CSG co-signs oped to protect Rural Crescent & water supply
With Terry McAuliffe about to move in to the Virginia governor’s mansion, it’s unclear what will become of one of the state’s most contested transportation proposals — the Bi-County Parkway, a $440 million highway in the outer D.C. suburbs.
Though it seems likely the current administration of Republican Governor Bob McDonnell will make a forceful push to get approvals sealed before the end of the year, the timeline is tight. Then there’s the big question of how McAuliffe, a Democrat, will manage the controversial proposal.
As planned, the four-lane divided highway would run 10.4 miles north-south between Route 50 and Route 66, two notoriously clogged commuter roads into D.C.
Critics of the Bi-County Parkway — who have been varied and outspoken — warn that the new highway would do little to ease congestion, and would in fact create even more traffic in this mixed region of farmland, cul-de-sacs, and Civil War landmarks. Smart growth advocates see the developers salivating over the project and predict that the road will simply perpetuate the trend of isolating housing from jobs.
“From what we see, all it’s going to encourage is more residential development in an area that lacks sufficient infrastructure,” said Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. “It’s putting more cars on top of the funnel.”
The proposal is at a critical juncture now, with the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) aiming to submit a final environmental impact statement to the feds by the end of the year — before McDonnell leaves.
McDonnell has aggressively pushed the Bi-County Parkway, even going so far as to hire a public relations firm to pitch the project.
“He has fast-tracked the planning and approvals and all that,” said James Bacon of Bacon’s Rebellion, a Virginia public policy blog. “He clearly made it a priority.”
And though several aspects of the project are still tied up in negotiation — particularly due to the government shutdown — many believe McDonnell will make an all-out effort to get Federal Highway Administration sign-off before 2014.
“The McDonnell Administration is flooring the gas pedal… hoping to get final approval before their time runs out,” wrote Morgan Butler, an attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, in an email. “The administration has downplayed (or ignored outright) major community and environmental impacts and given short shrift to alternatives, as they try to get their pet projects to a point of no return before they leave office.”
A study published by SELC and other smart growth and environmental groups this summer, “Rethinking the Bi-County Parkway,” argues that the project won’t help the region’s biggest transportation problem — east-west travel — and will undermine preservation goals for Manassas National Battlefield Park. Instead of the highway, the report recommends transit improvements like extensions for Metro and VRE and an express bus on Route 50. VDOT has not formally analyzed any of those other options.
Critics of the Bi-County Parkway have also worried the project will help resurrect old plans for other roads, like a 45-mile “north-south corridor of significance,” and even a larger “Outer Beltway,” which VDOT has denied.
VDOT’s pitch is that the new highway will ease congestion by increasing connectivity between Loudon and Prince William counties and replacing a route through the battlefield park. Supporters have also said the highway will spur more air cargo activity at Dulles Airport, though a researcher at George Mason University disputed that claim.
So far there’s no definitive indication of how the next administration will deal with the Bi-County Parkway. When the topic came up during election debates, McAuliffe avoided taking a firm stand, saying he needed more facts. McAuliffe’s Republican opponent, Ken Cuccinelli, was more forthright in opposing the proposal, though he expressed support for some type of north-south connector.
For some voters, the issue was enough to bring them over to the “Democrats for Cuccinelli” camp, said Charlie Grymes, chair of the Prince William Conservation Alliance. Even more interesting, he said, was the way it forced some Virginia delegates to mark their positions. Bacon’s Rebellion also noted the unusual camaraderie the issue forged between populist conservatives and liberal smart-growth advocates.
While Cuccinelli’s stance stemmed from his fiscal conservatism, McAuliffe has made it clear that he intends to pour big bucks into transportation. As Politico notes, his campaign played up his support for Virginia’s new law to raise $1.4 billion for infrastructure through increased sales taxes and other fees.
To Bacon, that may make McAuliffe more inclined to support wasteful projects like the Bi-County Parkway.
But The Washington Post also notes that McAuliffe’s platform highlighted “elements that appeal to advocates of livable, walkable communities.”
Schwartz sees the new administration as a fresh opportunity to examine alternatives. With McAuliffe “walking into a transportation agency which enjoys significantly higher levels of funding,” he said, it’s going to be “incumbent to look at how we can spend funds more wisely.”
Also critical will be McAuliffe’s decisions about transportation leadership. Many view the Bi-County Parkway as a pet project of Sean Connaughton, the current transportation secretary.
“Once he’s gone, the project’s going to lose a big backer,” said Bacon. “On the other hand, the political constellation around it won’t disappear.”
