MPO may defer bypass vote if local projects are not funded
The chairman of the Charlottesville-Albemarle Metropolitan Planning Organization said he may postpone a key vote on the Western Bypass if a list of other local transportation priorities is not guaranteed funding by state officials.
“I’m on the edge right now,” Albemarle Supervisor Rodney S. Thomas, a supporter of the bypass, said.
On Wednesday, the MPO Policy Board is scheduled to hold the second of two public hearings on whether to amend its transportation improvement program to remove language that blocks funding for construction from being allocated to the bypass.
The city’s two representatives on the MPO have indicated they do not support the project, but Thomas said he wants to win over their votes.
“I do not want to defer the vote on this, but if we have to defer the vote, it would be until after City Council meets to see if we can get the city’s support for the bypass,” Thomas said.
Last week, the Commonwealth Transportation Board allocated $230 million for the bypass and a second project to widen U.S. 29 to six lanes between the South Fork Rivanna River and Hollymead Town Center.
At the end of a nearly three-hour public hearing on July 14 at which 60 people spoke, MPO board members discussed a list of projects they wanted to see funded before voting to amend the transportation improvement program.
A letter was sent to the CTB and state Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton describing the projects and their importance to the region.
“We are willing to do our part to assist in meeting the commonwealth’s transportation needs and respectfully request that the CTB give consideration in helping us meet our local needs,” read the letter, which was signed by Thomas and City Councilor Kristin Szakos, one of two representatives for the city on the MPO.
The list included the completion of Hillsdale Drive Extended, a second lane on the on-ramp to the U.S. 250 Bypass at its interchange with U.S. 29, preliminary design for Berkmar Drive Extended and accelerated funding to replace the city’s Belmont Bridge in 2014. Currently, the bridge is not expected to be rebuilt until at least 2016.
While the letter came up during the CTB’s meeting last week, no promises were made to fund any of those priorities.
Szakos said negotiations would be at a standstill if there are no financial commitments from Richmond for the local priorities.
“If the CTB doesn’t include funding for those projects in a multi-year budget, then I don’t think we have anything to talk about,” Szakos said. “We need to stick to our guns and say this is not the process that we do.”
“As an MPO member, I think it’s irrelevant to even discuss how we’d vote right now because we’re not in a place where we’re ready to take a vote,” Szakos said.
“Those four things that we wanted … [they] haven’t addressed them yet,” Thomas said immediately after the CTB’s vote.
On Saturday, Thomas said he is still negotiating with Virginia Department of Transportation officials in Richmond, but has not yet received a written commitment.
“I’ll find out Monday and we’ll move on from there,” Thomas said. “We’re trying to make it happen and encourage it to make it happen.”
City Councilor Satyendra Huja, the city’s other MPO representative, said he could potentially support the bypass if he received a guarantee that Hillsdale Drive and the Belmont Bridge would be funded.
“I’m not going to make a decision yet but lean towards not supporting because we haven’t gotten anything out of it so far,” Huja said.
After the CTB meeting, Albemarle Supervisor Duane Snow said he had a verbal agreement with VDOT officials and that he was willing to move forward with a vote by the MPO provided the state honors its commitments.
“When we go forward from here and do our resolution of intent to vote for this, it will be based on the items that we put in that resolution,” said Snow, Thomas’ fellow Albemarle representative on the MPO board. “I’m going to vote for [the bypass] if these other items are met.”
Many groups are urging the MPO to defer its vote until firm guarantees are in place.
On Friday, the Southern Environmental Law Center sent a letter to the Board of Supervisors that pointed out the county’s conditions for approval had not been fully met.
“It is essential that the county have clear, firm and legally enforceable conditions in place as part of any vote to amend the MPO’s transportation plans,” wrote Morgan Butler, senior attorney for the SELC.
The SELC letter pointed out that supervisors had said there would be no bypass without a guarantee that the other priorities would be funded.
“The board made clear that it was those other improvements, and not the bypass, that were the chief priority,” Butler wrote. “You promised the public that there would be no vote to approve the bypass unless those other projects were included.”
The Albemarle County School Board has also sent a letter to supervisors and the MPO expressing its concern about the impact on several schools, including Greer Elementary School.
“We believe that the children of Albemarle County must be protected from hazards and the ambient noise level should be appropriate for learning and recreation,” wrote School Board Chairman Steve Koleszar.
“The School Board and superintendent respectfully request that the Board of Supervisors and MPO include a requirement for the inclusion of a sound barrier for the U.S. 29 bypass that meets the standards of the Federal Highway Administration,” Koleszar wrote.
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