How Roads Are (Un)Made: The Unraveling of a Deal to Build an "Outer Beltway" in D.C. Suburbs

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Building a grand new road in a crowded metropolitan area requires as much diplomatic acumen as engineering ingenuity. So a plan to add a so-called outer beltway in the Washington, D.C. area could unravel over opposition to the closing of different, smaller local road. It may sound confusing, but this is how roads are built. 

The proposed major north-south highway in Northern Virginia could be stalled over a road through Manassas Battlefield Park, and homeowners nearby.

To build the road, the Virginia Department of Transportation has made a deal with the National Park Service to give up 12 acres on the western edge of Manassas Park in exchange for the closure of two busy roads criss-crossing the battlefield property – Routes 234 and 29. That sparked vehement opposition from a diverse group of local homeowners associations, environmentalists and conservative Republican state lawmakers. The local opposition sets in motion a string of dominoes that could make the whole project fall, as the dissent filters up levels of government. 

The opponents have successfully pressured the County Board of Supervisors to think twice about supporting the proposed parkway, convincing the board to remove the project from its list of transportation priorities submitted to a state funding authority.

The Bi-County Parkway is a state project, not a country one, but state law allows local officials to determine whether Rt. 234 may be closed to all traffic but battlefield visitors. 

The head of the park has made it clear if local lawmakers don't uphold their part of the bargain to close the roads, then there's no chance the National Park Service will cede land for the new highway.

“At the end of the day it is our position that the road through the park, Rt. 234, has to close,” said Superintendent Ed Clark at Manassas of National Battlefield Park. “One of my grave concerns is there has been very little concern for the resources in this battlefield. Everyone is concerned with roads, neighborhoods and traffic, but nobody is really speaking to what is my greatest concern, this nationally significant place, this hallowed ground.”

Seeing an opening to convince local lawmakers to abandon the project entirely, the opponents are now demanding Prince William County back away from its long-held position, articulated in a 2005 resolution, to close Rt. 234 once the Bi-County Parkway is completed, which would amount to a deal-breaker for the National Park Service.

“The closure of Rt. 234 through the park is our primary objective working with VDOT on this project,” said Clark. "If the National Park Service can’t have those guarantees that the road will close then the National Park Service has no business signing an agreement,” Clark added with emphasis.

The Prince William board agreed on Tuesday to uphold its 2005 position pending a scheduled presentation from Virginia Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton, the McDonnell administration’s lead voice on the project. The supervisors also expressed interest in inviting Superintendent Clark to appear before he board to clear up any confusion over the terms of the agreement upon which the fate of the Bi-County Parkway now depends.

“The issue that seems to be most relevant raised by the citizens is that things have changed since our [2005] resolution. How have they changed? I am not sure yet,” said board vice-chairman Wally Covington.

When asked if he would consider keeping Rt. 234 open, Covington responded, “I am open to any options that move traffic. That is the issue that brings us here. We have some traffic gridlock and we need to look for solutions to that.” 

Opponents of the Bi-County Parkway, disparagingly dubbed an “outer beltway,” claim Rt. 234 is simply too important for north-south commuting to be closed. They say shifting those north-south lanes to the western edge of Manassas Battlefield in the form of a new parkway would prove an inadequate alternative. Moreover, opponents say more traffic could be forced onto nightmarish I-66 because the agreement between the Park Service and VDOT also calls for the closure of Rt. 29. To compensate for the closure of that east-west route a bypass, presumably with the help of federal dollars, would be built along the northern edge of the battlefield. But the bypass is considered decades away from completion.

While the Bi-County Parkway’s critics appear to be making progress in raising public awareness, those who hold the reins of power continue to wield influence over the project’s fate. Today in Richmond the Commonwealth Transportation Board is scheduled to vote on accepting the McDonnell’s administration’s study of the “north-south corridor of statewide significance.” State Delegate Tim Hugo (R-40), a project opponent, has asked the board to delay its vote.