The Commonwealth Transportation Board, Virginia’s decision-making panel on roads, rails and other mobility efforts, is ready to spend money. Now that the governor and General Assembly have given the board more revenue to work with, a lull that set in over the past few years may yield to a more active phase of transportation projects.
Many Northern Virginians are aware of this changing dynamic, so they came to a public meeting sponsored by the board Tuesday night in Fairfax County to argue for or against particular projects. The most frequently mentioned were the rebuilding of the interchange at Interstate 66 and Route 28 — everybody’s for that one — and the proposed Bi-County Parkway, which has generated strong opposition in the neighborhood bordering the north-south corridor on the western edge of the Manassas National Battlefield Park.
The broader issues at play emerged when two people spoke: Stewart Schwartz of the Coalition for Smarter Growth and Bob Chase of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance.
Schwartz urged the transportation officials to pursue a “fix it first” strategy in setting priorities. Rather than focusing new spending on expansion of the roads network, rebuild the deteriorating parts of the existing system to make it easier for people to get around.
Schwartz doesn’t equate road building with congestion relief, which puts him at odds with many of the people who supported Virginia’s new transportation revenue law. New lanes, he said, “can generate more traffic than you relieve.”
Land use policy that focus development near transit “is a regional traffic solution” and does a lot more to address congestion than new lanes, Schwartz said. This may be the way of the future as empty-nesters who no longer need their big houses but want to stay in Northern Virginia seek new housing positioned to let them stay mobile as they age.
Schwartz opposes the Bi-County Parkway as, among many other things, a traffic-inducer. But it’s an unfair shorthand to characterize him as anti-road. Of the plan to rebuild the I-66/Route 28 interchange, he said, “We agree it should be fully funded.” But planners deciding how to ease the awful congestion all along the I-66 corridor need to address the public’s desire for better transit service, Schwartz added.
He also noted that Virginia state officials who are contemplating the new transportation revenue need to get interested in Metro’s long range plan, called “Momentum,” to expand the transit system’s capacity, including the purchase of enough rail cars to make all trains eight-cars long.
The shorthand for Chase would have him be the road-building guy, but that’s also unfair. Chase backs construction of Metro’s Silver Line. Key elements in his vision are that transportation projects can solve congestion problems, but we need to think big, and the projects selected need to have regional impact.
Chase praised state leaders for approving new transportation revenue that can refill budgets for maintenance and construction. “After many years, we finally are talking about additions, rather than subtractions,” he said.
In this new environment, Chase said, a “big picture perspective is more important than ever.” Planners must target “regionally significant transportation investments that will reduce congestion,” and he looks to the Commonwealth Transportation Board and the Virginia Department of Transportation to provide the leadership that will support such projects, including the Bi-County Parkway. People who say they don’t want a parkway in their yard have a right to oppose it, he said, but to say that the region doesn’t need a north-south route in that area isn’t factual. The state must base it’s decisions on regional needs, Chase said.
Chase and Schwartz have been fighting it out along this line for years. The key difference in 2013 is that they’re now talking to officials who have money to spend.
Photo courtesy of Karen Bleier. Click here to read the original story.
Opponents of the Bi-County Parkway, a 10-mile road to link the fast-growing counties, say the Virginia Department of Transportation’s contract with Stratacomm, a District PR firm, shows that the agency is not seriously considering other alternatives.
“They’re running a political operation,” Marshall said. “They say nothing bad about this road. This is a political campaign, nothing else.”
Stratacomm was hired in recent months to work on issues related to the Bi-County Parkway, according to the August contract.
The document shows that VDOT wanted Stratacomm to build relationships with local media, as well as engage elected officials, businesses and environmental interest groups on the parkway. The bills tallied reach $299,725, according to the contract. Much of that was Stratacomm’s staff time, including a senior vice president who billed 500 hours at $250 per hour.
Stratacomm Vice President John Undeland has been a fixture on the project for months. The firm’s Web site said the company seeks “to create and run winning communications campaigns.”
Undeland did not return calls seeking comment.
Elected officials and others have criticized VDOT, saying the agency has not been transparent about its plans for the parkway. Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton said in an e-mail that VDOT was trying to respond to such criticism by hiring Stratacomm. Many have faulted the agency for failing to explain why the controversial north-south road, which would pass near protected Civil War parkland and would be adjacent to long-established neighborhoods, is necessary.
In the past, Stratacomm has been hired to work on communications efforts for other government projects, including the Woodrow Wilson Bridge Project, the Interstate 66 study and the Route 1 study, Connaughton said.
