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