Developers, Environmentalists Battle Over New Highway in D.C. Suburbs

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As the McDonnell administration’s plan to build a major north-south highway in Northern Virginia has morphed into the most contentious transportation issue in the region, its opponents – who disparagingly label the proposed road an “outer beltway” – have leveled the charge that the Bi-County Parkway is being rammed through the approval process by and for the benefit of real estate developers.

The debate over whether Northern Virginia needs a new highway is central to a larger question facing a region whose existing transportation infrastructure is bursting at the seams with finite funds to fix the bottlenecks: are more roads that cost billions of dollars to build the answer to fulfilling the Washington metropolitan area’s economic potential? 

Inside the offices of the Piedmont Environmental Council, one of Northern Virginia’s largest environmental activist groups, maps show a thick red stripe – the proposed “outer beltway” – running between Rt. 50 and I-66, arcing west of Dulles International Airport. The Bi-County Parkway is one segment of the Virginia Department of Transportation’s charted 45-mile corridor from I-95 in Prince William County to Rt. 7 in Loudoun County. 

In Loudoun County, to the east of this officially designated “corridor of statewide significance” is a suburban area of densely built home developments. To the west lies the county’s transition policy area, a buffer between suburbia and a rural landscape. Zoned for residential development, thousands of homes are waiting to be built here. Future residents will, of course, need some kind of roadway to drive to work. But what kind of road will be necessary depends on how much development occurs – growth that the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors has the power to regulate. 

What kind of road?

 “This is an Eisenhower-era transportation improvement. It’s a 1950s era transportation improvement,” said Ed Gorski, the Piedmont Environmental Council’s land use activist in Loudoun.

Depending on who looks at these maps, the Bi-County Parkway is described in dramatically different ways. To Gorski and his fellow environmentalists, the roadway is a boon for developers, a potential six-lane, divided highway with designs to leap across the Potomac River into Maryland.

To supporters, the Bi-County Parkway is the culmination of years of planning and studies, a four-lane road that has been on both Prince William’s and Loudoun’s county-wide transportation plans for decades, designed to connect commuters to future job centers in a region expecting a population explosion over the next half century.

“This is a road to serve current and future residents,” said Bob Chase, the president of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance (NVTA), which draws support from the business community and has long advocated the construction of another Potomac River crossing. “This corridor has been subject to decades of studies, all of which have demonstrated and documented the need for increased capacity to move people north-south.”

The Bi-County Parkway is designed as a four-lane road in a six-lane corridor. “For the foreseeable future, four lanes should be perfectly adequate,” said Chase. “This is not an interstate highway. This is a parkway-like facility. There’s no basis for the claim it is an interstate highway.”

The potential to expand to six lanes (or more) is what most concerns the parkway’s critics. And to back up their claims that the roadway may lead to more sprawl and congestion, they point to who supports the proposal at the highest levels of state government and who owns the land on the western side of the corridor in Loudoun County: real estate developers.

“We’re not placing public funds where there is a true public need," said Dan Holmes, the Piedmont Environmental Council’s state policy director. "We are simply placing public funds in the hands of developers further lining their pockets with profits,” said

The Virginia Department of Transportation’s traffic tables show east-west traffic demand greatly exceeds north-south volume in Northern Virginia, but the Bi-County Parkway’s supporters contend north-south demand will only grow as Loudoun County’s population expands. In fact, the county’s population has already exploded, from fewer than 100,000 in 1990 to more than 320,000 today.

Who backs the Bi-County?

In a March 2011 letter to Virginia Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton, supporters urged the Commonwealth Transportation Board to designate the Bi-County Parkway a “corridor of statewide significance.”

“The need for additional north-south multi-modal capacity… [has] been well-documented,” the letter said. “Northern Virginia is the nation’s most congested region in large part due to the failure to complete a previously planned transportation grid.”

Among the letter’s seventeen signatories were the Apartment and Office Building Association of Metropolitan Washington, Associated Builders and Contractors-Virginia Chapter, Heavy Construction Contractors Association, Commercial Real Estate Development Association, Northern Virginia Building Industry Association, and the Northern Virginia Association of Realtors.

The NVTA’s Chase also signed the letter, which said, “In short, Corridor of Statewide Significance designation… is essential to improved regional mobility, quality of life, long-term prosperity and security.”

In an interview with WAMU 88.5, Chase pointed out local chambers of commerce and the Northern Virginia Technology Council also signed on.

