Issues with the so-called “Western Bypass” of Charlottesville, one of the nation’s worst highway projects; a $240 million highway which will create only $8 million in public benefits while increasing the risks of autism and asthma in children, destruction of the area’s water supply and do nothing to relieve area congestion. The political process by which this highway is being promoted by proponents is, at best, questionable.

Besides injuring the lungs of children in the six area schools which will be within a quarter mile of the expensive “design build” highway, this project will “decimate” (not my term) the Darden Business School, regardless of whether the existing design is built. The existing design, by Skanska Branch, is especially egregious for the B-school as it eliminates 20 years of guarantees to the University and causes 18-wheelers to barrel down an 11.4 percent grade at 60 miles per hour across a student cross walk.

Jim Rich, the area’s Commonwealth Transportation Board member, was fired for trying to tell Virginia taxpayers the truth about this project, labeled one of the nation’s worst eight by the Taxpayers for Common Sense.

While several small media have run my essays on some of the issues, my position papers are below. Please look by title for the issue which concerns you:

Curiouser and curiouser…
With apologies to Lewis Carroll, the so-called Western “Bypass” of Charlottesville gets “curiouser and curiouser.”

Each argument for the 6.2-mile highway falls quickly under any thinking person’s minimal scrutiny. This highway built for trucks which trucks can’t use will need another $56 million added to the $244 million already allocated to make it usable and will then only save truckers, VDOT analyzes, 66 seconds off the 10-hour drive from Lynchburg to NYC. The proponents’ main argument bites the dust because no manufacturer would decide to build a plant anywhere to save only a minute off any full-day drive no matter how much is spent on construction.

Furthermore, the Western “Bypass” will do nothing for local congestion. VDOT has been consistently clear. Since only 10 to 12 percent of the 47,641 to 51,939 vehicles per day on U.S. 29N pass through the area while 90 percent is local traffic, the intersections along 29N will all remain an “F level of service” after the state borrows a fortune to build this so-called “bypass,” so-called because it ends below two major growing neighborhoods and the area’s largest shopping mall.

Now, the safety argument falls by the wayside too. According to Robert Rasmussen, of VDOT’s Traffic Engineering Division, in a letter forwarded to all six Albemarle County Commissioners, there were 260 accidents, or 304.83 per 100 million vehicle miles of travel, in 2010 along 3.3 miles of US 29N the “bypass” is supposed to relieve.

That’s a stiff rate; one of the highest in the state.

All but a handful of those accidents, however, take place at the intersections of Hydraulic and Rio Roads with 29N. According to VDOT, if you exclude the intersections, the accident rate drops to 76.92 per 100 million vehicle miles of travel, meaning that over three in four accidents would be prevented if Virginia continued its original “three-party agreement” which demanded overpasses at Rio and Hydraulic prior to any other traffic improvements.

In the early 1990s, the three-party agreement sequenced all possible projects along 29N and concluded the overpasses should be first and that only IF all the others improvements failed to solve traffic issues would any bypass be considered. A bypass, after all, can’t address local congestion or intersection accidents; only over- or under-passes make intersections safer and overpasses have the added benefit of improving 29’s level of service from an F to a B.

Every single study over 20 years, indeed, illustrates the futility of building this so-called “bypass.” VDOT said clearly on at least three occasions since proposing it decades ago that a Charlottesville bypass is “no longer an effective option to serve corridor-wide trips,” including after completing 2009’s $1.5 million Route 29 Corridor Study. Albemarle County’s comprehensive plan is just as specific: “The (bypass) project as planned does not meet community or regional needs and has been determined to be 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.”

Instead, we taxpayers are on the verge of borrowing $48,133 per daily vehicle or $4.54 million per second saved in order to reap, according to the only cost-benefit analysis, less than $8 million in public benefits.

What happened to the rational planning which, again, sequenced 29N projects beginning with overpasses at Rio and Hydraulic Roads? Rational planning fell under the influence of a single car dealer who managed get himself appointed to the Commonwealth Transportation Board after failing in his bid for elected public office.

Worried that drive-in traffic to his dealership would dry up if there was an overpass in front of it, he formed a group called the North Charlottesville Business Alliance and slowly over years convinced other businessmen that he knew what was good for business everywhere. He might know what’s good for him (but that’s even debatable), but what is slowly dawning on other business people is that, if the “bypass” is built, there’ll be no dollars for transportation projects in Crozet or Pantops or downtown C-ville for — are you ready? — practically forever.

Albemarle Planning Commissioner Mac Lafferty notes that “bypass” funding, even before the expected change orders begin boosting costs left and right, will tie up half of all moneys coming to the entire Culpepper District of the CTB through now and the year 2050. And Jim Rich, the former Culpepper district representative, fired for talking fiscal sense over this so-called “bypass,” confirms that analysis and blatantly calls the “bypass” a “colossal waste of taxpayer money.”

The car dealer, and his cronies in state government, however, will have managed to tie up so much money if the “bypass” is built that there will never be enough to build the overpasses — the projects originally sequenced to go first because they did the most good for the least cost.

