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The Virginia Department of Transportation wants to build a 10-mile highway connecting Prince William and Loudoun Counties in the outer suburbs. County planners and many elected leaders support the idea. Historic preservationists and community activists with interests along the proposed route are mobilizing to stop it. We explore the combustible politics of road construction and transportation in Northern Virginia.
- Martin Di Caro Transportation Reporter, WAMU
MR. KOJO NNAMDIRight now the Bi-County Parkway only exists on paper. A set of proposals in PowerPoint envisioning a ten-mile highway on the western perimeter of Washington connecting Loudoun and Prince William Counties out past Dulles. The parkways boosters envision a sleek interchange linking two rapidly expanding local economies. To get the project started they need buying from local leaders, approval from five federal and state agencies plus money to pay for it. But the biggest challenge may be a skeptical public.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThis summer the mere mention of this controversial project brought hundreds of concerned citizens and activists out to public meetings and debates. It's an argument about much more than ten miles of asphalt, Raising broader questions of how best to alleviate Northern Virginia's notorious gridlock. Questions that last week finally caught up to the two candidates running for governor. Joining us to talk about it all is Martin Di Caro. He is transportation reporter here at WAMU 88.5. Martin joins us in studio. Martin, thank you for joining us.
MR. MARTIN DI CAROKojo, happy to be back. You're looking good.
NNAMDIIt's a good conversation we're going to have. You can join it by calling 800-433-8850. How do you think Northern Virginia and indeed the entire region should address traffic and gridlock, 800-433-8850? Martin, at this point this road only exists in PowerPoint presentations and traffic studies. What would it look like if or when it is built?
CAROWell, Kojo, I'm glad you're doing this discussion today because this road, which is now simply on maps and charts has become the most contentious transportation issue in our region. Not just because of the project itself and all the land use issues it's raising, but because of those broader questions you eluded to in your open. What's the best way to grow our region, highways, transit, a mixture of both? This highway would be four lanes, possibly six -- there would be room to expand to six -- running north/south in a somewhat circumferential manner. It's only ten miles so it certainly doesn't make a complete loop.
CAROIt would be between I-66 and 50, so 66 in the south going north to 50. And again, four lanes, divided highway, limited access with five entry points with the potential to expand to six. It looks like many of the county roads -- although this would be a state road, it looks like many of the county roads we have in our region right now.
NNAMDIWhy does the McDonnell administration want to build this road?
CAROWell, we have to look at the larger corridor in which the Bi-County Parkway is just one segment, to answer that question. There are 11 corridors of statewide significance in Virginia. And the Bi-County Parkway was part of the 11th, the most recent one that was designated a north-south corridor of statewide significance from 95 down in Prince William County all the way up to Route 7 in Loudoun, again looping west or arcing west of Dulles Airport and Manassas Battlefield.
CAROThese corridors are designated for economic development so that is why the McDonnell administration wants to build this highway. It's part of a larger program of road building, and we've seen this administration dedicated to road building throughout Virginia and the part of a larger program of road building to expand economic development. In this case it would be Dulles Airport. Although the Virginia Department of Transportation last week walked back a little bit from their emphasis on turning Dulles into a major cargo hub. They're not saying that the Bi-County Parkway would not have significantly more truck traffic heading to Dulles Airport.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Martin Di Caro. He is a transportation reporter at WAMU 88.5, about the Bi-County Parkway. What do you think of it, the Bi-County Parkway that would go from Loudoun to Prince William County, 800-433-8850? You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org or shoot us a Tweet at kojoshow. Right now, Martin, the Washington region is encircled by a major beltway. But when transportation planners first began drawing up plans for this highway, they envisioned a second outer belt, which would circle this region around a larger perimeter. Opponents of the Bi-County Parkway are calling it an out of beltway. Why is that?
CAROWell, yeah, you're right. There were -- actually I think the original plan was to have three beltways in Washington a half century ago. Well, that, in my view is a way to put a negative label on the project. Certainly we don't want another beltway in our area because that conjures images of terrible traffic congestion. And, you know, the closest route to two different points is a straight line. Having to go around in a circle is wasteful.
