The North-South Divide

Battle lines are forming over the north-south transportation corridor in Northern Virginia. Backers say it would serve a growing population and stimulate economic development. Foes say the state has more urgent priorities for spending $1 billion or more.

Red line shows approximate route of the North-South Corridor where it runs through the Manassas Battlefield and extensive farmland. (Click map for more legible image.)

by James A. Bacon

Northern Virginia, we hear over and over, is one of the most congested regions in the nation – perhaps the most congested. Even with new mega-projects coming on line like interstate express lanes and the rail-to-Dulles Metro service, the list of transportation needs seems endless. Most improvements under consideration are designed to ameliorate the traffic gridlock that grips the region now. But one particular cluster of projects zooming through the bureaucratic approval process is designed to address traffic congestion that is forecast to be a problem… in 2040.

In 2011, the Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB) added the so-called North-South Corridor west of Dulles International Airport to its list of strategically important Corridors of Statewide Significance (CoSS), a designation that gives priority funding to projects within the corridor. It was the first time the CTB had added a new corridor not based upon an existing Interstate or rail line. Fast-tracking the project, the McDonnell administration has held public hearings and plans to present findings regarding a specific route and the cost to build a limited access highway this month.

Backers say Northern Virginia needs a north-south corridor – in particular, a limited access highway known in different configurations as the Tri-County Parkway or Bi-County Parkway — to accommodate the region’s fast-growing population and employment, and also to promote freight cargo-related economic development around Dulles International Airport.

“If you look at the population projections of the [Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments] and the Commonwealth of Virginia, you see a major percentage of future growth in Northern Virginia does occur in this corridor and points west,” says Bob Chase, president of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance. “Loudoun and Prince William counties will add a couple hundred thousand people over the next 20 to 30 years.”

But skeptics describe the project as a wildly speculative endeavor that might enrich big landowners whose properties are made accessible by the new highway but otherwise do little to address Northern Virginia’s most pressing concerns. In particular, they say, Northern Virginia growth patterns in the 1990s and 2000s have little predictive value for the future.

“The world has changed. Our population is older and is downsizing their homes. Empty nesters and younger workers want to live closer to jobs and transit, and in more urban places,” says Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth (CSG). “Moreover, the region has far more pressing needs serving existing population centers and addressing existing congestion. We need every dollar to fix existing commuter routes like I-66.”

Funding the north-south corridor, says Schwartz, would be “a misallocation of scarce resources.”

Only a year ago, the point seemed moot. Virginia was running out of state funds for new highway construction projects. But the north-south corridor controversy is sure to flare now that the General Assembly and Governor Bob McDonnell are close to approving a restructuring of transportation taxes that is expected to raise $800 million a year statewide for new transportation spending. Projects that had been pushed to the back shelves suddenly look fundable.

$2 Billion dollar project?

Northern Virginia’s major transportation arteries – Interstate 95, Interstate 66 and the Dulles Toll Road – all converge on the I-495 Capital Beltway or Washington, D.C., itself. Over the decades, population growth, job growth and development have followed those pathways out from the urban core. North-south arterials have been built to connect that growth, including the Fairfax County Parkway in the center of Fairfax County, and Rt. 28, farther west. The North-South corridor would represent a fourth such arterial but it would serve hypothetical future transportation demand, not a demand that exists at present.

Although the final plan has not yet been published, the North-South corridor likely will follow a path something like this: Read more.

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25 responses to “The North-South Divide

  1. hmmm…. simple thought: “investment grade” ROI


    bonus question: if this proposed road cannot pay for itself with tolls, is it really “needed” to “help” drivers experiencing congestion?

    extra bonus question: could tolls on this road also help pay for METRO west?

    triple bonus question: could NoVa do a “Florida” approach to toll roads where a network of them – together – generate enough extra revenues to go into a revolving fund used to add more toll roads to the network?

    editorial comment: seems to me that Mr. Chase could wipe out Schwartz and other would-be detractors by producing the mother of all ROI analyses, eh?

