is not until July 20.

“Our interpretation is that before the MPO is able to take the vote on the long range transportation plan and TIP amendments on July 27, we must have evidence from VDOT that provides a reasonable assurance of project funding,” Williams said in an interview.

Charlottesville City Council members will be asked to give direction to its MPO members on how to vote at tonight’s City Council meeting. Councilors Satyendra Huja and Kristin Szakos are the city’s representatives.

City staff did not recommend which way Councilors should vote, but Neighborhood Development Services director Jim Tolbert did request in his staff report that the city condition its support for the Western Bypass on receiving funding for other projects.

“If Council desires to express its support for the Western Bypass, staff believes that Council should request the Secretary of Transportation to also provide funding to complete two of the City’s highest priority projects, extension of the Hillsdale Drive Connector and the replacement of the Belmont Bridge, immediately,” Tolbert wrote.





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