CAROThe 45-mile corridor of statewide significance, which VDOT now says is on the shelf because the counties oppose it, that has the makings of an outer beltway. Remember Route 7 all the way down to 95 in Prince William. Of course it would necessitate a crossing of the Potomac into Maryland. Right now Maryland opposes that. The Bi-County Parkway is ten miles. That's certainly not a beltway. But that is a label that the opponents of the road have put on it again because it's -- you know, we don't want another beltway in our region.
CAROAnd in addition to that, they're saying, and with a lot of validity, that this roadway is supported by the development community. Again when we think of beltways we think of sprawl and growth not being contained in the right manner. And developers certainly do support road building in that area of Virginia. But it's -- there's a lot of nuance there. What kind of road it is depends on which developer you ask.
CAROI did some reporting on this and I went out to Loudoun County and I spoke to a homebuilder that owns 4,000 acres on the western side of the corridor, west of Dulles Airport. And, you know, he's building a lot of homes there. He's asking for a rezoning so he can get denser development but he does not want a six-lane divided highway going through his area. He wants a four-lane highway there.
NNAMDIWell, Bob McDonnell, the governor of Virginia, is invested in the road project. And up until recently, the two men vying to replace him, Republican Ken Cuccinelli and Democrat Terry McAuliffe have stayed mostly silent on this issue. But they were asked about it on Friday at a debate. The debate's moderator Derek Mcginty began by asking Democrat Terry McAuliffe about his thoughts.
MR. DEREK MCGINTYMr. McAuliffe, as you mentioned, this is a very contentious issue and there's going to be winners and losers. Don't you owe it to the voters to take an actual position on the Bi-County Parkway before they go to the polls?
MR. TERRY MCAULIFFEI just think sometimes, Derek, people make decisions without all the facts in front of them. These studies aren't done. You know that as well as I do. We got a lot of permitting issues to be done. We've got to deal with the battle -- relates to the battlefield issues. You know this.
MCGINTYA lot of people have already taken positions, Mr. McAuliffe, but you're the one who wants to be the governor. Don't you owe them a real position on this?
MCAULIFFEYou know, I mean, no offense. It's cute to say, but I do not make decisions, nor will I make decisions until I have all the facts in front of me. I will go, Derek, with my general principles. Does it ease congestion? Does it have an economic development component? And I want local support. And today all the facts aren't there.
NNAMDIThe question was then posed to his Republican opponent, Ken Cuccinelli, who was, well, a little more committal.
MR. KEN CUCCINELLII believe that a significant connector there must take place. I'll tell you that I am appalled at the notion of closing roads as part of the tradeoff to do this. So the current proposal on the table -- the current proposal on the table, particularly as it relates to closing down 234 and reducing traffic on 29, I find just terribly unacceptable.
NNAMDIYour turn, Martin.
CAROPerfect timing, Kojo, and we all know that your timing is perfect of course. I emailed this morning the superintendent of Manassas National Battlefield Park, Ed Clark if he had heard Ken Cuccinelli's comments. And those comments were, okay, I'm for a parkway in that area north-south. However, we don't want a tradeoff. And this is where this project gets so complex because we have this programmatic agreement that there are five signatories to.
CAROThey have to agree on how to place the Bi-County Parkway on the western fringe of Manassas Battlefield, involves land use, a historic area there. Federal agencies are involved in those deliberations. In exchange the park service wants Route 234 closed through the battlefield. Okay. You want federal land to build your highway on our western border, we want mitigation of the battlefield. We don't want all this traffic coming through Manassas. We're going to close 234. That's the deal.
CAROI just got an email back form Ed Clark, the superintendent, and he said to me he did not see Ken Cuccinelli or hear Ken Cuccinelli's comments. However, if -- his answer is, if 234 does not close then there's no Bi-County Parkway, because that's mitigation for the park. Quote "no closure, no Bi-County" and that's the email from Superintendent Clark.
