Area and state transportation officials have been hotly questioned by the state’s transportation secretary about the proposed $2 billion interchange project at Bowers Hill and his choice of plan to improve it.
Virginia Department of Transportation officials speaking at the Commonwealth Transportation Council meeting on Tuesday outlined their recommendation to add an additional toll lane and part-time drivable shoulder lane in each direction of the Interstate 664 from Bowers Hill to College Drive to reduce congestion, increase travel reliability in the area, and provide more travel choices. It also has less impact on wetlands, according to VDOT and other transport officials. This choice would include improvements to interchanges.
Additionally, officials noted that its cost was about 6%, or $120 million, cheaper than the only other alternative considered and would better reduce congestion and improve travel reliability. However, the cost is still nearly five times higher than estimates provided just three years ago, when he estimated the project to cost around $450 million. In April 2021, a Hampton Roads Planning District Commission document estimated the cost at $528 million.
More recently, he had estimated the cost at $1.5 billion, according to a federal government permitting scorecard, but at the board meeting, VDOT environmental manager Andrew Pike, after was asked about the cost difference, estimated the cost of the project at around $2 billion.
VDOT Environmental Division Manager Chris Swanson, in describing the environmental impact assessment for the project, noted that in addition to his preferred alternative, he assessed two other choices, a no-build alternative as a baseline for d other potential choices and another alternative to add two managed lanes in each direction on I-664.
However, the Secretary of State for Transport, Sheppard “Shep” Miller, said the wording of the VDOT’s purpose and the need to study possible interchange improvements “leaves me flat” and said that it amounts to making a decision without the full analysis, and this eliminates the option of general purpose channels.
“If you built two new lanes or four new lanes, if you did that, it would solve congestion, it would solve travel reliability tremendously,” Miller said. “They may not stay the course… for 20 years. They’re going to fail at some point if the traffic continues to increase, if so then they wouldn’t be managed at all and they would provide those two things, but they don’t check the last box.
“And so when we avoid those early on, when we state the purpose and the need, then we’ve taken a whole sector of opportunities, or options, and put them aside and said: “We’re not going to watch these. We’re only going to watch these. And that’s just not my favorite thing to do, but I’m not the be-all and end-all.”
When the agency used the wording “provide more travel choices,” Miller said it was effectively eliminating other potential options without extensive consideration. Managed lanes, as defined by the Federal Highway Administration, include high occupancy vehicle lanes, traditional toll lanes, or toll lanes that vary in pricing based on road congestion.
“Once we’ve done that, we can’t do any more assessment, do we want a toll lane there or don’t we want a toll lane in there,” Miller said, “because the only way to get additional travel choices, in this context, is to have a managed route.The following analysis will not analyze these things.
Miller said he would have preferred to have a cost-benefit analysis of all options before narrowing the scope.
Swanson countered by noting that managed lanes could support additional choice by allowing buses to use them.
The agency rejected two options to add general-purpose lanes and another option to add collector-distributor lanes at interchanges that separate traffic entering or exiting the freeway. He also rejected the extension of an acceleration lane for I-664 northbound at Bowers Hill and the addition of a new bus route from downtown Portsmouth to Newport News Shipbuilding, as well as transit-only improvements.
The project has been targeted for funding as a priority project in the Hampton Roads Area’s 2045 Long-Range Transportation Plan. The Bowers Hill area is a key part of the 65 miles of expressways that surround southern Hampton Roads and the northern peninsula, according to Rob Case, chief transportation engineer for the Hampton Roads Transportation Planning Organization, and is part of the Hampton Roads Ring Road. the region.
The Bowers Hill area, which officials have described as a “mixing bowl”, is where several highways and major roads converge – Interstates 64, 264 and 664, as well as U.S. Route 58 (U.S. Routes 13 and 460 also overlap) and Jolliff Route. More than 150,000 vehicles criss-cross the region daily.
VDOT began the environmental review process for the interchange in coordination with the Federal Highway Administration in 2018. The study area was expanded two years later to include the section of I-664 from Bowers Hill to College Drive – including interchanges – just before the monitor. -Merrimac Memorial Bridge-Tunnel.
Between the High Rise Bridge expansion, the addition of express lanes, and the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel expansion, more than $5 billion worth of projects are underway in South Hampton Roads.
When the bridge expansion is complete next year, Case said he will add the express lanes at Bowers Hill, but the road will narrow again and traffic will return to general-purpose traffic lanes.
“This Bowers Hill project, we’re looking forward to because it will continue that expressway network,” Case said.
Miller seemed skeptical that one managed lane and a part-time drivable shoulder lane in each direction would perform better than having two managed lanes in each direction, noting possible safety issues and confusion for drivers using a narrower shoulder lane.
“Forget the cost, a part-time passable shoulder will give you better performance than a managed lane,” Miller said. “Interesting. I guess the logic is that more people are going to use the part-time drivable shoulder because it’s free? They won’t use the managed lane?”
Swanson said he thinks the part-time hard shoulder handles peak congestion better.
In a conceptual worst-case analysis, Swanson said the VDOT recommendation could see it acquire up to 21 residential or commercial properties for the swap project, with up to 60 acres of partial acquisitions, 11 356 linear feet of watercourse impacts and 103 acres of wetlands. implications.
He said his choice “meets purpose and need while balancing cost and impact” and complements the expressway network being built.
Swanson said the US Army Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency agreed on the choice of VDOT. The region’s transport planning body approved the choice in May. He said the majority of public comments agreed that the choice of agency met the purpose and need for the project.
The FHA issued a Notice of Intent to Prepare an Environmental Impact Statement for the Bowers Hill Interchange Improvements Study in February, which started the National Environmental Policy Act process. NEPA directs federal agencies to conduct environmental reviews to assess possible environmental impacts when planning projects. The notice included information on the purpose and need for the project, the alternatives retained for detailed study, and other alternatives that received less thorough consideration.
VDOT is asking the board to vote on its preferred alternative in July, and by October the draft environmental impact statement would be available for public review, and a public comment period would take place in October or November.
By spring 2023, the NEPA review process is expected to be complete and VDOT can move into a more detailed design phase.
Officials said the project could take another 20 years.