Online public comments focus on 522 bypass design, safety, impact

More than 300 online comments regarding the proposed U.S. 522 Berkeley Springs Bypass were turned over to The Morgan Messenger on September 13 from the WV Department of Transportation Division of Highways (DOH). Those are in addition to the 35 handwritten or typed comments that were received on August 21 through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request made on July 16.

The comments requested were from a February 28, 2019 public workshop meeting by the DOH in Berkeley Springs. It was the second public workshop meeting where the DOH maps showed a redesign with the bypass entrances at the southern and northern ends allowing traffic to continue on U.S. 522 straight into town.

The DOH redesigned the bypass entrances based on the comments from the first DOH meeting on April 19, 2018.

When questioned whether the most recent bypass comments were from both 2018 and 2019, the DOH said the online comments were only from the 2019 meeting. Since there were no dates provided on the online comments, this newspaper had no way to discern the dates of the comments. For instance, two people who reviewed the online comments said they did not find their own comments listed.

Online comments

In reviewing the online comments, about 125 said they wanted the bypass entrances at the southern and northern ends to allow traffic to continue on U.S. 522 straight into town.

About 89 commented that the bypass design needed to be changed and more study was needed.

“While I agree that something needs to be done to fix the congestion and secure more safety along the route, I don’t agree with the logistics of this bypass… please revisit the design and reconsider the exits and entrances at the South and North ends of our county,” one person wrote.

Sheetz, Inc. wrote that they were blindsided by a proposed bypass:

“We were recently alerted to the proposed Berkeley Springs bypass by a representative from the Berkeley Springs Chamber of Commerce. To say that this news is alarming is an understatement given that we opened a new store at 2151 Valley Road, Berkeley Springs, West Virginia on May 4, 2017, at a cost of over $4,500,000.00. We spent a significant amount of time, energy, and resources working through our due diligence and permitting processes prior to opening this store. In fact, a large part of our efforts was spent working with representatives from the West Virginia Division of Highways (“WVDOH”) for the issuance of a highway occupancy permit. However, throughout our processes we were never alerted to the possibility of the proposed bypass being a shovel-ready project, a project that was imminent, or a project that had any possibility of happening in the next 15 years. Conversely, we were told that this project – that was originally designed approximately 20 years earlier – was removed from any short-or long-term plan because of a lack of funding. If we had known that WVDOH was moving forward with this proposed project we certainly would not have invested millions of dollars to build at this location, which you now intend to bypass.”

Sheetz further wrote: “Sheetz hereby requests a face-to-face meeting with the appropriate WVDOH officials to discuss this proposed project and what can be done to lessen the significant and detrimental financial impact on the businesses, employees and families that depend on this vibrant business and retail corridor.”

About 69 commenters said they were against a bypass, 18 said they wanted a bypass but wanted the design improved, 17 said they liked the bypass as it was designed, and about six people had personal property questions.

Many comments focused on truck traffic as the target of traffic problems, noise and safety issues.

Of those with specific bypass design comments, the majority said they favored a two-lane, 55 mph bypass and said they were against the four-lane bypass with 65 mph speed as the bypass is now designed.

“Why can’t you build a two-lane bypass highway with a reasonable speed limit of 55 mph? This makes more sense for a short bypass around a small town. It would take a lot less ground and cost much less,” one person commented.

At a February 28 DOH workshop meeting, the intersection and the southern end connection was shown as a roundabout that would allow the entrance onto the bypass on the east side of U.S. 522.

A roundabout on the northern end was shown connecting to the bypass. A Fairview Connector exit was depicted, going to Fairview Drive and War Memorial Hospital.

Roundabouts are circular intersections where the drivers travel counterclockwise around a center island. Drivers yield at entry to traffic in the roundabout, then enter the intersection and exit at their desired street. A roundabout is designed to accommodate all vehicles, including truck and trailer combinations.

Comments received online were split with some favoring the roundabout and others not. Many favored a “Y” where drivers would choose whether to say on U.S. 522 or take the bypass.

The project description proposes to construct the Berkeley Springs Bypass and the Fairview Connector. The project begins south of Winchester Grade Road and ends north of town near Sandmine Road, including a connector from U.S. 522 to Fairview Drive (near War Memorial Hospital) for a distance of about four miles.  The estimated cost of the project is $64 million.

The currently proposed bypass will be a four-lane, controlled access expressway with a grassed median and a design speed of 65 mph, according to the DOH.

According to the DOH timeline, the environmental impact study was to be finished by mid-2019, right-of-way activities by the end of 2019, construction in late 2020 and in early 2021.