Road to nowhere: Western Bypass must be stopped

By James E. Rich

The General Assembly is currently considering proposals to raise significant new revenues for transportation in the Commonwealth. Many hardworking Virginians live paycheck to paycheck, and many small businesses continue to struggle to survive and maintain payrolls in an uncertain economic climate. If additional taxes are going to be extracted from families and job-producing businesses, the logical questions arise: will the new funds be used to benefit the average taxpayer? And will the funds be spent in a cost-effective way? 

Currently, the Commonwealth is spending about $4.7 billion annually on transportation, a significant amount of which is borrowed. In the Culpeper District, which I used to represent on the Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB), our entire six-year budget is approximately $338 million. Over $245 million of these funds, over my objection, are being used for the so-called Charlottesville Bypass. This misallocation of funds shortchanges the Culpeper District, which includes Fauquier, Rappahannock, Culpeper, Madison, Orange, Greene, Louisa, Fluvanna, and Albemarle counties and the City of Charlottesville because it monopolizes funds that are needed to upgrade and maintain our interstate, as well as our primary and secondary roads.

How does this misallocation of funds affect the Charlottesville area, home of Thomas Jefferson, UVA and one of the most economically viable, scenic and historic parts of the Commonwealth? Despite the contrary advice of senior VDOT engineers and a $1.5 million Route 29 study conducted by VDOT, Virginia Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton is hell bent on resurrecting a thoroughly discredited 20-year-old bypass proposal, which would result in the construction of a facility operating at service level F and which, according to the study, is “no longer an effective option to serve corridor-wide trips." The project is on the infamous “Road to Nowhere” list, along with the notorious Alaskan facility that received nationwide attention during the 2008 Presidential election. 

Unfortunately, because of the nontransparent design-build process that Connaughton has utilized, no public hearings have been allowed on the current contract design, and there will be very large cost overruns and change orders in the future unless this project is terminated.

In fact, the initial design-build concept is so defective that the trucking industry indicates that the road would be too unsafe to use because of unrealistically steep grades. Not only is this a colossal waste of taxpayer money from which any fiscal conservative should recoil, but it has also been documented that this so-called bypass proposal would do significant harm to the Charlottesville-Albemarle community by claiming 40 homes by eminent domain, adversely impacting another 1,500 homes, harming six schools and 4,000 school children, causing substantial damage to the campus of the University of Virginia and, according to some Albemarle Supervisors, resulting in the greatest destruction of property values in Albemarle’s history. Talk about impact on property rights.

Why would Connaughton propose such a project and do so in such a nontransparent manner? The answer is arrogance, politics over engineering and a complete lack of vision for Charlottesville-Albemarle. Much like the fiscal situation in Washington, Connaughton kicks the can down the road for somebody else to deal with. What a missed opportunity. 

In good faith, a diverse coalition of Albemarle County interests which included the business community, environmental organizations, and UVA, worked together to come up with a doable and cost-effective transportation plan called Places 29. Engineers said it would actually work. The VDOT Route 29 study supported the collaborative Places 29 plan, called for a reduction in the number of traffic signals on 29 and, most importantly, asked for an evaluation of transit opportunities. Connaughton completely ignored these alternative plans. 

My predecessor on the CTB, Butch Davies, had done the research to show that property previously taken by eminent domain for the bypass could be sold with the proceeds going back into the Route 29 corridor. A fiscally conservative public official interested in cost-effective win/win transportation solutions could have provided the leadership to implement the agreed upon projects listed in Places 29 and devised an innovative new transit system to provide north/south community linkage including access to 29 businesses and the UVA campus benefiting the entire community and through traffic as well. 

As an important bonus, we would have funds left over from the bypass allocation to fix some of the other transportation challenges in the Culpeper District including the unsafe 29/64 interchange. Furthermore, in order to fund the bypass, Connaughton siphoned money away from key projects in other parts of the Commonwealth, such as essential improvements to the Midtown Tunnel in Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia projects. Some of these funds could be restored. As a conservative Republican and a former business executive, I am sorry to say my own party missed an opportunity to work in a bipartisan way to improve Route 29 in a cost-effective way.

I served as Chairman of the 10th Congressional District Republican Party and a member of the State Republican Party Executive Committee for 20 years. We are supposed to be the party of businesslike decisions. No reasonable business person knowingly would put capital into a defective product with no return for his or her investors. If they did, they wouldn’t hold their jobs for long. This type of pork barrel waste is being replicated throughout the nation, resulting in record deficits. No wonder the public can be cynical about the political process. 