Political Irrationality

With $16.4 trillion in U.S. debt and the possible sequester daily topics in America, my state, Virginia, is on the verge of building a $240-million highway in Albemarle County when it provides only $8 million in public benefits; when it will only save truckers a minute off the full-day drive to New York; when it will likely injure student health: when over 90 percent of area public comments indicate it is unwanted and when virtually every other democracy on the planet is trying to discourage driving.

The state notes today that Virginia’s Department of Transportation (VDOT) will run out of funding for new construction by 2017 unless law makers pilfer additional dollars from sales tax revenues, while the costs of building this highway will climb because the present, accepted, design is, as a business-school engineer puts it, “a bait and switch.”

Skanska-Branch’s winning $135.9 million bid for constructing the so-called “Western Bypass of Charlottesville,” which dumps 18-wheelers onto a college campus from an 11.4 percent grade – steeper than all but one of Colorado’s 35 mountain passes – will indeed never be built. The low bid design works to make taxpayers think construction of this 6.2 mile four-lane is somewhat reasonable but no one at VDOT suggests the final cost will be anywhere close to $136 million. Presently identified change orders, for example, on only the Southern Terminus of the highway will add at least $25 million, probably more, once taxpayers and media are no longer paying attention.

Indeed, following VDOT’s proclamation in 2009 that “the Western Bypass is no longer an effective option to serve corridor-wide trips” – its mandated purpose — a former Virginia Business magazine editor declared this highway “The Road to Wealth Destruction” and the Taxpayers for Common Sense called it one of the eight worst projects in the nation.

This fall, however, a Republican member of the Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB) who kept trying to awaken citizens to this waste of taxpayer dollars was dismissed unceremoniously by a Republican governor and secretary of transportation.

Republican Senator Stephen Newman of Lynchburg has been the driving force for the highway, claiming that the Charlottesville “bypass” which runs through eight established neighborhoods and within a quarter mile of six area schools while ending short of two massive suburban neighborhoods and the area’s largest shopping mall, will build economic opportunity in his downstate community. He proposes that major manufacturers will site new plants downstate if their trucks can get to Washington D.C., New York City and Boston quicker.

VDOT’s early analysis notes, however, that 18-wheelers will save 66 seconds in the 10 hours from Lynchburg to NYC and a more recent analysis, after the existing U.S. 29N highway’s stop lights were synchronized, put the time savings at 51 seconds while many truckers say the Skanska design is too unsafe for use.

“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 Albemarle County Comprehensive Plan notes. “The transportation goals of the Bypass can be more effectively realized with improvements to the existing Route 29 corridor.”

VDOT reports that 3,194 of the 3,257 comments on its recent bypass assessment opposed building the so-called “bypass,” or demanded additional study, and the University of Virginia’s representative to the area’s Metropolitan Planning Organization says that, “at best, five percent” of the public input has been in favor of the highway.

One of the handful of local proponents for the bypass, a car dealer, served on the CTB in the 1990s when it reversed guarantees to Charlottesville, Albemarle County and University of Virginia to build overpasses along existing U.S. 29 prior to considering any bypass and has claimed that the bypass proposal will now tie up all funding and ensure that the state can never afford to build the collection of projects called “Places29” which deal with local congestion – but possibly might slow his sales.

The businessman, and apparently other unaware businesses along 29N, believes companies will lose too many drop-in customers if overpasses and a new bridge over the Rivanna River are built at about half the cost of the “bypass.” There is no data to support that belief, however. Furthermore, proponents contend the state will find another $132 million to expand the present “bypass” design to extend past the airport and truly bypass the new suburbs, instead of putting 18-wheelers along the access to Hollymead and Forest Lakes neighborhoods as the plan does today.

That money simply does not, and will not, exist, explains former CTB member Jim Rich. With the existing proposal tying up half of the entire amount projected for the local transportation district through 2050, there is no chance other communities in the district will support giving even more money to Albemarle County.

“This $244 million is a colossal waste of taxpayer money from which anyone, especially fiscal conservatives, should recoil,” Rich says. “This so-called bypass proposal would harm Charlottesville-Albemarle by hurting 1,500 homes and bulldozing 40, injuring six schools and 4,000 school children and causing damage to UVA’s Darden Business School.”

Those schoolkids are especially vulnerable. There are at least a dozen studies since 2009 which illustrate that children who live and learn near major highways suffer greater asthma and autism, plus have lessened lung capacity. Today, the Environmental Protection Agency suggests that any school within a half mile of a major highway be analyzed to determine the negative effects on children while Virginia is poised to build a new highway within a quarter mile of six schools with money it has to borrow.

The only return on investment study of the so-called “bypass” indicates total public benefits will not likely offset even interest payments on the note.

“We would be taking a lot of money out of other areas, including the Richmond area, which has a fair amount of unmet needs,” Rich, a 20-year member of the state Republican Party Executive Committee, adds. “The General Assembly should stop this bypass fiasco, Virginia’s own ‘Solyndra’ road.”

