Virginia Prepares Public Push to Win Local Support for New Highway

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Virginia officials are taking a more personal approach in the state's attempt to sell a proposed highway to the locals. Now, in the face of ferocious opposition, the Virginia Department of Transportation is preparing to meet with county officials to present the state's vision of what the Bi-County Parkway would be.

In an exclusive interview with WAMU 88.5, the project’s top manager sought to portray the estimated $440 million parkway as a typical four-lane divided highway one might find anywhere in D.C.’s western suburbs, a rebuke to critics who have claimed the Bi-County Parkway will lay the groundwork for a sprawl-inducing “outer beltway” desired by some real estate developers.

“The Bi-County Parkway is a roadway that will extend Rt. 234 from I-66 in Prince William up to Rt. 50 in Loudoun County,” said VDOT’s Northern Virginia project manager Tom Fahrney. “This project does not extend any facility north of Rt. 50. It's typical of what an arterial roadway would look like in any county. A lot of folks believe this is an outer beltway or a western bypass and it is clearly not.”

What does VDOT want?

The Bi-County Parkway would run north-south for about ten miles with only five entry points, making it a limited access highway with no tolls or HOV lanes. The proposed corridor brushes the western side of Manassas National Battlefield Park and lies west of Dulles International Airport.

The parkway is also one segment of a 45-mile “north-south corridor of statewide significance,” one of 11 such designations in Virginia for economic development. The corridor designation from I-95 in Prince William to Rt. 7 in Loudoun fueled accusations VDOT was seeking to build an “outer beltway,” but Fahrney said the corridor plans have been shelved.

“The north-south corridor was a study that produced a vision of what a 45-mile corridor could look like if the localities agreed with that vision. As we went through the process it was evident the counties did not agree with the vision of providing HOV or HOT lanes on existing Rt. 234,” he said in an interview at VDOT’s Fairfax headquarters.

“Unless the localities at some point in the future agree with the vision of HOV or HOT lanes, which we don’t believe will happen, the study is done. The vision plan is over,” he added.

New traffic projections

The shelving of the corridor study – accepted but not endorsed this year by the influential Commonwealth Transportation Board – leaves VDOT with a significantly more modest 10-mile, north-south highway to sell to the public in a region where east-west traffic demand is a more serious issue. Fahrney conceded the Bi-County Parkway is not designed to reduce east-west congestion, but he produced new traffic volume projections that he says demonstrates why the Bi-County Parkway is necessary.

“Our traffic forecasting model indicates that trips will double between Prince William and Loudoun by the year 2040,” Fahrney said. “With the Bi-County Parkway our projections indicate that traffic would be reduced on Gum Springs Road as much as 67 percent, on Rt. 15 as much as 16 percent, and on the Loudoun County Parkway as much 25 percent.” VDOT’s figures were produced using the traffic forecasting model established by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.

Both Prince William and Loudoun Counties have in their long-range comprehensive plans the parkway’s extra lane capacity. The road is an integral part of the counties’ efforts to manage development as their populations soar. However, critics can point to VDOT’s own traffic tables that show the most serious congestion problems exist on east-west corridors, not north-south. Fahrney’s response to this criticism is VDOT is dealing with east-west issues, too.

“In VDOT’s six-year improvement program the Commonwealth Transportation Board has allocated $1.2 billion dollars for east-west improvements,” Fahrney said.

Opponents don’t trust VDOT

Opponents remain unconvinced VDOT is seeking the best solutions to the region’s notorious congestion.

“I don't think they've demonstrated at all that they are separating this project from their larger desire for an outer beltway,” said Dan Holmes, the state policy director of the Piedmont Environmental Council, which proposed a comprehensive package of 23 alternative projects and ideas that VDOT rejected because its estimated cost was in the billions of dollars. Holmes said the alternatives would cost more but would provide better congestion relief than the Bi-County Parkway while protecting rural areas in Prince William and Loudoun.

“They've done nothing to alleviate my concern that they still intend to pursue a larger outer beltway of which the Bi-County Parkway is probably the most important segment or hurdle to achieving that larger corridor,” he added. Holmes fears VDOT can resurrect the 45-mile corridor study at a later date, raising the possibility of a new six-lane, divided highway cutting through Northern Virginia.

Virginia Delegate Tim Hugo (R-40th), one of six conservative state lawmakers that formed a group to oppose the project, said VDOT’s smaller plans still fail to solve the problems raised by building a road on the western side of Manassas Battlefield.

As part of proposed agreement with the National Park Service, Rt. 234 through the battlefield would close to all but visitor traffic once the Bi-County Park is complete. The agreement would also implement traffic calming measures on the other major road that cuts through the battlefield, Rt. 29, which runs east-west and intersects Rt. 234. Hugo said the traffic calming would effectively shut down Rt. 29 years before a battlefield bypass would be built to compensate the east-west traffic flow around Manassas.

“I think people need to be very wary,” Hugo said. “What they’ve said is they would take traffic off Rt. 29 and drop it onto Rt. 66. If your commute was bad on 66 before, wait until they do this.”

VDOT would provide $300,000 for traffic calming on Rt. 29 through the battlefield under the proposed agreement with the National Park Service, Fahrney said. “The programmatic agreement will also prohibit the use of speed bumps and round-a-bouts. Traffic calming will be an open process with community involvement.”

No timeline for road yet

Five federal and state agencies must unanimously agree to the provisions of the Manassas agreement (now in its third draft) for the Bi-County Parkway to be built over several acres on the western fringe of the battlefield property. The Park Service is open to ceding those Civil War acres in order to close the two roads (Rts. 234 and 29) crisscrossing the battlefield to all but visitor traffic.

Only after a battlefield agreement is signed can VDOT secure approval of the project’s environmental impact statement (EIS), whose draft was completed eight years ago. The Bi-County Parkway has been the subject of state studies for more than a decade.

There is no money to acquire right-of-way or construct the road in VDOT’s current six-year improvement plan, but that plan can be changed by the Commonwealth Transportation Board next summer if its members decide the Bi-County Parkway should compete for state transportation dollars.

“Right now in VDOT’s six year program we have $10 million to do preliminary engineering,” Fahrney said. “The Bi-County would compete with every other road project in the Commonwealth of Virginia for funding.”

While Mannassas, the EIS, and funding remain formidable hurdles, VDOT also has to overcome an arguably more important obstacle: public opinion. Next Tuesday, the effort to win the hearts and minds of the project’s critics begins when Virginia Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton appears before the Prince William County Board of Supervisors to discuss the Bi-County Parkway.