NNAMDILet's see what Maryann in Gainesville, Va. has to say about that. Maryann, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MARYANNYes, thank you. I live in Gainesville. I've talked to Martin Di Caro many times. I'm an opponent to the Bi-County Parkway. I think it's important for everyone to understand, you know, that VDOT and everyone has changed their stories so many times in the name of this road. Now Bi-County Parkway, which is the ten-mile missing link, this is the only portion of the Northstar corridor that's not built. So once this 10 miles is built, the great cargo traffic from I-95 will be rolling 29 miles through Prince William County and down Belmont Ridge Road and Northstar in Loudoun.
MARYANNBut I heard what you just said about Ed Clark saying that if they don't close 234 then there will be no Bi-County Parkway. And quite frankly, why would you put a freight cargo road through the historic district of Manassas Battlefield Park? And what's really even more embarrassing, as I can see from VDOT's point of view and the National Park Service, is that it's the private property owners who pay experts in their fields to bring to the attention of the Manassas Battlefield Park that you must consider the second battle of Manassas as eligible for the National Historic Register.
MARYANNAnd we've -- respect for us, they were going to just put this road through an historic district through the park and pretend and worry about those facts later on.
NNAMDIOkay. Allow me to get to Martin Di Caro. 1861 and 1862, two different battles there is what we're talking about. Allow me to add a comment from Wendy who says, "I live on 234 and don't see where the economic benefit would come from unless there's further development. Is that in the plan?" That seems to be Maryann's concern too.
CAROYour exact question is why should 234 close?
CAROWell, the park wants 234 closed. Virginia Department of Transportation would never close 234 had it not been for the fact that, according to VDOT, they can't put the highway corridor anywhere else. It can't go west, it can't go east. The best place for it would be along the western border of Manassas Battlefield. And the number of acres that would be taken up based on the most recent draft of the agreement -- and it's going to its third draft right now -- is like ten or twelve acres.
NNAMDISo you close 234 so that there's not a whole lot of traffic going...
CAROYeah, except local and visitor traffic. Visitors, of course, would still be able to use it. The National Park Service wants that for mitigation on the park. They feel like there's too much traffic. And there is too much traffic going through Manassas Battlefield. The exchange or the tradeoff, as Ken Cuccinelli said, would be to build the Bi-County Parkway, would become a new 234 on the western side.
NNAMDIWell, Wendy wants to know what's the economic benefit that would come from the Bi-County Parkway if it's not, well, more developed?
CAROWell, the economic benefit would come -- let's start with the counties first. Both Prince William and Loudoun County have planned for this extra link capacity in their comprehensive plans. It's their way of managing growth. And while there are some local concerns about where the corridor goes and there are some local land use issues that have to be sorted out, both boards of supervisors in Loudoun and Prince William support the Bi-County Parkway. The exact way it looks in the very end, you know, that's going to be worked out over the next coming years. But they both support the concept of a Bi-County Parkway. And as I mentioned, they have it in their long term plans. And it's their way of managing growth.
CAROVirginia Department of Transportation's justification, well, that's changed a little bit. And I mentioned before, the whole idea of making Dulles Airport a big cargo freight hub for the East Coast, well now VDOT is saying that there won't be a large amount of extra truck traffic on the new Bi-County Parkway. Superintendant -- I'm sorry, Secretary Connaughton last week said right now about eight percent of all the traffic on 234 is trucks, and they anticipate that percentage to stay the same when the Bi-County Parkway is opened.
CAROVODT also says that the number of trips between the two counties is going to double between now and 2040, so thus, a major north-south corridor is necessary.
NNAMDIMaryann, thank you very much for your call. We've got to take a short break. If you have called, Karen, Alan, stay on the line. The number is 800-433-8850. You can send email to email@example.com if you'd like to share your thoughts about the proposed Bi-County Parkway. Our guest is WAMU 88.5 transportation reporter, Martin Di Caro. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation about the Bi-County Parkway. We're talking with WAMU 88.5 transportation reporter Martin Di Caro, and inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. What role should road building play? Do you think new highways are a good use of public dollars? 800-433-8850. That's the issue that Karen in Haymarket, Va. wants to get to. Karen, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
KARENYes. Hello, Kojo. I'm calling to say that I don't understand why any official of a county government or this state is discussing money for any kind of road when what we need out in this area is Metro. Metro could be extended from the Vienna Metro Station out into Prince William County and Fauquier County. Anyone who has traveled in the morning on Route 66 into the District of Columbia, they know what a total nightmare it is, and the idea of spending money on anything other than an extension of Metro is ridiculous.