“As a conservative free-enterprise Virginian worried about the economic future of our country, I couldn’t sit there on the CTB and rubber stamp bad policy.”

Western “Bypass”
All Pain, No Gain

At upwards of $40 million per mile, the “Western Bypass” is a financial boondoggle and an environmental and health disaster which will NOT decrease congestion on U.S. 29N and, instead, will actually pull 18-wheelers into population centers at Hollymead and Forest Lakes. VDOT reports that after the 6.2-mile construction, 29N’s level of service will remain an F because of new traffic the “Bypass to Nowhere” will induce. Our existing area plan, Places 29, however effectively addresses congestion.

For the best coverage of the “Western Bypass,” look up the work of former Virginia Business publisher, James Bacon, at In addition, the Piedmont Environmental Council and Charlottesville Tomorrow maintain web pages on the so-called “bypass” – which runs primarily through established neighborhoods. (, and 29bypass.html). Beginning at the Darden Business School near the intersection of Barracks Road and U.S. 250 and ending near Ashwood Boulevard and 29 N, below Hollymead Town Center, it fails completely to bypass Charlottesville population centers.

Those concerned about the amazing array of issues which are neglected in the ongoing fast track process are urging the Federal Highway Administration to order a complete “Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement,” or SEIS, as suggested by the National Environmental Protection Act. The last statement was long before the residential growth which will be so heavily affected by the Western Bypass and the traffic study was from the early 1990s.

Although the SEIS sounds like it is solely environmental, the FHWA is required to consider “substantial effects” in a variety of fields. Please email Irene Rico at FHWA ( with concerns.

Financial: Up to $500 million in total will be needed. Virginia will borrow this money against future federal gasoline tax dollars at a time when the fed gas tax comes nowhere near covering existing highway maintenance needs and the United States is $16 trillion in debt. Hence, Virginia is borrowing this money from China and international bankers and the governor, who wants to eliminate Virginia’s gasoline tax, plans to pay the bonds back with gasoline tax dollars.

Health: Health studies indicate that children and the elderly within a quarter mile of major highways have decreased lung capacity and increased asthma attacks. Diesel “particulates” are the primary factor with trucks creating the most particulates. The bypass will be within 1600 feet of six schools and a retirement center and the EPA today suggests that all schools within a half mile of major highways be analyzed for the negative effects of auto exhaust on students.

Design-Build: As part of the fast-track process, VDOT is giving contractors the right to hundreds of change of orders which will increase construction cost. Since the state is required bids PRIOR to discovering many necessary facts and even identifying relevant regulations, contractors will be able to request massive numbers of changes and cost overruns are guaranteed. There was an $80 million discrepancy between the lowest and highest “bids,” and the discrepancy is two-thirds of the low bid.

Environmental: In addition to the particulates and other air pollution, this highway will cross the regional water supply. During construction, run-off will degrade water quality with sediment and construction debris. Upon opening, oil slicks and potential accidents will dump stronger pollutants.

Noise: As VDOT, has already removed landscaping and other amenities from the bidding process, there is little chance that the state will afford the concrete barriers to adequately protect neighborhoods.

Congestion: Even VDOT notes that the bypass barely affects traffic on 29N and will, instead, increase the number of 18-wheel trucks coming through the area as the prime “benefit” of the highway is seeking to expand downstate Virginia manufacturing. NAFTA truckers will also be enticed to come east from I-81. Places 29, a community vetted – and much cheaper – process does, however, address local congestion.

Congestion “Relief”
Western “Bypass”

Lost in most local discussion of the so-called Western” Bypass” is the state’s initial reason for considering the expensive project – to boost economic activity in Lynchburg south. By cutting the drive time for 18-wheelers to NYC and Boston, the hope is that industrial jobs will develop south of Albemarle County.

In Albemarle, however, the highway has been sold as local congestion relief. Yet VDOT itself notes that U.S. 29N will remain an F level of service once the “bypass” is complete, just that more trucks than ever thought possible will be arriving at the northern terminus below Forest Lakes and Hollymead.

In addition to the new 18-wheelers from Lynchburg and Danville, the bypass will attract NAFTA (North American Free Trade) traffic bound for cities in the Northeast. Presently, 1 in three vehicles on I-81 is an 18-wheeler and since the interstate is carrying three times the number of vehicles it was designed for, the “improvement” of a dozen lights along U.S. 29 will draw Texas and Mexican truckers to cut over as far south as Roanoke and arrive in our community’s fastest-growing neighborhoods.

Even the Culpepper Chamber of Commerce noted this effect to last fall’s Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB)meeting by requesting additional funds for Culpepper to deal with the 18-wheelers the bypass will bring.

Called “induced traffic” by transportation economists, almost every time a highway network capacity is expanded by 10 percent, instantly there is a four percent growth in the number of vehicles. In a few years – generally less than five – the increase in cars and trucks climbs to 10 percent and the congestion “benefit” is gone as the relieved roads are carrying more than they were before construction. A Virginia transportation study in 1998 called it “a futile exercise” to attempt to build out of congestion and national research over 15 years of 70 communities found that the more a community spends building roadways, the worse its congestion becomes.

