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June 21, 2012

Western Bypass observers withholding judgment on designs

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DailyProgressBy Sean Tubbs
Charlottesville Tomorrow
Thursday, June 21, 2012

Detailed plans for the Western Bypass of U.S. 29 are now available to the public for the first time following the Commonwealth Transportation Board’s decision Wednesday to award a $135 million contract to design and build the four-lane highway in Albemarle County
 
Technical drawings and construction plans have been kept under wraps since it was announced in early May that the joint venture between Skanska-USA and Branch Highways had submitted the lowest qualified bid. 
 
Both supporters and opponents are reserving judgment over the plans, given their highly technical nature. 
 
“There are 323 pages of plans,” said Albemarle County Supervisor Dennis S. Rooker. “The engineering drawings provided are broken into small sections, which will make it very time consuming to digest.” 
 
“With over 300 pages of technical data released, there is a great deal to be learned from the design-build methodology,” said Neil Williamson, president of the Free Enterprise Forum. “Such transparency, while preserving the integrity of the competitive bidding, should be applauded.”
 
Several people contacted Thursday for this story withheld comment due to the sheer amount of data to sift through. 
 
Rooker said he appreciates the release of the plans to the public but wants VDOT to make sure the thousands of people along the bypass can understand just how they will be impacted when construction begins. 
 
“The community is entitled to a presentation of the proposed plans which can be viewed and understood by someone without an engineering degree,” Rooker said. 
 
The fears of some bypass opponents appear to be unfounded. Some had claimed that the design would feature traffic lights at the northern and southern interchanges. However, the request for proposals for the project stated that was not an option and the design does not include them.
 
As yet, Morgan Butler of the Southern Environmental Law Center has made no comment on the plans, but said he laments the contract was awarded. 
 
“This is just the latest in a series of hasty and poorly informed decisions designed to rush this project ahead with minimal public review,” Butler said. “The Virginia Department of Transportation can only push the 29 Bypass so far before it runs into federal law. Despite [the] contract award, the bypass can’t be built without the federal government’s approval.”
 
However, the Federal Highway Administration gave VDOT approval earlier this month to award the contract. For now, Skanska-Branch is only permitted to conduct work related to traffic analyses. 
 
Albemarle Supervisor Christopher J. Dumler, whose training as a chemical engineer included some courses on civil engineering, looked at the plans and had some concerns that the southern terminus may be an eyesore. 
 
“Through my back-of-the-envelope calculations, this thing has an average 8.3 percent grade across the entire southern flyover and it’s as steep as 11.4 percent at some points, rising 55 feet as it flies over the 250 Bypass,” Dumler said.
 
“I had my fingers crossed that it was going to be a little more subtle, and I can’t say I’m thrilled with that being the first image many will have of Albemarle County,” Dumler added. 
 
VDOT told bidders that the bypass itself was to be built at no greater than a 6 percent grade. However, that does not apply to ramps built as part of the interchanges. 
 
“Ramp grades are variable based on design speeds; slower speed ramps are permitted to have steeper grades,” said Lou Hatter, the spokesman for VDOT’s Culpeper District
 
Now that the first of two notices to proceed have been given, Skanska will ask VDOT to submit two letters on its behalf. One will be a request to begin the process to relocate a cemetery and the other will be to ask that VDOT ask its tenants along the right of way to move. 
 
“Certain activities must occur prior to the start of construction,” reads their plan of action. 
 
Even though work cannot begin on construction until after a second notice to proceed has been issued, Skanska will work with the Army Corps of Engineers, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality and the Virginia Marine Resources Commission to discuss various permits that are necessary. 
 
Stephen Williams, the executive director of the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission, said he has not seen the plans and does not have any direct experience working with either firm. 
 
“The biggest issue in the success of a major project like this one is not the company,” Williams said. “It is more the skills and experience of the team members, who are directly responsible for execution of the project.” 
 

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