“It is disappointing that we are being criticized for doing too much public outreach in response to complaints that we were not doing enough,” Connaughton said. “Our intent is to inform and educate the public about the Bi-County Parkway — to get the facts out so the public can ask questions, provide comment and come to their own conclusions about the project and its potential impacts.”
Marshall said that it is too soon for VDOT to stop considering alternatives to the project. Preliminary designs for the parkway have not been completed. And VDOT and other state and federal agencies haven’t issued the necessary approvals.
Stewart Schwartz, president of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, which opposes the project, said VDOT has refused to study alternatives to the road.
“It’s one thing to provide information to the public,” he said. “It’s another to try to basically sell the project.”
The Virginia Department of Transportation agreed to pay the D.C.-based public relations firm Stratacomm nearly $300,000 to help the agency build public support for a controversial highway plan in Northern Virginia, according to documents obtained by a state legislator through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
State Del. Bob Marshall (R-13th), a vocal opponent of the Bi-County Parkway, a ten-mile highway that would connect Loudoun and Prince William Counties west of Dulles Airport and the Manassas battlefield, obtained the contract agreement that shows VDOT agreed to pay Stratacomm $289,228 for an array of services.
Although studied for a decade, VDOT has heavily promoted the project for only the past year, with a series of public meetings, presentations, and interviews with the news media. The public relations campaign has coincided with negotiations with the National Park Service to allow VDOT to pave over part of the western fringe of the Civil War battlefield in exchange for closing congested Rt. 234 through the battlefield. Those negotiations are nearing an end, but the partial shutdown of the federal government is delaying a final agreement.
“VDOT is saying in its scope of work that the effort will increase the credibility and trust of the Virginia Department of Transportation in the eyes of the public,” said Marshall. “If trust is lacking in VDOT, it is because of their own words and conflicting statements which they have made time and time again.”
Marshall, who is part of a group of conservative Republicans in the General Assembly fighting the Bi-County Parkway, blasted Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton for the decision to retain Stratacomm. The state is in effect using tax dollars to lobby public officials and sway residents, he said.
“They are misrepresenting to the public what they are doing. That is unacceptable public policy,” said Marshall. “Sean Connaughton should be ashamed of himself. This is, in fact, stealing from the public.”
Sec. Connaughton defended the move to hire Stratacomm as a response to critics like Marshall who claimed VDOT was not performing enough public outreach.
“As a consequence, we have turned to a consultant like we do with most communications efforts to meet with stakeholders, meet with elected officials, homeowners’ associations, to help organize a communications effort,” Connaughton said.
“The whole purpose is to educate the public on what this project is, what it is not, to dispel a lot of the myths and misinformation, so we can get the public to know what we’ve been working on for the last 12 years,” he added. “This is in direct response to complaints of Delegate Marshall and others in the General Assembly… they did not think we did enough public outreach regarding this effort.”
VDOT’s internal staffing has dropped from 8,500 to 7,100 in recent years, Connaughton said, so the agency does not have adequate staff to undertake large-scale public outreach efforts. Moreover, the transportation secretary said VDOT hires outside consultants for most large projects.
Opponents seized on the contract disclosure to criticize VDOT.
“It’s one thing to do outreach to encourage the public to participate in the study process and offer their input. That’s a legitimate use of tax dollars, but to use tax dollars to fund what amounts to a propaganda campaign is another matter entirely,” said Stewart Schwartz, the executive director at the Coalition for Smarter Growth, which opposes large highway construction projects.
Once a final agreement is reached with the National Park Service and other signatories determining the Bi-County Parkway’s precise corridor, Virginia officials anticipate final environmental approval a few weeks later. The government shutdown is delaying the process.
Photo courtesy of Shawn Honnick. Click here to read the original story.
Under pressure from Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton and Governor Bob McDonnell, the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) is rushing to approve a highway that would slice through Manassas National Battlefield Park and its surrounding National Historic District. This new highway would open the door to an Outer Beltway, cutting a 45-mile swath through Northern Virginia at a cost of $1 billion or more. The Bi-County Parkway has sparked broad and deep opposition from local residents, state legislators and preservation groups.
A new route through some of Prince William County’s rural north is pitched as pro-business and part of the area’s transportation solution, but critics have lined up to push back on a new run of pavement through a part of the region happy to be away from gridlock.
The Commonwealth Transportation Board recently approved a master-plan study for what’s become known as the “Bi-County Parkway,” a 10-mile road that would connect I-66 in Prince William County with Route 50 in Loudon County.