In the bypass’ existing traffic study, 20 years old, VDOT suggests that the bypass will divert from 10 to 12 percent of 29N traffic without addressing induced traffic. One VDOT email notes specifically that: “This (29N) corridor is competing with the 81 and 64 corridors” for 18-wheel routing.

A much better congestion relief concept is the heavily-vetted “Places29” project which, if the bypass is built, will likely lose chance for adequate funding. After spending upwards of $250 million – and probably much more due to design-build change orders and cost overruns – the CTB will be pressured to provide future funds in other parts of Virginia and no future governor, nor secretary of transportation, will ever be bound to lukewarm comments of predecessors.

Places29, passed unanimously by county supervisors in 2011, addresses local congestion by extending Berkmar Drive over the Rivanna River and building/enlarging a number of smaller, parallel roads for local drivers. Places29 deals with existing and projected local traffic and does not encourage 18-wheelers into our growing population centers, yet it has no funding source.

Childhood Health
Charlottesville’s Western “Bypass”

Since the last Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement on the 6.2-mile, $250 million-plus “Western Bypass” was completed in 2003, research studies linking highway exhaust to childhood asthma and reduced lung capacity are legion. Yet three Albemarle County supervisors in a recent letter to Federal Highways argue against updating the SEIS:

“We understand that a recent study of California schoolchildren that live next to freeways is unsettled science and has not been adopted by the EPA as a concern nationwide,” Albemarle supervisors wrote. “We know of no evidence in Virginia, or along the 29/250 corridor where many schools are already next to the road where there have been health issues.”

Those three supervisors, none of whom live near the proposed route, are obviously willing to bet that California’s research is wrong. The parents, teachers and school children in the way of this highway — which even VDOT admits will not decrease congestion on U.S. 29 — might want some facts before they make the same bet.

The so-called “Bypass” – which runs with a three-wood of eight established neighborhoods – begins at UVA’s Darden Graduate School of Business and ends below the Hollymead Town Center after running within a quarter-mile the Colonnades Senior Living facility and six area schools.

On one point, supervisors are right: there haven’t been any traffic-child health studies in Virginia. But are supervisors aware that Virginia kids don’t come with some biological immunity to highway exhaust unavailable to other children? Or that health effects to pollution do not show up instantaneously?

Both opponents and supporters of cigarette smoking recognize long-term exposure breeds cancer, asthma, and heart disease. The effects from second-hand smoke, much like the exposure one gets from six daily hours 1,600 feet from a freeway populated by 18-wheelers, don’t arise overnight.

The three supervisors are dismissive of an “unsettled” California study. There are at least two California studies about highways and school kids. According to the American Lung Association: “Tracking 1,759 children between ages 10 and 18, researchers found that those who grew up in more polluted areas face the increased risk of having underdeveloped lungs, which may never recover to their full capacity. The average drop in lung function was 20 percent below what was expected for the child’s age.” The other study of 3,300 school children in Southern California “found reduced lung function in girls with asthma and boys who spent more time outdoors in areas with high levels of ozone.” High-speed traffic, of course, produces ozone.
Extensive German research, where unification allowed researchers to compare lungs to traffic growth, found similar data and a 9-year study of Swiss kids affected by diesel particulates — increasing with the new 18-wheel freight traffic on the bypass — found “during the years with less pollution, the children had fewer episodes of chronic cough, bronchitis, common cold, and conjunctivitis symptoms.”

In 2010, a Health Effects Institute review of all American “Traffic-Related Air Pollution” studies concluded “the evidence is sufficient to support a causal relationship between exposure to traffic-related air pollution and exacerbation of asthma. It also found suggestive evidence of a causal relationship with onset of childhood asthma, nonasthma respiratory symptoms, impaired lung function, total and cardiovascular mortality, and cardiovascular morbidity.”
The three Albemarle supervisors argue the EPA has “not adopted” this issue as a “concern nationwide.” Presumably, they mean the Environmental Protection Agency hasn’t yet demanded that schools be moved away from highways because the EPA established guidelines on school siting near highways last year. How close a highway should be to a school include factors for types of vehicles, average speeds, wind direction, whether kids walk and bike, but the EPA urges that professional evaluators be brought in to check every school presently existing inside one half mile of a major highway.
Agnor Hurt, Mary Greer, Jack Jouett, Albemarle High School, Ivy Creek, and St.Anne’s Belfield School are all at a quarter mile from the Western Bypass route and most have playgrounds or athletic fields within 500 feet.

A pop foul from the Greer softball field lands on the Western Bypass route.

Traffic pollution tied to autism risk: study
By Andrew M. Seaman,
NEW YORK | Mon Nov 26, 2012 4:34pm EST

(Reuters Health) – Babies who are exposed to lots of traffic-related air pollution in the womb and during their first year of life are more likely to become autistic, suggests a new study.

