A proposed highway that would skirt a Civil War battlefield is raising hackles in Virginia.
A group of six conservative Republican state lawmakers, flanked by dozens of local homeowners, announced their opposition on Monday to the McDonnell administration's plan to build a 45-mile, major north-south highway connecting I-95 in Prince William to Rt. 7 in Loudoun, arcing west of Dulles International airport and brushing the western edge of Manassas National Battlefield Park.
The highway concept — a tri-county parkway — has been around for years and now carries the official name of "north-south corridor of statewide significance." But to opponents it's an "outer beltway."
Waging war on I-66
The group held a news conference at the intersection of Rt. 234 and Rt. 29, a pair of two-lane roads slicing through rolling green fields that witnessed two of the Civil Wars most important engagements. Opponents of the highway plan said state transportation officials are waging war on commuters who use nightmarish I-66, one of the most congested highways in the region.
Because the north-south highway would pave over 12 acres of the Manassas historic district and four acres of actual battlefield land, the National Park Service is seeking a deal with the Virginia Department of Transportation to build a bypass running east-west on the battlefield's northern edge. The construction of the bypass and north-south highway would then allow the state to close Rts. 234 and 29 to all but visitor traffic to Manassas battlefield.
"When you close 29 you condemn those people who travel on 66 to eternal congestion," said State Delegate Tim Hugo, who said motorists would clog I-66 instead of using the battlefield bypass once 29 is closed. "It's north of the battlefield. I think there are serious questions as to whether anyone would even use it."
To some local homeowners, the supposed benefits of the north-south highway mean little when compared to the prospect of losing their homes. The 600-foot wide corridor under consideration would potentially condemn about 100 homes in the Gainesville area, lawmakers said.
"It would be an easier pill to swallow if this was to help commuters who are traveling east to west on Rt. 66, but it does nothing for that," said Alan Johnson of Pageland Road.
The state's vision for a major, tolled highway providing multiple lanes for cars, buses and truck traffic and turning Dulles Airport into the East Coast's premier freight hub is raising a range of issues, not least its estimated price tag of $1 billion. Opponents say the plan also neglects east-west traffic demand in Northern Virginia, will contribute to sprawl and air pollution, and set a precedent that national park land can be paved over in the interest of commercial development.
Confidence in the project persists
In response to these criticisms, Virginia Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton defended the project as necessary to meet the demands of future job and population growth in one of the fastest developing areas of the state.
"Anyone who has ever seen the Rt. 28 and I-66 interchange knows full well that the traffic demand is north-south as well as east-west," said Connaughton.
The Republican lawmakers at the Manassas news conference suggested Rts. 234 and 29 through the battlefield might be closed before the north-south highway and battlefield bypass are completed. But the transportation secretary said no such plan is under consideration.
"Under no circumstances will we close the roads before the corresponding facilities are complete," said Connaughton, who said improvements to I-66 will also be finished by the time the north-south highway is finished.
Real estate developer Gary Garczynski, the Northern Virginia representative on the influential, 17-member Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB), echoed Connaughton's confidence.
"There is no intention by the CTB at this time to close [Rt. 29] until the battlefield bypass is funded and built," he said.
The CTB is expected to accept the state's study of the "north-south corridor of statewide significance" at its next meeting in May.