It is time for the General Assembly to act to stop this bypass fiasco, Virginia’s “Solyndra” road. Our representatives should not be taking more money out of our pockets until grossly wasteful projects are reconfigured to benefit the average taxpayer. The CTB can’t do this.  When I was on this board, the Secretary tried to force me to support this wasteful project even to the point of demanding that I offer the resolution to support it.  Of course, I refused. 

As a conservative pro-free enterprise Virginian very concerned about the deficit and the economic future of our country, how could I sit there and rubber stamp bad policy? The Secretary of Transportation can’t fire the General Assembly. It is time for them to act.

James E. Rich is a former member of the Commonwealth Transportation Board and resides in The Plains, Virginia


Mr. Rich is right on! Governor McDonnell, VDOT Secretary Connaughton, and their cronies revived the "29 Bypass," which by any stretch of the imagination is not a bypass, by a 11:30 pm Board of Supervisors vote without public input on June 8, 2011,. Mr. Connaughton had called BOS member, Dorrier, at 2 pm that afternoon and convinced him to change his vote for certain promises (which have never occured).

Many things that VDOT has done regarding the "bypass" are not transparent or accurate. If the appropriate Federal agencies do a thorough investigation, this road will never be built, especially at the eventual cost. There is no way that it can be built for $244 million. As Mr. Rich notes the contractor will come back for more and more. How can this 6 mile road that goes through 7 neighborhoods taking 41 homes and 14 acres of Albemarle High School property, and only serves 10-12% of through traffic be justified!!?

Mr. Rich was kicked off the CTB because he recognized what a disaster this road would be and opposed for all the reasons he stated in his essay.

Thank you Mr. Rich

Milton Moore
Albemarle County

So the road will supposedly be used about 30,000 times a day.. (and possibly 40k)

Each vehicle "saves" about 6 minutes. so if a vehicle "saves" 3/10ths of a gallon of gas per trip x 30,000 trips a day the bypass will "save" about 10,000 gallons of fuel a day.

At 3 bucks a gallon that is 30,000 dollars a day in fuel savings... or 11 million dollars a year in saved fuel.

so if the project with expected overuns comes to 310 million. and the road never needs any maintainance, it will pay for itself in 28 years in fuel savings.

I did this exercise to point out other ways to look at it. i personally think it is a boondoggle from the word go but having seen firsthand the roads in tysons, and the rest of NOVA have ZERO faith in VDOT to change a bulb in a redlight.

on the other side though are the idiots who think roads cause congestion. Fighting roads causes congestion because growth occurs amd the roads are either behind or ahead but they are two peas in a pod and too many people forget that everyone who owns raw land zoned for business wants to develop it at some point and pays taxes on it even when it sits for decades. The government has a responsbility to them the same as it did to you. Their taxes subsidized your roads 20 years ago when your neighborhood was built and their land was just sitting, consuming nothing but paying taxes nonethelless.

So build roads smarter for sure, but we also need to ask ourselves why it costs the same to build this road as it did to build the grand coulee dam?

The belmont bridge is a perfect example. It needs to be overhauled but it is structurally sound. Charlottesville just wants a new one like people want a new car. So they want a federal grant and are going to spend 10 million on a whole new deal when 2.5 million would make that one spiffy and safe for another 50 years. Go look for yourself. You don't need to be an engineer to see it just needs some remodling.

I guarantee if WE all had to pay for it then WE would not be clamoring for new and fancy this and that.

Amen about the Belmont Bridge Ponce. Paying a fortune to replace a bridge that just needs some repair work is incredibly irresponsible. Building a bypass to nowhere is worse though.

thank you Mr. Rich. I wish it would do any good. VDOT should be changed to VDOR.

The bypass as proposed COULD HAVE worked if it had been built on the original schedule and if local govt. had worked hand in glove with VDOT to assure that metastatic sprawl on the approach roads was constrained. But neither of these things happened and now something different will have to happen. That something different at this stage of the game really can only be express lanes in the existing right of way for 29N. and that will cost more than would have been the case if the powers that be hadn't been so myopic back when they still had a chance to build the frontage roads and overpasses that would have enabled the 29 corridor to accommodate through traffic and local traffic. Strip malling the entire corridor up to and beyond the Greene County line and allowing access to 29 for each piece of that was the death knell for 29 as an intercity connector and now we have what we have.
What started as a problem amenable to solution has evolved into a predicament. Problems can be solved but predicaments have only choices between equally undesirable outcomes, and that's what we have now.

Thirty-five years ago a whole slew of people knew that the EXPRESSWAY WAS THE BEST WAY. That was a slogan you heard and saw on buttons and bumper stickers back in the late 70's. It was right at that time, and it is still right. To build this outdated spur road at this time would be so destructive and a sad example of bureaucracy run amuck and just building something to say that they did something. Smarter heads really need to prevail.