The findings support previous research linking how close children live to freeways with their risk of autism, according to the study’s lead author.
“We’re not saying traffic pollution causes autism, but it may be a risk factor for it,” said Heather Volk, an assistant professor at the Keck School of Medicine of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

Autism is a spectrum of disorders ranging from a profound inability to communicate and mental retardation to milder symptoms seen in Asperger’s syndrome.

The prevalence of autism has grown over the past few years. It’s now estimated that the disorder affects one in every 88 children born in the United States, which is a 25 percent increase from a 2006 estimate (see Reuters article of March 29, 2012,

The increase in autism diagnoses has also been accompanied by a growing body of research on the disorder.

Including Volk’s new study, there are three articles on autism in this issue of the Archives of General Psychiatry.
“A decade ago, the journal published about the same number of autism articles per year,” wrote Geraldine Dawson of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, in an editorial accompanying the studies.

The two other reports in the current issue deal with ways to image a person’s brain to look for physical differences between an autistic and non-autistic brain.

According to Dawson, who is also chief science officer of the advocacy group Autism Speaks, the number of studies on autism began to grow around 2000. Most studies, she says, deal with the biology of the disease.
Volk’s new study, however, is one of a series of looks into how environmental factors may be linked to a child’s risk of being autistic, done over the past few years (see Reuters article of July 5, 2011)

“I think it’s definitely an area that’s been understudied until recently,” Volk told Reuters Health.
Unlike their last study, which used how close a child lived to a freeway as a substitute for pollution exposure, for the new analysis Volk and her colleagues looked at measures of air quality around kids’ homes.

Compared to 245 California children who were not autistic, the researchers found that 279 autistic children were almost twice as likely to have been exposed to the highest levels of pollution while in the womb, and about three times as likely to have been highly exposed during their first year of life.

They found that children exposed to the highest amount of “particulate matter” – a mixture of acids, metals, soil and dust – had about a two-fold increase in autism risk. That type of regional pollution is tracked by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Volk and her colleagues also saw a similar link between autism and nitrogen dioxide, which is in car, truck and other vehicle emissions.

“This is a risk factor that we can modify and potentially reduce the risk for autism,” wrote Dawson in an email to Reuters Health. The researchers said certain pollutants could play a role in brain development – but that doesn’t prove being exposed to air pollution makes kids autistic. They warned that there may be other factors that explain the association, including indoor pollution and second-hand smoke exposure.

“There are some potential pathways that we’re examining in our current research that will be coming up next,” said Volk.

SOURCE: Archives of General Psychiatry, online November 26, 2012.


Shungin Wang, Hinliang Zhang, et al, “Association of Traffic-Related Air Pollution with Children’s Neurobehavioral Functions in Quanzhou, China,” Environmental Health Perspectives, Oct. 2009. “Found a significant relationship between chronic low-level traffic-related air pollution exposure and neurobehavioral function and development.”)

Ariel Spira-Chohen, et al, “Personal Exposures to Traffic-Related Air Pollution and Acute Respiratory Health among Bronx Schoolchildren with Asthma,” Jan. 2011.(“Adverse health associations were strongest with personal measures of elemental carbon exposure suggesting the diesel “soot” fraction of PM2.5 is most responsible for pollution-related asthma exacerbations among children living near roadways.”)

Heather E. Volk, et al, “Residential Proximity to Freeways and Autism in the CHARGE Study,” Dec. 2010. (“Living near a freeway was associated with autism.”)

Rob McConnell, et al, “Childhood Incident Asthma and Traffic-Related Air Pollution at Home and School,” July 2010. (“Traffic-related pollution exposure at school and homes may both contribute to the development of asthma.)

Baumann LM, et al,“Effects of distance from a heavily transited avenue on asthma and atopy in a periurban shantytown in Lima, Peru,” April 2011. (“Living in close proximity to a high-traffic-density avenue in a periurban community in Peru was associated with a greater risk of asthma symptoms and atopy.”)

Andersson M, et al, “Heavy vehicle traffic is related to wheeze among schoolchildren: a population-based study in an area with low traffic flows,” Oct. 2011. (“This study showed that already at low levels of exposure, vehicle traffic is related to an increased risk of wheeze among children. Thus, the global burden of traffic air pollution may be underestimated.”)

Bernstein, D,“Traffic-related pollutants and wheezing in children,” Feb. 2012. (“High exposure to traffic related air pollutants represent independent risk factors for wheezing during infancy and early childhood. Further studies are needed to explore long-term effects of traffic exposure on development of asthma in childhood. Scientific significance. Reduction and mitigation of exposure to traffic related air pollutants could reduce risk of respiratory illnesses during childhood.”)

Cakmak, S, et al, ”The influence of neighborhood traffic density on the respiratory health of elementary schoolchildren,” Feb. 2012. (“Our findings provide further support for the hypothesis that neighborhood exposure to traffic-related air pollution increases respiratory symptoms and reduces ventilatory function in children, especially those with self-reported asthma.”)