“This parkway would make people’s lives better,” said Bob Chase, president of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance. “It provides faster, safer transportation, and takes people off local roads.”
The road’s purpose is to ease the horrendous traffic that currently plagues the area, while also providing easier access to the Washington Dulles International Airport for residents of these counties. The Virginia Department of Transportation estimates that the road could carry nearly 42,000 vehicles a day by 2020 to combat the area’s exploding population.
“We see this as a vital north-south link for Prince William and Loudon,” Chase said. “It’s a common sense solution that makes employment centers accessible and takes traffic off existing roads.”
The parkway is also seen as an economic boon for the region.
“Not only will the road reduce traffic congestion between the counties, but it will also help the region connect with the airport,” said Leo Schefer, president of the Washington Airports Task Force. “The airport’s an economic engine for the area, and better access to it helps encourage businesses to locate nearby.”
The road also has the potential to benefit the airport itself by increasing the number of passengers and encouraging more cargo to pass through Dulles.
“It would allow for a better flow of passengers and information through the airport, and cargo is a part of that,” said Christopher Paolino, media relations manager for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority. “That would be a net positive for everyone, since as the airport grows, the region grows, and vice versa.”
But critics of the parkway are worried that road may harm the nearby Manassas Battlefield and Prince William’s Rural Crescent.
“This road could forever harm the landscape and the acres of historic sites it would cut through,” said Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. “Residents have real concerns about the damage that this could cause to the community.”
Schwartz’s coalition has worked with other groups in developing a study finding that the parkway will only add traffic to the area, not ease it.
“If you build it, people will try to use it, and that creates congestion,” Schwartz said. “It’s also likely that this will bring pressure from developers to convert the Rural Crescent, and that will bring even more traffic.”
The group has also developed an alternative plan aimed at dispersing traffic by improving the interchange between Route 28 and I-66 and extending Metrorail service to Centreville, avoiding the need for the parkway.
“Our best hope is to improve our existing transit options and to build compact, walkable neighborhoods with public transportation,” Schwartz said.
Some local politicians echo the road rage, particularly Del. Tim Hugo (R-Centreville).
Transportation officials were trying to get the road done quietly, Hugo said. “But people woke up.”
The fight over the road has sent longtime political allies in Prince William County to opposing corners. Hugo argues support for the project is developer-driven.
“This is the wrong project at the wrong time, and the response from the people has been overwhelmingly in opposition,” Hugo said. “This road could create a commuter crisis from Fauquier to Fairfax.”
Proponents argue the goal is to get cars from one end of this rural area to the other, not increasing development within these communities. Shefer said the parkway can include easements around the road and limits on the number of exits to restrict development.
“If it’s designed the right way, then the parkway won’t harm the rural presence, but preserve it,” Schefer said.
Some changes have already been made to resolve some concerns about access and impacts on historical sites. As the project continues to take shape, Schefer and others are hopeful that the final product is controversy-free.
“The key is for everyone to work together, in order to help improve connectivity and save people time,” Schefer said. “There’s no reason this can’t be a win-win for everyone.”
Photo courtesy of VDOT.
One of our regular readers brought to our attention an issue that we haven’t been covering: Northern Virginia’s proposed Bi-County Parkway. The parkway would connect Prince William and Loudoun counties, but it has sparked an impassioned debate about our region’s growth trends.
On the one side, the Coalition for Smarter Growth has done research that says that the parkway would create more sprawl, congestion, and traffic. CSG released the findings of a study on the subject last week and proposed a “common-sense, comprehensive alternative.” (CSG, 7/17)
On the other side, the 2030 Group – led by developer Bob Buchanan – commissioned a report from GMU’s Stephen Fuller which determined that our region’s continued growth will include a big increase in car use. The group is using this finding to support their push for the parkway. (WaPo, 7/21)
Here’s more context for the debate – the Washington Post’s coverage since September 2012. We’d love to hear your thoughts on the subject in the comment section. What are the pros and cons? (The good and the bad, not the professionals and convicts.)
VIRGINIA — Today, a coalition of conservation, preservation, and smart growth organizations strongly questioned the overall benefit of the Virginia Department of Transportation’s (VDOT’s) proposed “Bi-County Parkway” in Loudoun and Prince William counties. The groups released an analysis of the controversial new highway’s impact on the amount of travel and congestion — comparing it to a proposed package of projects that would improve transportation in the area. The analysis shows that the alternative projects would be more beneficial to the region than the Bi-County Parkway would be.