Barnum's beaming: The Greatest bypass on Earth!
Have you ever walked into a store soon after opening hours to find the advertised sale item "all sold out?”
Come to the Holiday Inn Thursday, May 23 and get a look at a “bait and switch” tactic so impressive that P.T. Barnum must be beaming in his grave.
No salesman will try to sell you something for a few dollars more. Instead, you’ll be looking at three new designs running up a tab somewhere between $20 million and $56 million for the Southern Terminus of the so-called Western Bypass. The Daily Progress' editorial page, a bypass proponent, gave us the $56 million recently when it "chuckled" about Virginia accepting a Bypass design which actually increases the amount of time it’ll take for trucks to get through Charlottesville. The Western Bypass doesn't bypass anything.
As soon as Virginia accepted the Skanska-Branch design for the so-called bypass last summer, however, several other contractors complained that Skanska’s $135.9 million bid ($78 million below the high bid) didn’t meet the state’s Request for Proposal, and one filed a formal complaint. Plus, within weeks of accepting that low bid to build the 6.2-mile highway to end-run four miles of U.S. 29N, Virginia began meetings to address Skanska's “accepted" Southern Terminus around Darden Business School and St. Anne’s Belfield.
Thursday, months after taxpayers and Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB) members were baited with reasonable sounding costs, that Southern Terminus switch will be on display. Be forewarned, though: The 5pm May 23 public meeting– not public hearing– at the Emmet Street Holiday Inn is only about the Southern Terminus. There’s another six miles of the Bypass awaiting “new and improved” P.T. Barnum moments.
A few years ago, both Uncle Sam and Indiana researched design-build projects, with the Federal Highway Administration noting that DB projects, like the Bypass, always cost more money, and Indiana officials saying never construct any major project using design-build because there's so much potential for costs to spiral, even if there isn’t corruption.
Indiana was talking about “major” projects being over $32 million, a tad more than one-tenth the so-far identified costs of Charlottesville’s Bypass, which, remember, ends south of Hollymead, Forest Lakes, and the Hollymead Town Center, and threatens the lungs of students in six area schools while possibly paving over three historic grave sites and dumping sand and dirt into the water supply for 100,000 people.
Proponents argue Virginia will provide another $145 million to extend this Bypass past the airport, meanwhile, and another $32 million to make existing 29N into a parkway. They allegedly don’t realize the Skanska design– even as non-functional as it exists today– will tie up half of all state moneys coming to our Commonwealth Transportation Board district between now and 2050. None of the other eight counties, or even Crozet, Scottsville, or Pantops, will want their share of transportation dollars, will they?
Jim Rich, such a fiscal conservative that he spent 20 years on Virginia’s GOP executive committee, was fired by a Republican governor and secretary of transportation last fall for talking fiscal sense over this “colossal waste of taxpayer money,” and our three Republican county supervisors voted against overwhelming public comment in May last year not to ask VDOT to hold a public hearing on this Bypass.
Why? Perhaps because there has only been one return-on-investment study, and the former Virginia Business editor found only $8 million in public benefits for a highway which is costing taxpayers, before change orders, $244 million. That return is less than the interest on all those borrowed dollars.
Why? Perhaps because if Virginia built overpasses at Rio and Hydraulic Road-– as VDOT originally sequenced first– we’d get more congestion relief and better safety for one-third the cost. Building the overpasses for $80 million would address almost four-fifths of all accidents on 29N and change the road’s “level of service” from an F to a B. Constructing this Bypass will leave the intersections on 29N at an F.
Why? Perhaps because if the parents at STAB, or Greer, or Albemarle High pay attention, they’ll realize the EPA today suggests any school within a half mile of a major highway should be tested to see what effect traffic exhaust is having on student health, yet Virginia is about to build a major highway within one-third of a mile of six schools.
Why? Perhaps because if we taxpayers go back and look up the data we’ll find that VDOT spent $1.5 million in 2009 to clearly find “the Western Bypass is no longer an effective option to serve corridor-wide trips"– its mandated purpose.
Why? Perhaps because as our own Albemarle County plan puts it, "The (Bypass) project as designed does not meet community or regional needs, and has been determined too costly for the transportation benefits to be gained. The transportation goals of the Bypass can be more effectively realized with improvements to the existing Route 29 corridor.”
In short, if citizens start thinking about dollars and sense, they’ll realize why Taxpayers for Common Sense calls the Bypass one of the eight worst projects in the nation.
When I was a young reporter, the famous political slogan was “The Buck Stops Here.” Now, old and gray, I'm wondering when it changed to a slight variation of P.T. Barnum: “Never Give the Taxpayers an Even Break.”
A former journalism professor, Randy Salzman is a Charlottesville-based transportation researcher.