Mount Sinai Children’s Environmental Health Center, “List of the top ten toxic chemicals suspected to cause autism and learning disabilities.” (Automotive exhaust is in the top ten.) April, 2012.

Deborah Gough and Sarah Whyte, “Car Pollution Puts Child Health at Risk.” July 2012 (Car pollution is creating asthma-like symptoms in otherwise healthy children, and potentially affecting their lung growth, according to a report that suggests Australia’s air quality standards should be upgraded.”)

Gasna J, et al, “Motor vehicle air pollution and asthma in children: A meta-analysis,” Aug. 2012. (Living or attending schools near high traffic density roads exposes children to higher levels of motor vehicle air pollutants, and increases the incidence and prevalence of childhood asthma and wheeze.)

Pereira, et al, “Association between pre-eclampsia and locally derived traffic-related air pollution: a retrospective cohort study,” Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, Sept. 2012. (“Exposure to traffic-related air pollution can greatly raise a pregnant woman’s risk for preeclampsia, a large study from Australia has found. Preeclampsia can cause serious health problems for mother and baby.”)

Even under the most optimistic cost scenario, the (Western) Bypass never reaches economic break even. Under all other cost scenarios, it destroys significant value.”

Charlottesville – Missing from much coverage of Charlottesville’s proposed Western “bypass” is the fiscal reality of taxpayers building a $200+ million highway for some $8 million in public benefits. Governor Robert McDonnell, while proposing that Virginia’s gasoline tax be eliminated, hopes to pay for the highway through states bonds backed by future federal gasoline taxes returned to the Commonwealth.

At a Wednesday, Jan. 23 forum at C’ville Coffee on Harris Street, Erich Zimmermann, of the Taxpayers for Common Sense (TCS), and Jim Bacon, former editor of Virginia Business and presently CEO of BaconsRebellion, will discuss fiscal aspects of the 6.2 mile, 4-lane highway planned to bisect eight existing neighborhoods and run within a quarter mile of six area schools. While the negative health effects of being so close to highway vehicle exhaust are documented in two dozen studies, few area citizens recognize that TCS calls the Western “bypass” one of the worst construction projects in the nation.

The winning construction bid for the fast-tracked, design-build project did indeed come in under projections but the 60-mile per hour highway will dead end into the Darden Business School and the University of Virginia has already begun requesting expensive change orders projected to add at least $25 million to Skanska-Branch’s $136 million bid. Cost overruns and change orders are a common feature of design-build projects, a recent Federal Highway Administration analysis points out, which end up costing taxpayers more than similar “design-bid-build” projects, the traditional manner of construction.

Indeed the difference between Skanska’s low bid and the high bid was $80 million, almost two-thirds of Skanska’s entire bid. The other active design-build project on Virginia’s books is a bicycle path for $6.9 million near Williamsburg.

Bacon produced the only “return on investment” study of the “bypass” and found $8 million in benefits, primarily to Lynchburg and Danville businesses who might save 2 minutes and 40 seconds in their rush to decrease the five-hour drive to D.C. and the 10 hours to New York City. Only under the most optimistic scenarios, his ROI research indicates, would Virginia taxpayers recoup even the 4.4 percent interest on the required bonds. Zimmermann, who analyzes national transportation issues to determine how best to spend taxpayer dollars, will discuss how projects such as the Western “bypass” affect the national $16.4 trillion debt and why Virginia taxpayers should be concerned over paying for a project with a funding category the governor believes should be eliminated.

While many citizens presume the “bypass” will relieve area congestion, the Virginia Department of Transportation reports that U.S. 29 North will remain primarily an “F level of service” highway after construction is complete. In its latest “Environmental Assessment,” most of VDOT’s claimed congestion relief will come from generally unfunded Places29 projects which, in total, would cost taxpayers about half of the Western “bypass.”

Design Build
Western “Bypass”

Never before has Virginia built anything anywhere near the size and complexity of the so-called “Western Bypass” in a design-build process. Presently, the state’s only other DB project is a section of the “Cap-to-Cap” bicycle trail from Williamsburg to Richmond. Less than 30-feet wide, with speeds maxing at 30 mph from 2-wheel vehicles, the “Cap-to-Cap” trail will cost $6.9 million compared to $244 million for the “bypass.”

More importantly, the bypass’ fast-track process is tailor-made for cost overruns and expensive change orders because the bidders never received key information prior to submitting their designs in April, as VDOT’s own documents reveal. January’s “Route 29.Charlottesville Bypass Project Request for Proposal Questions and Answers,” for example, at best, confuses any potential design-builder.

VDOT’s most common answer is the bidder’s question would be addressed “in a forthcoming addendum” — many of which never materialized prior to bid closure. When any info was available from usually a 1997 update, VDOT consistently added this sentence: “The Department does not represent or warrant that the information contained in the Supplemental Information Package is reliable or accurate or suitable for designing this project.”

