Thursday, March 20, 2008

Steering Committee taken for a Ride on Interchange by Consultant, City

My worst fears of Charlottesville's joining the Virginia First Cities program and taking on taking on development of all transportation project development in Charlottesville were on display at the Route 250 Bypass Interchange at McIntire Road Steering Committee meeting on March 19, 2008. Due to inexperience in managing complex Federal-aid Highway projects and insufficiently qualified staff to manage projects of this complexity, I expected that consideration of project sensitive issues would not be done to current professional standards or in a timely manner. This could - and apparently did - lead to interchange project decisions being made on insufficient or incorrect information.

There is currently an ongoing investigation into the possible effects of the interchange project on historic resources that under federal statutes and regulations should have been coordinated with other project development activities at the outset of the project in late 2005. In this project, the bulk of the interchange constsruction will be located in the historic portion of McIntire Park and adjacent to the historic Rock Hill Garden. It will impact significantly these and several other National Register listed or eligible properties in the immediate surrounding area. The study team only initiated this investigation about two years late in the process, and now is eager to move the project forward without even waiting for that investigation to be completed. The next phase of the historic property consideration is to identify the projects direct, indirect, and cumulative effects on the historic properties - information essential to have available when choosing among feasible and prudent interchange alternatives.

The steering committee presentations by the consultants appeared to be more about pushing the committee to recommend one of two interchange designs developed earlier in the project to city council. This RK&K consultants clearly pressured the steering committee members to vote without the benefit of seeing how current avoidance and mitigation alternatives under consideration - and just presented to the committee for the first time - would change the level of impacts of the proposed interchange on McIntire Park and several other historic properties on or eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. The message from the consultant (with apparent city staff agreement) was that it was time to act - and not to wait until the current Section 106 process is compete and a full range of project alternatives and their anticipated impacts is available.

As an engineer myself, I am troubled by the apparent conflict of interest exhibited by the engineering consultant in promoting premature action to recommend a project alternative that the RK&K firm will apparently be designing. In addition to encouraging the committee to take premature action, I believe that a number of erroneous statements were made concerning the Section 106 process that indicated the process not to be of importance in the project development and alternative selection process. One RK&K consultant stated that the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) was not required to act to mitigate or avoid whatever impacts might be identified on historic properties suggesting (as I see it, anyway) that there is no reason to wait for the Section 106 process to be completed - so lets pick an alternative now. This is not the case. Other state and federal review agencies including the Virginia Department of Historic Resources and the National Committee on Historic Preservation may be called upon to review the FHWA decision and guide what alternatives are acceptable.

My conclusion based on the steering committee meeting of March 19 is that the city staff and the RK&K consultants jumped far ahead of the process, pressured the city council appointed steering committee to act prematurely and with incomplete information on the choice they have been asked to make, and demonstrated that the city staff as currently constituted is not able to manage effectively a project of this magnitude and complexity even with the assistance of the city's engineering consultants.

Whether the interchange project is part of, or independent of the McIntire Road Extended and Meadow Creek Parkway projects, they are all now linked together as examples of poor (and in some key aspects non-complying) transportation development projects. This project is now likely to be put before city council for determining what action to take. I believe the entire discussion at the steering committee meeting was recorded by Charlottesville Tommorow and may well be available as a podcast in the next few days. I encourage you to listen to that recording and make up your own mind on how this decision is being made - and share your thoughts with you city councilors.

photo credit: image of selected alternative C1 from Charlottesville Tomorrow blog entry.

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