NNAMDIGlad you brought that up. Martin, when the Virginia Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton spoke earlier this month to the Prince William Board of Supervisors, he was interrupted at numerous points by protestors. They booed, they hissed. Clearly, this is a divisive issue within the communities that will be affected, but it also speaks to the bigger debate that Karen in Haymarket is raising when transportation dollars are scarce, and that is what percentage of those billions should be funneled to road building?
CAROYeah. Excellent question. I think it's the right time in our discussion now to introduce this aspect of this issue. We cannot talk about transportation projects and megaprojects unless we talk about land use and changing demographics with younger people and empty nesters moving back into the cities and living closer to transit and giving up a very car dependent life. So we have a spectrum. Let's say we have a spectrum, and at one end we have transit and transit-oriented development, at the other end we have dedication to road building.
CAROWe're going to wind up somewhere in between there, right, with the finite transportation dollars we have because we do have to spend money on roads when it comes to certain intersections and bottle necks that do need to be alleviated, and maintenance. Maintenance is a huge bill. But when it comes to expanding highways, adding extra lane capacity in areas, that is tied to land use. And we have to ask ourselves as a region what kind of growth, what kind of development do we want.
CARODo we want large housing tracts in certain areas that are bit out around large highways? Well, maybe some people do. Some people certainly do want to live out in Loudoun County. They don't want to live packed in closer to the city, closer to the core. You know, we can't force this upon people. However, we don't need to have everyone shift, right? We just need to get a certain percentage of cars off the road to make a dent, and the metro -- she brought up metro, that's a very good point because it's certainly not easy to do that either.
CAROHeavy rail costs billions of dollars. It's taking the Silver Line up to 2018 to finally get out to Loudoun County, and that's $6 billion. And megaprojects always -- usually, I shouldn't say always -- usually cost more than you originally plan them for. So there's no easy answer to this. But in my view, and based on the discussions I've had with all the people who -- with all the stakeholders in this, it has be a combination of things, but tilted toward getting people away from their cars, and again, you can't force it on them, but showing them the incentives.
CAROI mean, the polls have shown, and the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments has done research on this, people want options. They don't want to sit in their cars anymore. So they would like to live closer to the transit, closer to the core, closer to urban walkable neighborhoods, even in a suburban environment. And if you look at Tyson's Corner, that's what they're thinking of doing there over the next four decades. They're building four Silver Line stops in Tyson's, and there will be no permanent parking in any of them.
NNAMDIHere now is Alan in Gainesville, Va. Alan, your turn.
ALANOh, thank you, Kojo. I appreciate you covering this issue on your program today, and also I'd like to thank Martin. I've seen Martin at almost every meeting that I've been to, and...
NNAMDIThe man is ubiquitous, yes.
ALANYes. He's been following this and, of course, it came up as a big issue at the last gubernatorial debate that they had at the Hilton Center. Martin, Maryann covered the main issues I was going to talk about. What I have -- I have a question for you. Have you found any -- the claims I'm talking about about developers buying land along the proposed Bi-County Parkway? I remember you were going to look into seeing if that -- if those claims are valid or not.
NNAMDIProspecting so to speak.
ALANCan you speak upon that?
CAROWell, I ran a story in early July where I went to Loudoun County and interviewed one of the major property owners out there, and that was -- let me -- I got the story in front of me here, a fellow by the name of Brian Cullen and Corbelis Nova is one of the large developers. And we'll just use this one example because the caller touched on, you know, who's pushing the parkway. Certainly the development community supports it. If you look at the Commonwealth Transportation Board, many of its members, Gary Garczynski is the Northern Virginia representative.
CAROHe is a very prominent home builder in our area, although he is not connected directly. There has been no evidence yet directly that he's pushing this for his own personal gain. So I want to make that clear. But certainly the development community supports a highway there. Now, when I spoke to Corbelis Nova and Brian Cullen who is their president, I think I eluded to this earlier in the program, yes, they would like a road there, but they want a four-lane road, not a six-lane...
