Bypass be gone: It's not too late to undo bad idea
By Jack Trammell
Rigged polls. Midnight votes. Politicians calling each other names and contradicting themselves in public. Use of the state legislative process to punish opponents. Bureaucratic circumvention of the required or recommended public discourse. Contractors getting rich on no bid or overrun-laden design bid projects. Silence in the major media outlets. If this sounds like a troubled third world country, worthy of another Sacha Baron Cohen movie, think again— it is the current central Virginia battle over the Western Bypass in Charlottesville. Sixty-six seconds (the estimated time savings) has never been so controversial or expensive.
In Virginia, history does matter, and very few people inside or outside the region realize or care to acknowledge that the current bypass war actually dates to 1957. Fifty-six years ago, a hired consultant recommended a northern route for Virginia’s section of Interstate 64, and a regional war between Lynchburg and Charlottesville politicians and businessmen broke out that was never satisfactorily resolved. Although the state recommended the southern route through the Danville/Lynchburg corridor, federal highway authorities ultimately overrode state politics and mandated that the highway run through/beside Charlottesville. Ever since that time, politicians, businessmen, and even faculty and students in the Danville/Lynchburg areas, the “Lynchburg Lobby,” blame the interstate decision for 50 years of lackluster economic growth and being left out of larger transportation initiatives; Charlottesville is a favored city.
This certainly did not stop improvements from being completed on more southerly sections of U.S. 29; both Danville and Lynchburg have highly utilized Route 29 bypasses. There has also been a longstanding unofficial plan to consider the Route 29 corridor for a new north-south interstate (North Carolina and Virginia made a joint agreement in 1997 concerning Interstate 785, which would take over much of Route 29 between Greensboro, North Carolina and Danville, Virginia). This road has not come to pass— yet… And heading north on 29 toward lucrative seaboard markets trucks now hit snarls in Charlottesville (or so bypass proponents have argued), along the northern part of what could be a further extended new interstate.
The Lynchburg Lobby, supported by Governor McDonnell and Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton, and including such figures as State Senator Steve Newman, Commonwealth Transportation Board member Mark Peake, and even Liberty University’s Jerry Falwell Jr., has promised to break ground on the western bypass project before the end of the McDonnell administration, in spite of myriad complications and outright problems. Charlottesville area residents, however, have been slow to realize the degree to which the bypass has become an outright political and economic war.
The publicity campaign coming from the southern direction has been ongoing for decades, targeting highway authorities and sympathetic leaders in the Charlottesville area to get a western bypass completed. The Danville and Lynchburg chambers of commerce have engaged citizens in repeated letter writing campaigns, and even used pressure from arenas like higher education, where an administrator at Liberty University emailed all students and staff to stack an online Charlottesville poll in favor of the bypass (more scientific polls give the anti-bypass supporters a majority in the Charlottesville area). There was even legislation passed in the General Assembly, later modified, that specifically targeted the Charlottesville area (“those people” as the Secretary of Transportation recently referred to them) for fiscal punishment if local officials put roadblocks up. Lynchburg and Danville advocates often attend public bypass meetings in Charlottesville and frequently pack online surveys. “Nothing but excuses from Charlottesville,” a Lynchburg editorial complained. “A never ending fight,” a Danville editorial lamented.
Some see it as democracy in action; others see it as a declaration of regional war. Many see it as a threat to libertarian principles of local autonomy and a blow to notions of fiscal responsibility (some internal VDOT documents estimate that the bypass may exceed $420 million in cost; the author’s estimate is that wrangling over the bypass including right-of-way purchase, legal fees, VDOT expenses, etc., may now exceed half a billion in 2013 dollars since 1972, and still of course no bypass).
Leaders in Charlottesville cannot claim to have made a solution easier. In a bizarre, unplanned and unannounced midnight vote in 2011 to renew the project, the Albemarle Board of Supervisors added renewed fire to the war under circumstances that are almost as obscure as the distant politics of the “Lynchburg Lobby” in the 1950s. Since then, core sampling, surveying, and other pre-construction activity has noticeably picked up throughout the proposed construction area.
“This bypass has already embedded all the regulatory approvals of the federal government,” Connaughton emphasized in a recent interview. “We have an officially accepted and approved record of the decision which allows you to move forward on the contract. That has been litigated and found to be valid.” Connaughton plans to break ground on the bypass before a change in administration.
But there is hardly celebration as the winning bidder Skanska finds they now have untenable designs at both bypass terminuses. For the next six months, the war over sixty-six seconds is only likely to intensify, and Danville and Lynchburg remain off the interstate grid.
Jack Trammell is a freelance reporter based in Mineral, Virginia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.