This is the second of a two-part series on plans to expand Northern Virginia’s road network and freight capacity of Dulles International Airport. (Part 1)
To elected officials and Virginia transportation planners, Dulles International Airport is an untapped well of economic growth. However, maximizing its potential will necessitate major improvements of the surrounding road network. That includes completion of a “north-south” corridor which is now in the conceptual stages.
On Dec. 12 the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority unveiled its intentions to pursue development of airport properties, including 400 acres on Dulles’ western side and sixteen acres around the future Rt. 606 stop of the Silver Line. The goal is to enhance the airport's industrial capacity as a freight hub.
“We are the only airport on the east coast with that kind of land available to us for development purposes. Cargo is down at Dulles right now, but it is down because of the economic uncertainty in Europe,” said Loudoun County Supervisor Ralph Buona (R-Ashburn). “The problem we have today is there is no easy access from the airport. The only access we have today is Rt. 28 and 28 is very limited.”
At their monthly board meeting, MWAA officials emphasized the importance of both expanding the Dulles Loop – Routes 606, 28, and 50 – and eventually connecting it to the north-south corridor. Studies to expand all three roadways are underway.
MWAA CEO Jack Potter indicated the agency would take a cautious approach to development.
“We do not want to make an investment either at Rt. 606 or in the western lands to put a lot of infrastructure in there. We are not going to build something and hope that somebody comes,” he said during a presentation to the MWAA board.
Elected officials in Loudoun County who support the “north-south corridor” concept see Dulles as a key to future economic growth and the roads it will require as relief for traffic-weary commuters.
"Anybody who lives in Loudoun County knows that more road capacity is necessary,” said Supervisor Matt Letourneau (R-Dulles). “Keeping roads small doesn't prevent growth from happening.”
Environmental groups opposed to the construction of a multi-lane, divided highway west of Dulles Airport question whether the expansion of freight is the right goal.
“There are only so many pounds of freight that you can move on an airplane in an economical way. I think it is less than one-tenth of one percent of freight in Virginia comes by air. It is going to be an important economic activity but it is not the major way to move freight in the United States,” said Chris Miller, president of the Piedmont Environmental Council.
In his view, the Virginia Department of Transportation’s Northern Virginia master plan and MWAA’s development ideas amount to a move in the wrong direction, toward sprawl-inducing road expansions that could undermine the ongoing investment in the Silver Line rail project, scheduled for completion in 2018.
“I think the people who move west of Dulles Airport aren’t looking for another interstate highway with trucks on it to serve their neighborhood,” Miller said.
Miller uses the term “outer beltway” to describe the north-south corridor concept, a term that chafes supporters.
“If you want to unlock the potential of our economic engines – and Dulles is the biggest economic engine that we have in Northern Virginia – you’ve got to be able to tie it back to the other industries. If you look on the other side of the river, we have a large biotech industry in the I-270 corridor,” said Supervisor Buona.
“If you are able to create a [transportation] link between that industry and the IT and government contracting set, and that link connects to the airport, what you’ve done is create a corridor of commerce. You have not created an outer beltway,” he added.