NNAMDIAs opposed to a six-lane.
CARO...like Eisenhower-era interstate highway-type model.
NNAMDIWe should probably point out that the vast majority of emails and tweets and calls that we've been getting are anti...
NNAMDI...anti the Bi-County Parkway. So if you're for it, we'd be happy to hear from you. As Martin points out, it's difficult to know what the majority opinion would be about this project or any controversial proposal because it's kind of natural that the people who object to it are the people who are going to be feeling more strongly than ever. So if you have happen to be one of the people who is for it, you can give us a call too. 800-433-8850, or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
NNAMDINobody denies that traffic is a huge problem in Northern Virginia. It's a huge annoyance to millions of commuters. Somebody mentioned 66 which looks like a parking lot in the morning, and it's a major impediment to future economic growth. But the really big problem in Northern Virginia seems to be east-west traffic, not north-south congestion. Why build this road?
CAROWell, VDOT's answer to that criticism, and it's a legitimate criticism is well, they're spending a billion dollars on east-west traffic improvements in their six-year plan. They have a lot of money put out to alleviate 66 too, and they're thinking of turning 66 potentially into a hot lane scenario where they would use the existing capacity or potentially additional capacity for Easy Pass only vehicles.
CAROSo to get back to your original question, Kojo, pardon my digression, east-west traffic demand, and the radial trips are significantly higher than north-south movement in Northern Virginia. Now, the response to that for supporters of the road is well, that's now. Look at 2040. Look at when we have a lot more growth, more population and job growth in both Loudoun and Prince William Counties. The supporters of the road say we will need better north-south movement.
CAROAnd VDOT's most recent traffic projections said that within a -- you know, and they a build and no build scenario, and with the Bi-County Parkway completed, there would be some significant traffic reduction on some of the other north-south routes in that area. I have it right here. Gum Springs Road, traffic would decline by 67 percent. On Route 15 as much as 16 percent, and on the Loudon County Parkway, a 25 percent reduction in congestion or trips. Those are VDOT traffic projections if the Bi-County Parkway is built.
NNAMDIBack to the telephone. Someone you'll problem be glad to hear from because on the phone is Bob Marshall. He's a delegate, a Republican who represents parts of Loudoun and Prince William Counties. Delegate Marshall, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DELEGATE BOB MARSHALLKojo, thank you for taking up this very important topic. There are alternatives that don't require ripping up the countryside, condemning property, and wasting money. First of all, if you simply improve the interchange at Route 28 and Walney (sp?) and Braddock (sp?) Roads, which is the only stoplight between 66 and 7, and have a double lane off ramp from 66 east onto 28, you would significantly improve north-south capability for much less than the 440 million that it would cost to build this Bi-County Parkway.
DELEGATE BOB MARSHALLSecondly, for years there was comprehensive plans of Fairfax, Prince William, and Loudoun, it actually called a Tri-County Parkway at the time. The names are somewhat confused. Anyway, it followed a route which did not involve any significant taking of any homes. Actually, there were none that I know of in Fairfax and in Prince William. The right-of-way is still there. It could be used. The Army Corps of Engineers indicated there would have to be some wetlands mitigation, and it would affect north-south travel.
DELEGATE BOB MARSHALLBut the catch is, it wouldn't affect north-south travel in such a way so as to benefit developers who are running the show here, who are pulling the strings behind this particular alignment. What is so distressing, Kojo, is the number of shifts that have been made by the Secretary of Transportation and VDOT in their presentations to the public. At first they said, well, we're going to do this with tolls, so you don't have to pay taxes. They got resistance, they shifted. They said it was for trucks, then they said, oh, no. It's not doing it for trucks. It's for high-value, low-volume. So they haven't stuck to one story at all during this, and it's very distressing...
NNAMDIAnd Delegate Marshall, it's my understanding that you have proposed cutting state funding for this proposal, that you say you will do that in the next legislative session, which is in January 2014, is that correct?
