Plans for Loudoun-Prince William highway move forward; crossing to Md. under discussion

A state map of the planned 45-mile highway from Route 7 in Ashburn, past the west side of Dulles Airport, down to Dumfries and I-95 in Prince William County. (Virginia Department of Transportation – Office of Intermodal Planning and Investment)The major North-South highway that is being planned for Loudoun and Prince William counties got a public rollout of sorts last week. “Open houses” were held at Stone Bridge High School in Ashburn and the Four Points Sheraton in Manassas. There were no formal presentations for this new “Northern Virginia North-South Corridor,” just a series ofinformational boards that showed roughly where the limited-access highway would go and why local and state officials think it’s needed.

This is not just the previously discussed Tri-County Parkway between I-66 and Route 50. This is the whole enchilada: a 45-mile limited-access highway from Route 7 in Ashburn all the way to I-95 in Dumfries. And the discussion is now officially beginning about extending this road across the Potomac River into Maryland, which makes the warnings from environmental and smart-growth groups of an emerging “Outer Beltway” connecting with the Intercounty Connector and then I-95 in Maryland seem more plausible.

The main stated goals of this highway are to increase the freight tonnage going in and out of Dulles International Airport (it would run just west of the airport) to further juice up the region’s economy. It would also improve traffic between Loudoun and Prince William as they continue to grow. Many who drive congested Route 28 or two-lane Route 15 to head north or south at peak hours would welcome an alternative.

Environmental and smart-growth groups say that east-west traffic and mass transit are what need money and attention, and that a new north-south road without mass transit just creates more sprawl and more traffic. After the jump are some statistics on projected growth and an interactive map of the proposed Northern Virginia North-South Corridor.

There were some pretty stunning projections on the sprawl front: About 700,000 new jobs are expected to join Northern Virginia between now and 2040, including roughly 142,000 jobs in Loudoun and 136,000 jobs in Prince William, according to numbers from a 2010 Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments study. That would be roughly 100 percent increases, or double the number of jobs currently in those counties, over the next 30 years.

For such a major project, in an area predicted to have such explosive growth, the open house I visited at Stone Bridge was not heavily attended by the public. Organizers said 100 citizens signed in, though it seemed that folks in name tags and suits outnumbered the curious onlookers. It did offer the opportunity to walk right up and have informal chats with the people who will be crucial to making this road happen, such as Deputy Transportation Secretary David Tyeryar and Loudoun supervisor Shawn M. Williams.

Smart growth and environmental groups were surprised that the meetings, ostensibly seeking public input, were held the week before Christmas with little advance notice (and no notice on the VDOT Web site). After hearing these complaints, VDOT scheduled another open house for Jan. 8 at the Four Points Sheraton in Manassas. If you have comments on the 45-mile highway, you now have until Jan. 18 to submit them, though VDOT spokeswoman Joan Morris said “there absolutely will be more opportunity down the road” for the public to weigh in.

Meanwhile, the project continues to have the feel of a done deal. The local governments in Loudoun and Prince William are on board, as is the National Park Service (the highway will stream along the western edge of the Manassas battlefield). Developers are ready to turn long-vacant properties in Loudoun and Prince William into new residential and commercial hives.

Among the state’s major transportation projects, the “Northern Virginia North-South Corridor” was just added to the Corridors of Statewide Significance list last year. But Tyeryar said it had been “in the plans for more than 10 years. This is probably our best opportunity, while Prince William and Loudoun are in support. This is the time to move forward, plus it blends nicely with the planned Dulles expansion.”

David Tyeryar, Virginia deputy secretary of transportation, at a 2010 transportation conference. (Tom Saunders – VDOT)Rusty Harrington, manager of planning for Virginia’s aviation department, said the state views Dulles Airport as “an economic engine, as well as a tourism gateway and a technology magnet.” Dulles has room to grow and wants to build its freight business so it needs better access than just Route 28 and the Dulles Toll Road to get trucks in and out of the airport, and then out of Northern Virginia to the rest of the East Coast, Harrington said.

And once this major highway is built, the prospect of a full Outer Beltway, heading across the Potomac into Maryland, connecting with the Intercounty Connector and then on to I-95 north of Beltsville, starts to sound more realistic as a way to bypass the current Beltway and a quicker route for trucks rolling to and from Dulles Airport.

The new highway would expand the current footprint at almost every point. Dumfries Road (Route 234) in Prince William would widen to six lanes, as would Northstar Boulevard in Loudoun. Belmont Ridge Road in Ashburn would widen to four lanes, and the old Tri-County Parkway (now only in two counties) on the western edge of the Manassas battlefield would be four lanes. A bypass around the northern edge of the battlefield would be built and Route 29 through the park would close. And Route 606 behind Dulles Airport would also have to expand to handle the projected truck traffic.

Tyeryar said crossing the Potomac was “not in the plans right now. But the three jurisdictions have agreed to collect data” on the need for another crossing point. A VDOT document online says the agency will sponsor and fund a study with Maryland and the District to “define the problem, not recommend the solution,” and examine cross-river traffic at existing crossings from Point of Rocks in Virginia to Route 301 in Maryland.

There is no funding for this Corridor of Significance yet, Tyeryar said. The state is hoping to put together a private-public partnership, he said. Whether such a partnership materializes or not, opponents note that funding quickly appeared for projects such as a $1.4 billion toll roadrunning parallel to I-460 in Hampton Roads and a $250 million bypass around Charlottesville.

If the local governments approve, things could really start rolling as early as 2013, government officials said.

People such as Stewart Schwartz from the Coalition for Smarter Growth and Trip Pollard from the Southern Environmental Law Center say the quiet quickness with which this huge project has unfolded is a new approach for Virginia. “They stopped using public presentations with public testimony,” Schwartz said, “because they were losing. We have an educated populace, not just advocacy groups. People would ask questions, other people in the room would hear a different point of view. To not do a presentation at all really is intended to suppress public input and public expression.”

Schwartz said the documents released so far about the unnamed Significant Corridor are “very conclusions-oriented. ‘We’ve picked these options and we’re going to build on them.’ We’re not allowed to ask about the underlying concepts.”

Schwartz said the population and job-growth projections are “likely inflated. They’re based on the planning of each jurisdiction. Just because they’ve planned it doesn’t mean it’s true.”

Pollard said that holding two public meetings just before Christmas served to “severely limit the ability of the public to give meaningful input.” He asked that any new meetings be an opportunity for members of the public to offer comments individually and directly to VDOT officials “in a way that then gets included in the public record of the meeting.”

Schwartz said the Virginia General Assembly had given the Transportation Department “a $3 billion blank check and they’re spending it in all the wrong places,” as opposed to using it for projects like rail to Dulles and improving existing, overcrowded arteries.

 Read the original article at Washington Post.