CTB Cancels Western Bypass Approvals, Costs Linger

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Route 29 Route 29

The idea of a Route 29 Western Bypass dates back to the 1970s and all along it has been racking up a tab for taxpayers. Wednesday, the Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB) agreed to cancel prior approvals for the project but that doesn't change the hefty bill.

The total price tag at this point stands at more than $54 million. But the Virginia Department of Transportation has to still cut ties with the company hired to build the bypass, and backing out of a multi-million-dollar contract has unknown ramifications.

A stop work order from VDOT officially put construction of the Western Bypass on hold.

Virginia Secretary of Transportation Aubrey Layne says he's in no rush to sell off land that was bought to make way for the bypass. In talking to Layne about the project, he seems to leave the door open on the controversial plan by not selling off the millions of dollars in right-of-way real estate in the road's path.

"I’m in no particular hurry,” Layne stated. “At least until we get these other projects going to see where they lead us."

The idea of the Western Bypass around Charlottesville dates back to the 1970s. The project formally kicked off in 1987 with location and environmental studies but quickly faced opposition.

U.S. Senator Mark Warner, a former CTB member, said, "I was on the Commonwealth Transportation Board back in the early '90s where the bypass was first proposed. I voted against it then because it seemed to be overly expensive and not really a bypass."

In 1997, the Metropolitan Planning Organization blocked construction funding. That decision was reversed in 2011 and a construction contract was issued a year later.

"Our kind of new alignment planning projects would take a significant amount of time but this is probably a little bit longer than usual," said John Lynch, the administrator for VDOT’s Culpeper District.

Over three decades, VDOT says bypass work totaled more than $54.3 million. Taxpayers have shelled out about $876,000 per mile for a not-built 6.2-mile-long road.

Secretary Layne calls it an expensive lesson in consensus. "I think it's not just this community; I think that's a lesson from all over the state,” he said.

A majority of the money was spent prior to 2003; VDOT says that tab is about $47 million. Since 2011, $7 million has gone into the project, including $2.8 million to the design-builder Skanska-Branch, a joint venture.

Lynch says that is money that can’t be taken back, “That's for work that they've completed."

Skanska won the work contract with a bid of $135,988,092. Headquartered in New York, Skanska is one of the largest construction companies.

VDOT still has to officially cut ties with Skanska. It is unknown what, if anything, Skanska can or will do as a result.

"I don't think there's any guarantee for anything over and beyond that. But again that'll be for others to determine as we move forward," Lynch stated.

What is moving forward right now are a number of smaller projects to alleviate traffic along Route 29 but even still, Secretary Layne thinks more will need to be done to solve the problem.

"That is the beginning." Layne stated. "I don't think there's a silver bullet."

We reached out to Skanska’s media relations department to see if the company is contemplating any legal actions against VDOT. There has not been a reply at this point.

Depending on Skanska’s next move, the bypass could get even more expensive. The silver lining is that VDOT can sell off the land bought for the bypass to recoup some of the expense.

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