by James A. Bacon
The Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) has fired back at conservation groups opposing Northern Virginia’s Tri-County Parkway, asserting that their proposed alternatives would cost $6 billion to implement compared to an estimated $450 million to build the parkway. Ignoring the realities of the transportation planning process, says VDOT, the “substitute vision” amounts to little more than an impractical “thought exercise.”
“The suggested improvements represent not a simple alternative to the TCI project, but more of a substitute transportation vision (such as might be found in a regional or sub-regional transportation plan) rather than a transportation improvement alternative that could be implemented as a single project or a single project package in lieu of the proposed TCI,” states a newly published VDOT memorandum, “Analysis of the Substitute Vision Provided By SELC Et Al. As An Alternative To The Tri-County Parkway.”
“Efforts to combine a package of disparate components of a Substitute Vision into an alternative to a single proposed action (such as the proposed Tri-County Parkway) do not reflect the realities of the transportation planning process and, other than serving as a sensitivity analysis and planning/thought exercise, are largely impractical,” states the document.
The Tri-County Parkway (also referred to as the Bi-County Parkway) is a key link in a proposed North-South Corridor running west of Washington Dulles International Airport down to Manassas and Interstate 95. The project has provoked a strong reaction among citizens living around the Manassas National Battlefield Park and the designated Rural Crescent in western prince William County.
In January the Southern Environmental Council (SELC), Piedmont Environmental Council (PEC), Coalition for Smarter Growth (CSG) and other preservation groups issued a document, an “Updated Composite Alternative,” that detailed alternatives to the proposed parkway. Ideas included making major upgrades to existing roads, such as improvements to the I-66/Route 28 interchange, HOV lanes and mass transit on major arteries, and installing roundabouts to reduce congestion at intersections of heavily traveled two-lane roads.
Conservation groups contend that the parkway is a speculative project designed to address population growth forecast to occur over the next three decades in Loudoun and Prince William counties, draining money from projects needed to ameliorate the congestion that already exists in Northern Virginia’s east-west corridors.
To analyze the Updated Composite Alternative, VDOT broke the ideas into specific projects, identifying specific improvements and start- and end-points for each. Then it used the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments traffic and land-use model to analyze the results. “The most notable conclusion is that, even with the changes assumed for the Substitute Vision, travel demand on the Tri-County Parkway remains relatively unchanged,” the memo states.
Further, the document added, “The components of the Substitute Vision do not take into account any elements of actual project development, which are factors that are critical to the realistic recommendation of an alternative/set of alternatives. Such factors include … funding, assessment of potential environmental impacts or constraints, and public/agency involvement and comment. In contrast, the Tri-County Parkway has been undergoing the NEPA process since 2001.”
Concludes the memo: “The Substitute Vision clearly is not a ‘low build’ alternative that could be implemented easily in a timely fashion.”
Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, said that the conservation groups behind the Updated Composite Alternative have not had an opportunity to study the highly technical VDOT memo in detail. However, he did offer this response to some of the memo’s more general comments:
We included projects that are common sense priorities that VDOT has left out of both short-term and long-term plans and priority lists. What stands out from their report is the number of projects which they have NOT placed on the region’s Constrained Long Range Plan and/or are not included in their new draft six-year construction plan, but would offer real benefits for commuters today. These include projects like the Route 28/I-66 interchange to address the demand to reach jobs east of Dulles Airport and reduce delays on I-66, and the Route 28/Braddock Road interchange to replace a traffic light-induced bottleneck. Our list also includes projects that Loudoun has placed on its County Transportation Plan to fix the Route 50 corridor, and critical transit investments to help Prince William commuters, like extending VRE and adding express bus service, and in the future extending Metrorail to Centerville. Why aren’t these projects VDOT priorities?
It’s simply misleading of VDOT to call our alternative a $6 billion package as compared to their $450 million TCP. In a number of cases, it is VDOT that defined oversized, more costly versions of what we proposed. But more importantly, as I just said above, the many projects we list are necessary to address the primary problem of east-west congestion and other current and future needs. Therefore, they should and would naturally be included a similar area-wide package by VDOT totaling in the billions as well.
It is because of these significant needs, that we and others are questioning why VDOT would spend not just $450 million on the TCP but $1 billion or more on the Outer Beltway from I-95 to Route 7 and the associated Dulles Connector that could cost another $500 million. Note that the Outer Beltway would likely cost much more than $1 billion if the TCP is indeed now estimated at $450 million for the ten miles from I-66 to Route 50. But whichever way you cut it, VDOT is proposing $1.5 billion or more for a highway that doesn’t address priority commuter needs.
What we expect to find when we complete our technical review of VDOT’s report on our alternative and their other report updating their traffic numbers for their Draft Environmental Impact Statement is that the new north-south highway through the Prince William Rural Crescent and rural Loudoun Transition Area will itself induce new development and create new traffic. So, not only does the TCP not address priority transportation needs, the highway will make traffic worse.