MARSHALLWe did in the late 1990s, when it was called the Western Bypass, put a budget amendment on. I think it was actually Senator Chichester, to either direct what VDOT was doing and it made it untenable -- unpalatable to them, and it eventually -- it just blocked it -- yes. If I'm there, I intend to put a budget amendment on to block them from proceeding it.
MARSHALLWhat is so curious here is Secretary Connaughton told the Prince William Board of Supervisors last week we're not going to build this road for 25, 28 years, maybe near 2040. Yet he is in a rush -- a fevered rush to get an environmental impact study done before the end of his term. Why the rush? It didn't make sense.
NNAMDIHere's Martin Di Caro.
CAROThank you, Kojo. Delegate Marshall brought up some good points. First the price tag. It's $440 million. The EIS has been waiting since 2005...
NNAMDIWhat's the EIS?
CAROEnvironmental Impact Statement.
CAROThat cannot be approved until the programmatic agreement involving those five signatories, including the National Park Service sign off on where the highway is going to go on the western side of Manassas Battlefield. Everything VDOT has offered in support of the road has been challenged. Those traffic projections I just read to you five minutes ago? Challenged. Where VDOT and the county say some of the growth is going to come in the exurbs? Challenged.
CAROThe folks against the highway simply do not trust VDOT. They don't trust their traffic projections. They don't trust where they say the growth is coming, and they point out rightly that the demand right now for traffic is east-west. It's the radial trips, not circumferential.
NNAMDIIt's an interesting alliance of opposition going on here because Delegate Marshall is a conservative-leaning Republican. There are a lot of left-leaning people who are also opposed to this, but Delegate Marshall, thank you very much for your call. I want to get in Alex in Warrington, Va., because Alex, I think is in favor of the Bi-County. Alex, am I correct?
ALEXYeah. Well, kind of. I live in Warrington, but I was raised in Haymarket. I've lived in Haymarket most of my life, and for most of my life I have specifically avoided Tyson's Corner, Reston, Herndon, all these areas just because it's so hard to get there from western Prince William County. And I think it's a good idea to try to keep people moving within Northern Virginia instead of just funneling them into D.C. I would much rather see a Metro station, but I know realistically that's just not going to happen.
NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much for your call. Martin, we got an email from Lawrence who says, "Does your guest know why our county supervisors are supporting this project, and if any of them receive funding or support from real estate developers?"
CAROWell, I don't want to speak for each individual supervisor who supports the project.
NNAMDIIn general, why are they supporting it?
CAROWell, for some of the reasons we've stated already about growth, where they believe growth is going to be. Yes. They do have support of the development community. I've done some research on campaign contributions and the like. But there are some people in Prince William County, I should say supervisors, there are a couple who do oppose the road.
CAROI should have made it clear before, a majority on each board supports the project.
NNAMDIIt's not unanimous. We're running out of time, but community activists and environmentalists are proposing an alternative to building this road. You spoke with a group called The Piedmont Environmental Council which has proposed 23 different projects and ideas. What do they want?
CAROWell, they put forth a package of road projects. The Piedmont Environmental Council is one of the consulting bodies to that programmatic agreement. They're not a signatory, but they're consulting when it comes to Manassas Battlefield, and they put together a list of -- and some, not just projects, but also some, you know, tweaks, and some suggestions on how to improve traffic flow in that area. VDOT rejected their package. They said it was too expensive.
NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid that's just about all the time we have. Clearly, this is far from over.
CAROThat is true.
NNAMDIAs Delegate Marshall said, they're supposed to have it by 2040, but they seem to be rushing it through. So obviously this is some momentum to this proposal that Governor McDonnell approves of, and therefore we can expect that Martin Di Caro, you'll be continuing to cover.
CAROYeah. You know, you have to get funding, you know, in the pipeline for these projects, and if you're a supporter of them, you want to get that funding in the pipeline as soon as possible.
NNAMDIIs this going to be a doozy like the fight over the intercounty connector?
NNAMDITherefore, Martin Di Caro is going to be complied for a very long time.
CAROWell, that's -- I'm glad to hear that.
NNAMDIThat took decades. He is the transportation reporter here at WAMU 88.5. Martin, thank you for joining us.
CAROAll right, Kojo.
NNAMDIThank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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