Sierra Clubber John Cruickshank explains alternatives to the bypass.
Earlysville resident Bill Ema likes the idea of a bypass, but says this offers no advantage for him.
photo by lisa provence
Opponents of the Western 29 Bypass, including mega-selling author John Grisham, turned out in force September 27 to voice their dismay with the controversial road.
The Virginia Department of Transportation held the Thursday night forum at Jack Jouett Middle School, behind which the highway will pass, to get public review and comment on an environmental assessment report, which is required for approval by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), the last sign-off the controversial project needs.
Can citizen objections stop the bypass?
"I wouldn't be here if I didn't think so," said Grisham, who sent out a pre-meeting email through Southern Environmental Law Center urging turnout.
Grisham was blunt in his assessment of the road: "It's a typical pork scam with the politicians working for votes while businesses scramble for a buck, and taxpayers are stuck with the bill."
He mentioned the Albemarle Board of Supervisors' June 8, 2011, near-midnight vote that resurrected the presumed-dead project.
"We got sucker-punched last year by three members of the board," said Grisham, "but we're still fighting."
The proximity of the bypass to six schools with 4,000 kids is one of Grisham's top concerns. "We have no idea about the effect of diesel fumes," he said. "That has not been studied." He also said the impact on the Rivanna Reservoir has not been studied.
"We've got thousands of roads that need repair, and we're spending a quarter of a billion dollars on this road," said the author. "It makes me mad."
Many in attendance were wearing "Stop the bypass" stickers, including Albemarle supervisors Dennis Rooker, Ann Mallek, Christopher Dumler, and former supe Sally Thomas.
Environmental groups that have long opposed the Western 29 Bypass– Southern Environmental Law Center, Piedmont Environmental Council, and the Sierra Club– set up shop at the school's entrance.
The newly revised environmental assessment is "based on stale and outdated information from 20 years ago," said Morgan Butler with the Law Center.
"Fortunately, federal law requires that they update information so an informed decision can be made," said Butler. "Unfortunately, the update we've been given is asking the public to put on blinders."
According to Butler, one of the flaws with VDOT's environmental assessment is that it doesn't consider bypass alternatives. The Southern Environmental Law Center produced a video this summer that offered options "more logical and less damaging," said Butler, to open up the blockages on U.S. 29 and keep traffic flowing.
He also noted that the assessment doesn't mention the Rivanna Trail, which is in the path of the bypass.
"Federal law requires the [Federal Highway Administration] have accurate information," said Butler. "This study by VDOT doesn't satisfy that requirement."
Inside the cafeteria, VDOT set up displays around the room and had staff on hand to answer questions. At a map of the southern terminus of the bypass at UVA's North Grounds, retiree Chris Gale pointed to the steepness of the bypass' proposed route up Stillhouse Mountain.
"Afton Mountain is a six percent grade," he said. "This is 11 percent."
Gale saw something else that bothered him. "Look at what it does for the reservoir," he said. "With trucks going by– every morning on WMRA there's a [report of a] truck that's flipped over on Interstate 81."
VDOT spokesman Lou Hatter declined to speculate about whether the Federal Highway Administration actually could kill the Western 29 Bypass.
"We'll address the comments, make a revised environmental assessment, and present it to the FHWA," said Hatter "They'll make an assessment and let us know if we need more work."
Not everyone at the meeting opposes the bypass. Supervisor Ken Boyd, the man credited with facilitating the vote that breathed new life into the bypass, was asked by citizen Michael Levine, "Is it a fait accompli?"
"Pretty close," Boyd replied.
Boyd was more circumspect when a reporter asked whether the Federal Highway Administration could stop the project. "I don't know," said Boyd. "They're an unknown. They're holding all the marbles now."
He said that some concerns had already been addressed. For example, the road had been moved behind Jouett where there was a walking trail. And he said a berm had been added at the reservoir. And he debunked the perception that people are overwhelmingly opposed to the bypass.
"That's just not true," said Boyd. "Charlottesville Tomorrow did a survey in March that showed 70 percent were in favor of the bypass."
"Here, they're mostly against it," observed Brenda Boyd, who was there with her husband. "They're passionate."