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May 15, 2012

VDOT further explains bypass budget

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DailyProgressBy Sean Tubbs
Charlottesville Tomorrow
Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Officials with the Virginia Department of Transportation plan to use lower-than-expected land acquisition costs to help ensure that the 6.2-mile Western Bypass of U.S. 29 in Albemarle County stays within its $244.5 million budget.
 
“The right-of-way estimate has gone down considerably,” said James Utterback, the administrator of VDOT’s Culpeper District.
 
Through July, VDOT spent $47 million on preliminary engineering and to acquire 83 parcels for right-of-way.
 
Also In July, the Commonwealth Transportation Board allocated an additional $197.4 million for the project. Of that amount, $7.4 million was designated for additional engineering, $118.2 million for construction and $71 million to buy the rest of the highway’s route.
 
Seven firms bid on a proposal to design and build the highway. When their prices were opened Friday, Virginia Beach-based Skanska had submitted the lowest bid, at just under $136 million for design and construction.
 
That prompted questions over whether VDOT would have to ask the CTB for additional funding to complete the project. Utterback responded that VDOT will not need $71 million to complete buying land.
 
“We carried a number of $71 million, which had been around for a while, and we hadn’t had a close look at it,” Utterback said. “$33.7 million has been spent and we have $35 million [left] that we’re estimating,” Utterback said.
 
“[$71 million] is based on the original design plans that were being worked with from way back when,” said Lou Hatter, spokesman for VDOT’s Culpeper District. “The estimates anticipated quite a bit larger interchange connection at the northern end.”
 
Additionally, the northern terminus will no longer be built on the eastern side of U.S. 29 next to Forest Lakes. That means VDOT will save on settlement costs because residents of a mobile home park will not need to be relocated.
 
Utterback said the $71 million figure also included land that would have been used for the widening of U.S. 29 from the South Fork Rivanna Reservoir to Airport Road. On the same day the CTB allocated additional money for the bypass, it also set aside $32.5 million to pay for the widening project.
 
“They had to break those estimates apart,” Utterback said. “There was a lot of stuff in there that seemed to be there because it was all going to be limited access.”
 
Utterback said any money not spent on right-of-way can be transferred to pay for construction.
 
“We have a total budget and we can move money back and forth between the categories,” Utterback said.
 
The practice is standard, according to Stephen Williams, executive director of the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission and the Metropolitan Planning Organization’s Policy Board.
 
“The CTB allocates a sum of money, and then it’s really up to staff at the MPO and the VDOT level to see how that money should be spread throughout the phases,” Williams said. “If construction ends up being up more but right-of-way ends up less, as long as the total comes in under the allocation, that’s not a problem.”
 
Williams said such transfers do not require approval by the MPO.
 
Morgan Butler, of the Charlottesville-based Southern Environmental Law Center, said he is not surprised that VDOT will use money for right-of-way to spend on construction.
 
“But that begs the question of why they now believe they can obtain the remaining right-of-way for roughly half of what they indicated last year,” Butler said. “Also keep in mind that landscaping was taken out of the request for proposals completely, so that will require additional funding.”
 
Requests by Charlottesville Tomorrow to receive copies of the seven submitted designs were denied by VDOT. Similarly, a request to view VDOT’s updated right-of-way estimate to find out how much more land they require was also denied.
 
“The details of the right-of-way estimates are protected at this time under the Virginia Public Procurement Act,” Hatter said. “Information about the estimated value of specific parcels is exempt from disclosure until after acquisition.”
 
A document called a “notice of intent to award” will be given to the lowest bidder once VDOT officials have determined the bid is credible. The CTB will vote to award a contract at its meeting on June 20.
 
However, the winning bidder cannot begin substantial work on the project until after VDOT completes an environmental assessment to determine if previous approvals by the Federal Highway Administration are still valid. That process is expected to be completed by the end of October.
 
 

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