It seems to me that Virginia is the poster child for lack of vision in terms of infrastructure planning and construction. But maybe that's not entirely fair and perhaps the criticism applies equally to all of the east. Amigo 1 is correct about the expressway concept, though I think it may have been proposed a bit later. Every pissant fry-pit and junk retail owner on 29 pitched a fit over the thought they might lose business if through traffic didn't have the option of turning off the highway into their parking lot, and others decried the expense of the, then proposed, 4 grade separated interchanges, while the mentioned merchants howled at the idea of losing some parking to rights-of-way for frontage roads. So an effective solution was abandoned in favor of kicking the can down the road, by deciding on a bypass intended to be built in the then distant future. Everyone, the planners included, probably knew it would be hopelessly obsolete if ever built (because it was already obsolete while the plans were still at the printers), but everyone could go back to sleep, secure knowing they'd "solved" the problem. What a cynical deception that whole process was. It's really too bad that examples of proper solutions for traffic problems (which are easy to find elsewhere) couldn't be applied here. It costs money of course, as most good things do, but it is worth the long run...

Light Rail up the middle of 29 to the airport. Land is already there.

Shawnee O'
That's a dizzy idea. Hugely expensive and do nada to mitigate traffic congestion.
But at 1 in the morning maybe you were buzzed?

Dear Mr. Rich, Thank you for you thoughtful article. I am a fiscal conservative as well and all I ever hear around here is that bypass opponents are "no-growth". I am weary of having every argument against this costly parking lot be painted as some secret so-called "socialist" agenda to curb development. It is incredibly irresponsible to waste hard earned tax payer dollars on this project as you so aptly described.

As Mr. Rich points out, this highway is not only an environmental disaster, it's a fiscal disaster. Why haven't Cville Tomorrow and the Daily Progress covered the fiscal issue of spending so much money we don't have on a highway which does little, if anything, positive for our community?

The only return on investment study on the project indicates that there will be only $8 million in public benefits for a $244 million road and the author of that study, who spoke here only two weeks ago, calls the "bypass," "The Road to Wealth Destruction." The Taxpayers for Common Sense analyzied the so-called "bypass" and named it one of the worst eight transportation projects in the nation. Taxpayers for Common Sense, another fiscally conservative organization, also spoke here two weeks ago without being covered by the Daily Progress.

As Mr. Rich points out, the community spent five years analyzing and vetting the Places29 which was passed unanimously by county supervisors to deal with 29N congestion and all the projects in Places29 together will cost about half of what the "bypass" will cost WITHOUT, as the bypass will, bringing additional 18-wheelers into Hollymead and Forest Lakes.

VDOT's own documents imply that the time savings in the drive from downstate to D.C. and NYC might increase manufacturing in Lynchburg and Danville. If VDOT's reasoning is correct, we'll have hundreds, thousands more trucks in our growth areas of Hollymead and Forest Lakes. In addition to the "new" trucks from downstate, we'll induce I-81 truckers on the NAFTA route to cut the corner off their long, long drive from Mexico and come through Albemarle County. We forget but VDOT today notes that almost one in every three vehicles on I-81 is an 18-wheeler; we forget that I-81 was built for 22,000 vehicles a day and yet is carrying 74,000 vehicles daily; we forget that as soon as traffic backs up on the interstate (and it does almost hourly somewhere along I-81), drivers of all vehicles reach for maps and GPS units to find alternatives.

The job of the trucker is, of course, to find the best route and every alternative. Some truckers will begin cutting over from I-81 to 29 at U.S. 460 in Roanoke and others at Interstate 64 and ALL will be dropped off the so-called "bypass" at just the area where thousands of families pull out of driveways daily.

In addition to the fiscal disaster, the environmental disaster and the health disaster,* building this highway will cause many poor families to find themselves staring -- and praying -- at the front bumpers of 18-wheelers in a hurry bound for D.C. and NYC.

*There are at least 24 studies since 2008 which illustrate that children staying near highways suffer less lung capacity and more asthma and autism than students in other areas. The "bypass" will be within a quarter mile of six area schools at a time when the EPA suggests that all schools within a half mile of major highway be studied for what's happening to student lungs.

