Spiraling down: Why the Bypass will wreck Albemarle
The Taxpayers for Common Sense, in an October report subtitled "Two trillion in common sense cuts to avoid the fiscal cliff," calls the Charlottesville Western Bypass a financial boondoggle:
This bypass is extremely expensive as compared to similar projects and will cost almost $40 million per mile. Furthermore, state transportation officials found that none of the bypass alternatives would have much, if any, impact on the "F level of service" rating on the existing U.S. 29 corridor. More fiscally responsible alternatives such as overpass and design improvements have shown promise of achieving the same goals without the local opposition that has developed against the bypass. Congress should block any federal funding for this wasteful roadway.
Taxpayers for Common Sense is no tree-hugger organization. It's a fiscally conservative non-profit that seeks to curb the governmental impulse to spend money it doesn't have. The group wants America to live within its means, rather than push debt onto our children.
Yet, for the illusion that the Bypass will ease local congestion– and even VDOT doesn't claim that it will– proponents are willing to risk the local water supply as well as the health of young people by sending trucks at highway speeds through a multi-school Albemarle campus, and onto UVA's North Grounds. Not to mention driving another nail into our national $15 trillion debt.
Bypass proponents, from the Chamber of Commerce to the Free Enterprise Forum's Neil Williamson to our three local GOP county supervisors, will claim, of course, that the construction bid came in at much less than $244 million and, therefore, it's a better deal.
However, even with Skanska's $136 million bid, this 6.2-mile highway is still, as former Virginia Business editor James Bacon puts it, "The Road to Wealth Destruction." Bacon, the author of Boomergeddon, a 2010 book warning of the perils of debt, performed a return-on-investment analysis and found only $8 million in benefits from the massive project, and almost all of that accrues downstate in Lynchburg and Danville. So for us locally the Bypass is all pain and no gain.
Read Skanska’s “design-build” proposal, and you'll realize that it plans to dump cars and trucks from four-lane highway speeds down an 11.4 percent grade through a stoplight onto the campus of the Darden business school. Just below this stoplight– and who ever heard of a bypass beginning and ending with stoplights?– is a student cross walk. This plan will have 18-wheelers seeking to beat yellow lights and perhaps eliminating a few future taxpayers.
How steep is an 11.4-percent grade? Well, only one of Colorado's 35 mountain passes has a grade of ten percent, and the steepest stretch of any American interstate is eight percent. The famed “Going to the Sun” road inside Glacier National Park is just six percent.
Read VDOT's Environmental Assessment carefully, and you'll find that the document doesn’t actually evaluate the Skanska design and, secondly, that any cited congestion relief comes not from the Bypass but from Places29, a well-vetted local plan– without a funding source– that supervisors approved unanimously last year. The Bypass eases traffic next to nothing.
Bypass proponents, however, claim most Places29 projects will get built as well; that our present governor's promises will somehow carry over to future state leaders. But consider the fact that the Bypass will suck up 50 percent of all money coming to the entire Culpeper Transportation District, as a local planning commissioner notes, through the year 2050. Even if Uncle Sam weren't bankrupt, there is no realistic chance of federal or state funds for additional local projects.
Compounding the state's inability to find money for other Albemarle County projects, such as extending the Bypass past Airport Road, is the "fast-track" process. The bypass will be largely built off budget in expensive change orders.
Here's why. Bidders never received key information prior to submitting their designs last spring. VDOT's most common answer in its January Q&A for contractors was that the state would address the bidder's questions "in a forthcoming addendum," many of which never materialized. When info was available, VDOT consistently added this caveat: The Department does not represent or warrant that the information contained in the Supplemental Information Package is reliable or accurate or suitable for designing this project.
If design-build contractors wanted a suitable response, the potential bidder was told in no uncertain terms that "another round of questions and responses will not be conducted" although VDOT did note that federal input was "scheduled for late 2012," six months after bids were due.
In other words, the contractors had to bid before they knew much about what they were bidding on. They were not even allowed to take core samples of the ground over which their pavement would pass. The result was an $80 million difference– 60 percent of Skanska's entire bid– between the high and low bids.
Other bidders tried to predict the massive contingencies. Skanska, however, sagely realized the Commonwealth would be trapped by its own fast-track process. Once construction starts, rather than face expensive lawsuits, the state must therefore allow dozens– maybe hundreds– of change orders in response to Skanska's lack of pre-bid knowledge.
One day, as the price soars by tens of millions (or even a hundred million dollars), policy-makers will look back at the $136 million construction bid and express surprise. We, the people, should be listening to Taxpayers for Common Sense. Bypass proponents sure aren’t.
Throughout this essay, Charlottesville-based transportation researcher Randy Salzman resisted the temptation to call this road, which fails to detour past much of the U.S. 29 North developments, "the so-called Bypass."Read more on: western bypass