“The high-tech industry in Northern Virginia has a shortage of workers. The better the transportation network is, the better equipped we are going to be in the future to make certain that we have the workers that we need for leading edge industries,” said Chase, who said the Piedmont Environmental Council (PEC) has opposed every major road project in the region for decades. “This is not a controversial issue in terms of the average person. The average person recognizes we need better transportation."

The Commonwealth Transportation Board’s Northern Virginia representative is Gary Garczynski, an accomplished real estate developer who supports the Bi-County Parkway. The Piedmont Environmental Council sees developers’ fingerprints all over the push to have the parkway approved in the face of vehement opposition vocalized by hundreds of homeowners who have crowded VDOT’s recent public hearings on the corridor.

The environmental group says it does not oppose development in Loudoun’s transition area. It takes issue with using state transportation dollars to “subsidize” developers’ home building plans, possibly leading to growth at greater densities than are currently planned.

“The problem here is not that developers are trying to make money. That’s a given,” said the PEC’s Holmes. “The problem is developers are driving state transportation policies through campaign contributions, relationships with the Chambers of Commerce and PACs. In this case, they are asking Virginia taxpayers to pay for infrastructure in the form of a major highway. It’s a multi-billion dollar subsidy.”

Scott York, the chairman of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors and supporter of the Bi-County Parkway, did not return multiple emails and phone calls seeking comment.

A developer’s plans

Roads in Loudoun County historically have been built by developers through proffers -- fees paid to offset their projects’ impacts. The proffers usually are directed toward infrastructure like roads and schools. In exchange, developers simultaneously request a rezoning so they can build at heavier densities, increasing their profits.

In Loudoun’s transition policy area, the owner of 4,000 acres has a rezoning request pending before the Board of Supervisors. Corbelis NoVa, the developer of the Willowsford residential projects, purchased the distressed acreage at auction in late 2009 and is now offering to build two lanes of an expanded Northstar Boulevard, a north-south road that would become part of the Bi-County Parkway.  A developer of the eastern side of the corridor would construct the other two lanes.

In exchange, Corbelis NoVa is asking the county to rezone 750 of its 4,000 acres so it can build one dwelling per acre instead of the currently zoned one dwelling per three acres (in Loudoun’s suburban policy area on the eastern side of the north-south corridor homes have been built at densities of four dwellings per acre).

If the rezoning is approved, Corbelis NoVa’s planned 2,200 homes would increase to 2,700.

“We don’t have any need for a six-lane road,” said Corbelis NoVa president Brian Cullen. “We see the four-lane planned road as it is right now being adequate for everything we’re doing.”

Cullen said the rezoning request has little to do with the VDOT’s parkway plans.

“The road and our rezoning are almost mutually exclusive. The capacity of that road is not driving the rezoning. Our filing for this rezoning was really in reaction to the fact that all of our property is by right,” said Cullen.

Developers who build on “by right” property at existing zoning limits are not required to contribute any capital facilities credits to county infrastructure. In this case, Corbelis NoVa is requesting a rezoning to build at greater densities in exchange for permission to apply those credits to two lanes of Northstar Boulevard, as well as provide land for an elementary school and a park.

“We are trying to take advantage of some of the last water and sewer land in Loudoun County,” said Cullen, who called his request for an increase in density “modest.”

“I do not favor a limited access highway coming through this corridor. I think the residents who live there now… would be shocked if that ever happened.”

Will the Bi-County be built?

A single developer does not control the fate of a highway corridor that may eventually cover 45 miles in two counties. Cullen’s planned development runs close to the corridor for about eight non-contiguous miles west of Dulles Airport. Opponents say players with far more influence – Virginia’s Secretary of Transportation, CTB, and road building advocacy groups like Chase’s NVTA – envision the corridor expanding to a six-lane highway that cannot realistically terminate at Rt. 7 in Loudoun County.

By that measure, the new road would -- by its mere existence -- increase pressure to build another bridge over the Potomac, completing the “outer beltway.”

In the short term, VDOT’s plans hinge on whether the state will sign an agreement with the National Park Service that will allow the parkway to be built along the western fringe of Manassas National Battlefield Park. In exchange, the state would agree to shut down Rt. 234 through the park property to all traffic except battlefield visitors. The deal faces a possible snag. The Prince William County Board of Supervisors decided to pull the Bi-County Parkway from its list of transportation funding priorities last month after a public outcry over the possible closing Rts. 234 and 29 through Manassas Battlefield.