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February 26, 2012

Parkway interchange awaits result of federal lawsuit

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DailyProgressBy Sean Tubbs
Charlottesville Tomorrow
Sunday, February 26, 2012

A project to build a grade-separated interchange where the U.S 250 bypass will meet the Meadow Creek Parkway cannot be advertised for construction bids until a federal lawsuit to prevent it is resolved.

However, work has still continued on the design for the interchange, which has been under development for over six years.

“We are finalizing design as we work through the right of way phase,” said Angela Tucker, the city’s development services manager.

One year has passed since the Coalition to Preserve McIntire Park filed a lawsuit alleging that the Federal Highway Administration broke the law when it approved the interchange, which is now estimated to cost $33.5 million.

The suit was filed in February 2011 in the United States District Court for Western Virginia. The case is on Judge Norman K. Moon’s docket and a hearing will be scheduled this spring, according to a court clerk.

The Coalition claims that the FHWA violated Section 4(f) of the 1966 Department of Transportation Act, which prohibits the agency from approving highway projects that affect parkland if a viable alternative can be found.

The FHWA issued a “finding of no significant impact” for the interchange in September 2010, which gave the go-ahead for its construction. However, the Coalition filed the suit claiming that the city should pursue a no-build alternative that avoids McIntire Park entirely.

The lawsuit also claims that the parkway project was unlawfully divided into three segments in order to reduce the required level of environmental review.

In addition to the interchange, the Charlottesville and Albemarle County portions of the parkway are classified as separate projects administered by the Virginia Department of Transportation.

The county’s portion permanently opened to traffic earlier this year. The city’s portion, known as McIntire Road Extended is under construction with an estimated completion time of August 2013.

Coalition member Peter Kleeman is hopeful the hearing will occur soon.

‘”The danger of having a delay is that more construction  may go on for McIntire Road Extended and if the interchange is in fact not fundable using federal dollars, there will be lots of damage done unnecessarily,” Kleeman said. He added he believes it is unlikely VDOT would be able to fund the project with its own funds.

The Coalition previously filed suit against the Charlottesville City Council claiming a land-transfer allowing the county’s portion of the road to proceed was unconstitutional because only three of five councilors voted for approval. However, Judge Jay Swett ruled in June 2009 that a supermajority was not required. 

Last fall, the Coalition filed an injunction seeking to halt construction of the city’s portion of the road. They claimed the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers granted its permission unlawfully. VDOT changed its plans so the road did not need Corp approval.

The construction of all three portions of the project has been the number one transportation priority for the Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce.

“We’ve maintained that the suit is without merit but the courts will have to decide that,” said Timothy Hulbert, president of the chamber.

Hulbert said he did not think the lawsuit was delaying the project and noted that VDOT’s website states the project will go to construction bid in June.

“It hasn’t been held up. The design work is progressing and it won’t be ready to go to construction in May anyway,” Hulbert said.

The interchange is being funded in part through a $27 million earmark secured by former U.S. Senator John Warner.

Tucker said there is no expiration date for the use of the funds.

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