It's elementary that the best way , rather than building an entire new road,is to remedy the factors that make the existing 8 lane "freeway" such a hopeless cluster%$&# . Those who speak of commercial traffic being harmful to Hollymead and Forest Lakes seem to forget that both paradigms of suburban sprawl are themselves part of the problem. As I said earlier, express lanes, elevated where needed, running in the existing right-of-way are the optimum solution, but would cost a lot now if built in one fell swoop.
On the other hand, a few grade separated interchanges at strategic points, coupled with closure of most crossings of 29 would streamline things immensely. Many crossings of 29 have little to do with actual roads crossing 29, but they have much to do with facilitating left turns for people entering and leaving parts of the strip commercial development along the right-of-way. A good first step would be the elimination of all "convenience" left turn accommodations. Every stop light taken down puts the community one step closer to an arrangement that permits easier passage for through traffic and facilitates the alternative movements of local traffic via local roads and frontage roads. It would even be possible even at this stage to convert the inside 4 lanes of 29 to through lanes and the 2 outside lanes in each direction into frontage roads. Anyone needing to cross over would have to use the previously mentioned grade separated interchanges. This was proposed years ago and quickly dropped after a few squeaks from merchants.Of course we have just finished eliminating, or hugely complicating,one of those interchange locations (Hydraulic Rd.) by building the abomination known previously as Albemarle Place. The sad thing about all the strip development on 29N, is it's been promoted almost entirely by out-of-area interests who come in and bedazzle the locals with fables about how much good they're going to bring the community. The fables are all bunkum; the outside developers are like 19th century mining interests. They just want to come in, build, and take the money and run. They want minimum fuss from local govt. about having to build traffic mitigation enhancements. Like 19th century mining magnates, they are happy to leave us with the spoils piles.

On a historic note, the comprehensive plan adopted by Albemarle County in the late seventies was a masterful blunder. Succumbing to the "business is bad" trope of the times, the planning people and boards of supervisors at the time decided that they should clamp down on commercial development everywhere else in the county (the better to preserve our allegedly pristine pastoral landscape) and channel it all onto 29N. None of them ever seemed to consider the long term consequences. After all, how bad can a single traffic light be? So, they "comprehensively planned" the monster that 29N turned into in slightly over 2 decades. I refer to the 2 decades as those ending in the early 90s, by which time it was a done deal. So now we have a situation where everyone in Charlalbemare who needs to buy something has to go to 29N. and thousands of people who could have lived scattered around all have to commute from their houses in northern suburbs, which didn't exist in 1979, via 29N, all the while competing with local shoppers and through traffic.
I attended some of the public meetings from which the comprehensive plan was born, and I thought at the time that its passage was a total and unmitigated defeat whose implementation would ultimately render Charlalbemarle a less pleasant and more disjointed community than it might otherwise have been under wiser stewardship.

FYI: There have been only two analyses on the "time savings" of the so-called Western "Bypass," neither by VDOT. One study found a time savings of 51 seconds and the other as much as two minutes and 40 seconds.

In short, we are poised to spend from $1.5 million to $4.7 million per SECOND SAVED and the money is not money we have. It is money we will have to borrow. According to the only return on investment study of the project, “Even under the most optimistic cost scenario, the (Western) Bypass never reaches economic break even. Under all other cost scenarios, it destroys significant value.”

VDOT's rationale for this project is that this bypass might help manufacturers build plants near Lynchburg and Danville. I'm not a corporate bigwig, but it is difficult to imagine that saving up to 2 minutes 40 seconds in the 10-hour drive from Lynchburg to NYC would cause any corporation to build a plant downstate.

VDOT does NOT claim that this highway will decrease local congestion but that's how it's been "sold" to Albemarle County.

If VDOT had its way, Virginia would be one big asphalt wasteland. No mountains, no farms, no trees. Just asphalt. And anyone opposed to it must be "anti-growth." I'm not anti-growth. I'm opposed to the idea that anything, be it an economy or a cancerous tumor, can have limitless growth without killing the host.

Smart growth, not this lunacy.

There are many indications that VDOT engineers, themselves, don't want to build this ridiculous highway. the latest is the sudden "discovery" of a couple of cemeteries on the route. A year ago, VDOT refused to allow potential bidders to bring any equipment onto the right of way and said that bidders could only walk it at a prescribed time BUT never put the addendum of when that prescribed time would be. In other times, VDOT has said, basically, "here is the info for bidding" BUT "we do not warrant that this info is suitable for designing this highway" YET "you, the bidder, are responsible for every aspect, every concept."

It looks almost like VDOT engineers, stuck between their political masters and reality, are teeing up law suits to defeat the project.

Indeed, when the poltiical world ressurected this highway (which was declared obsolete by VDOT in the 1990s) a couple years ago, Charlottesville's local NPR reporter found a dozen VDOT engineer emails saying basically, "Why the hell are we ressurecting this albatross?"