If the contractor wanted a “suitable” update or had questions about a dozen or so forthcoming addendums, he/she was told (at least three times) in no uncertain terms that “another round of questions and responses will not be conducted.” He/she was also told that the proposal due date would not change regardless of anything, including whether the NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) documentation and decision (“scheduled for late 2012”) is available.

The overall lack of information given to contractors ensures that the winning bidder will have such powerful grounds to sue over lack of info and miscommunication that the winning bid will have little concrete in it. Rather than face expensive lawsuits, the state will allow dozens-to-hundreds of change orders in response to the chosen design-builder’s inability to have his/her questions answered prior to bidding. The winning bid will likely be millions (and maybe hundreds of millions) below what the highway will actually cost.

To provide a couple (of dozens) specific confusions in VDOT’s questions and answers:

One contractor’s request read: “We’d like to walk the alignment and investigate existing conditions. We’d also like to investigate geotechnical conditions for which we’d like to bring some equipment.” While allowing VDOT right-of-way walking on dates/times “identified in a forthcoming addendum,” VDOT would not allow potential bidders to utilize any equipment, stating: “Investigating geotechnical conditions of the alignment with equipment will not be granted by VDOT. The design-builder should rely on the Geotechnical Data Report.” On that same page, however, VDOT also states: “A Geotechnical Data Report was provided with Addendum #1. Preliminary soil survey and storm water management reports from 1997 and associated laboratory test data are available as Supplemental Information upon request from the Culpepper District. No additional geotechnical reports will be provided. The Department does not represent or warrant that the information contained in the Supplemental Information Package is reliable or accurate or suitable for designing this project.”

In question 72, a potential bidder notes the design builder is responsible for Water Quality permits and mitigation and requests a map and guidelines for run-off flow. VDOT’s answer: “This information is not available.” Yet a dozen times VDOT assures the DB that he/she will be responsible for obtaining any permits and solving any water issues (any runoff issues, any right of way issues, any boring core issues, anything apparently not specified in the RFP). “Builder is responsible for all related environmental permits and for any associated notifications and fees,” VDOT writes on Page 5.

There are literally dozens of these “answers” which are not answers at all. In many other places, answers contradict each other. In total, VDOT provided 33 pages of confusion to potential design-builders. But if everything works out, the NEPA review still isn’t “scheduled until late 2012.” And the winning bidder from the spring process is still allegedly held “responsible” for the costs of addressing whatever anticipated or unanticipated issues arise.

It is therefore hardly surprising that the difference between May’s low and high bids was $80 million – or two-thirds of the lowest bid.

Darden’s Cost Factor
How much will mitigating the safety and noise issues created
by the Skanska-Branch “Western Bypass” design cost?

Darden should expect to pay at least $4 million to mitigate – not solve – the sound and safety issues created by today’s Skanska-Branch design of the Western Bypass’ Southern Terminus.

Due to the questionable maneuver of calling the section of highway over U.S. 250 a “local road,” rather than an “arterial” road, Skanska has rid itself of the burden of providing sound barriers and landscaping as demanded by previous Western Bypass agreements, plus greatly increased the likelihood that Darden must build an over-, or underpass, of Leonard Sandridge Road (LSR) for student crossing.

PedSafe reports that pedestrian overpasses cost from $500,000 to $4 million. Besides cosmetics, the prime difference in cost is whether the overpass is grade separated, rather than at landscape grade level covering a sunken road (like the bridges in Central Park, NYC). Unless Darden opts to sink Sandridge road or greatly expand the length of the pedestrian overpass, the overpass will need to be ADA appropriate, meaning that wheelchair ramps must accompany the stairways and, if it is to match, as CTB promised in 1997, present construction, it will need to blend into the Darden campus.

As the CTB promised “acoustic buffering using sound walls faced with materials compatible with those historically in use at the University,” which Darden will now need to construct, the University should expect to pay $1.5 million or more. Broward County, Florida is today under contract to provide (construction not included) a single 8-foot tall, 1,300-foot long sound barrier of bare concrete for $340,000 and in Maryland, officials are providing $149,000 to individual homeowners along one highway to construct sound buffers. The total cost, if all 20 homeowners acquiesce, will run to $2.9 million but a mid-1990s rule of thumb is that barriers cost $1 million per mile. Sound buffers in the direct line between sound source and human ears stop from 10 to 15 percent of noise and that is primarily the high-pitched treble, instead of the low-pitched base produced by truck engine and tires. (Barriers are more effective on truck air brakes than truck engines, in short.)

Neither sound buffering, nor overpasses, are likely to be effective, however. As Pedsafe reports, “Studies have shown that many pedestrians will not use an overpass or underpass if they can cross at street level in about the same amount of time” in noting that “overpasses work best when the topography allows for a structure without ramps.” In addition, as cars and trucks will be climbing and descending an 11.4 percent grade from Stillhouse Mountain across the LSR “local road” extension onto the Darden campus, much of the noise will inevitably rise above any sound barrier which must, for structural reasons, begin at ground level and rise no more than 20 feet. Unless additional structural support is added, at this height sounds barriers become vulnerable to high winds. (There is one 39-foot sound buffer in the U.S.)

