What can we say? Yet another panel established to “study” options for the Charlottesville U.S. 29 Bypass.
That’s the action thus far by Virginia Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne in the wake of the Federal Highway Administration’s February bombshell that it wouldn’t allow the project to move forward because “the need appears to have expanded well beyond the project’s limits.”
The FHA gave the state 30 days to respond and suggest steps that could enhance the western bypass’ effectiveness at alleviating congestion of the parking lot U.S. 29 becomes in Charlottesville. To that end, Layne tapped former Virginia Department of Transportation commissioner Philip Shucet to address the agency’s concerns and map a way forward.
To Secretary Layne, we would respectfully submit that the proper response to the FHA is this: “Virginia will proceed with the bypass as currently approved and will fight to do so. The need is great and any congestion relief achieved is worth the cost. We will simultaneously begin planning for future corridor improvements to address the growth challenges created by Charlottesville and Albemarle County’s past zoning and planning decisions.”
There is a fundamental disagreement over what, exactly, U.S. 29 is. Is it a major north-south transportation corridor with the goal of providing relatively unimpeded traffic flow to through traffic along its 1,000-mile path or is it, in Charlottesville and Albemarle County, a local retail strip? It can’t be both.
Charlottesville and Albemarle officials, over the course of decades, treated “their stretch” of U.S. 29 as a local street, allowing just about any development to spring up with no plan for future traffic management. So, too, did officials in Danville, Lynchburg and Warrenton.
But those communities came to rue their decisions as congestion and unfettered growth impeded smart economic development, leading to their backing of major highway improvements and modern bypasses.
Charlottesville and Albemarle, however, still persist in their silly, outdated belief that U.S. 29 is really just “Emmett Street,” the local retail strip, and has no connection to the rest of the state.
That’s evident in Albemarle’s “plan” to address improvements on Emmett Street: a silly, utopian “Places29” with overpasses — built where major retail centers now sit — for through traffic, pedestrian-friendly amenities and added lanes for traffic.
According to a Virginia Department of Transportation study, the western bypass of Charlottesville would shave 22 minutes and avoid six stop lights from the drive around Charlottesville.
That’s a substantial savings, no matter how you slice it.
Yes, the northern terminus, near the Hollymead subdivision, is now in an area almost as congested as points south. But it wasn’t that way when the state selected the bypass’ path; it just wasn’t protected by local officials opposed to any bypass who had the power to approve any local development proposals.
But the fact of the matter is that that is the approved path, and it still has benefits. That simply can’t be denied.
Hence, our advice to Secretary Layne and his advisory panel: Push ahead with the Charlottesville Bypass as planned, while beginning new planning for additional corridor improvements.
Anything else would be the height of irresponsibility.
This editorial was corrected March 20, 2014, for the spelling of Virginia Secretary of Transportation Aubrey Layne's last name and for former Virginia Department of Transportation commissioner Philip Shucet's correct former position.