Furthermore, as UVA architect David Neuman notes, Western Bypass construction will destroy some 10 acres of forested land – which today acts as sound buffering from U.S. 250 – and will move the U.S. 250 on-ramp significantly closer to the Darden classroom building.

An unquantifiable loss is what the sudden importation of high-speed vehicles onto the campus will do to the Darden brand. At least southbound cars and trucks headed for Barracks Road Shopping Center from the developing areas of Hollymead and Forest Lakes will likely be induced onto the old sections of Leonard Sandridge, Massie and Arlington streets. Darden will be only B-school in the nation with a 60-mph, four-lane dropping traffic directly onto its campus.

Under the Radar: Western Bypass and the Bid Ploy

This latest questionable practice pushing the fast-tracked “Charlottesville Western Bypass” toward construction is that the Skanska-Branch “design” bypasses the recorded agreements between Commonwealth Transportation Board, the University of Virginia, Charlottesville and Albemarle County by extending Leonard Sandridge Road on the Darden Business School campus OVER U.S. 250 prior to starting the official bypass.^ In this manner, instead of, for example, being restricted to a maximum grade of six percent (as the bypass will be), the “new” section of LSR crossing U.S. 250 is in the Commonwealth’s “Local Street System” category which allows a maximum grade of 15 percent. Cars and trucks, of course, will not slow from 60 mph simply due to the semantic, and unnoticed, change from “principal arterial” to “local street,” especially as they will be cascading down an 11.4 percent grade (almost twice as steep as famed “Going to the Sun” highway in Glacier National Park and steeper than all but one of 35 Colorado mountain passes).

In CTB’s 1997 promises (bypassed by this maneuver), it assured UVA that the bypass would be “as far distant as is possible from the new Darden School of Business and Law School” (and) “Every possible aesthetic measure [shall be] taken to preserve and enhance the University’s considerable investment in the setting and appearance of its new Darden School of Business and the Law School ,including visual buffering using plant materials of appropriate size and scale, and density of coverage, as well as acoustic buffering using sound walls faced with materials compatible with those historically in use…”

The sound buffering, landscaping and distance from Darden classrooms and more is gone from the Skanska “design” due to the difference between “Urban, Other Principal Arterial” and “Local Street System.” With Skanska’s recognition of this and apparently other spurious prospects, the spread between its low bid for the highway and the highest was $80 million — 60 percent of Skanska’s entire bid. The highest bidders stuck to CTB’s prior agreements with UVA and other entities, but Skanska, I submit, plans to recoup the difference in change orders.

Truckers, indeed, when questioned about Skanska’s designed turning ratio at the Southern Terminus and the 11.4 percent grade say that Skanska’s present design is so unsafe they will not use at least the northbound (exiting U.S. 250 and turning left onto LSR/bypass) roadway. Consequently, once construction begins, there must be major change orders as moving freight is the Commonwealth’s stated purpose for this project.

While this might simply be a weakness in the fast-track process, it is – due to that history of deceptive actions – quite possibly intentional. Skanska and bypass promoters realize that Darden and UVA will demand changes, which University Architect David Neuman has already begun, and the price will climb. The American Trucking Association will demand changes and the price will climb. Similar issues will likely show up in other sections of the 6.2 mile highway and the price will climb again.

All when the media and the public are no longer paying attention.

The U.S. Department of Transportation, in comparing 18 “design-build” to 18 traditional (“design-bid-build”) projects noted that DB projects, when finished, cost more than similar DBB projects. A prime factor in the cost differential was “third-party requests” and DOT noted that “the average cost per change order was greater for the design-build projects.” An Indiana comparison found that design-build should be restricted to “smaller projects” because of issues in larger ones. The total cost of the “Western Bypass’” is some $244 million with Skanska’s winning construction bid being $135.9 million, or 10 times the average in the 2009 federal comparison and four times the average in the Indiana study.**

There is, in short, immense numbers of dollars in potential change orders once “Western Bypass” construction has begun. To return the Southern Terminus to 1997 standards and agreements, as UVA and truckers will likely demand, will increase the bypass cost by at least $25 million, for example, and the state is ill prepared to police the largest, by far, design-build project in Virginia history.***

^In 1997 documents, CTB clearly states the Western Bypass starts 269 feet south of U.S. 250; not, as the Skanska design indicates, on the north side of the existing U.S. 250..

* Another bidder has challenged Skanska-Branch’s design for the Southern Terminus, stating that it does not meet the requirements in the request for proposals.

**The average cost in the federal study was $13 million and the top-dollar project was $57 million. The Indiana design-build projects averaged costing $31.9 million.

***Virginia Department of Transportation has only one other “design-build” project today which is not a rehab, widening or new bridge on existing infrastructure and that is a section of the “Cap2Cap” bicycle trail near New Market for $6.9 million.