    • Wrong! Mr. Chase’s ROI would be grounded on numbers concocted and peddled for pure self interest and otherwise untethered from any other discernible reality, thus irrefutable proof of Don’s world weary skepticism.

      All using hard, fact based statistical analysis of course.

      And talk about the prostitution of experts! Anybody’s idiot can project a future that’s nothing more than a mirror image of the past 4o years. That’s no projection. It’s malpractice. One that set us up for gross failure. One that sends billions of our dollars marching off in search of fixing problems and capitalizing on opportunities we’d never face much less capitalize on.

      Following Weldon Cooper prognostications, Northern Virginia will charge into its future headed in the wrong direction as its wives and children get slaughtered on killing grounds forty miles to the rear. That how bad this is.

      You know, we do need an outer beltway. But not for the reasons behind this proposal. We need one to get long distance interstate traffic safely and harmlessly around the Richmond to Washington Corridor so it can build a thriving future free from by all the horrible mistakes of the past 4o years.

      Instead of fixing those past 24 years of mistakes this North South Transportation Corridor puts them on steroids for another 40 years.

  2. Correction: “Instead if fixing nstead of fixing those past 24 years of mistakes” should read 40 years …”

  3. One of the “innovations” that Connaughton and company have exploited is the concept of partially-subsidized toll roads – part funded by tax dollars and part funded by private sector entities.

    If we think getting a trustworthy ROI on a 100% govt-financed project is hard, getting it on these “blended funding” (otherwise known as PPTA) is dang near impossible because, as Stewart Schwartz has pointed out – the pieces and parts that are claimed to be “proprietary” are exempt from FOIA.

    My prediction – the outer belt is going to be a PPTA.

  4. One could write a book about this proposal, given its potential for harm.

    For example, people forget the harm done Fairfax County did its neighbors when it hijacked Interstate 95 Beltway for its main street. This blighted numerous Arlington county’s suburban neighborhoods and emptied out its downtown. This is typical. Virulent outer ring sprawl often outflanks, cuts off, and then hollows out older established neighborhoods left behind.

    This latest proposal for building yet another sprawl monster in Northern Virginia may likely be far worse, leaving far greater collateral damage. Fairfax County too might likely feel the sting. At least the last great surge of sprawl was concurrent with the economic surge of the 1980′ and 1990’s. This bailed Arlington with its new subway out. Times now threaten more.

    Should our economic doldrums and financial decline continue as many expect, it is quite likely that this newest outer ring of sprawl will thin out an already weak demand for growth to everyone’s grave disadvantage. Four urban / suburban rings will then compete for the same shrinking demand.

    Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun, Prince William will then eat one another. Given our current long term dim economic outlook, such cannibalism among the various parts of Northern Virginia could lead to its suicide.

  5. to play Devil’s advocate for a moment.

    Would we have refused to build 495, I-95 or I-66 if we felt that they would be co-opted for sprawl?

  6. Larry – I’ve been tough on Weldon Cooper so am reviewing their report so see if there is reason to modify my comments, so have limited time for now.

    I-495, and I-95 were 1950’s decisions. The idea was to move interstate traffic around DC and or allow such traffic quick exit into and out of DC.


    Because, for example, before these interstates, it could take one hours (yes hours) to drive from Bethesda Md (a few miles north of DC) to south edge of Manassas, Va. driving through downtown DC, Arlington etc. then through to Manassas, going stop light by stop light, before you finally hit clear open road going south on 29 headed for Warrenton Va. and C’ville.

    The Interstates were intended to address these sorts of city problem. There was not thought in anyone’s head that “rural counties” would end up using the the interstate the way those counties figured out how to do.

    So you question can’t be answered. But, given hindsight, we sure need to fix what has happened.

    • I have similar issues with Weldon-Cooper on projections but the reality is the Census folks do something similar as do most entities that project future population.

      AND they are EVEN WORSE when trying to project WHERE the increased population (and jobs) will geographically allocate.

      I think the truth is that this area of “expertise” is still not mature enough to reliably depend on it but planners and VDOT have to have something on which to base their plans so they use what is available and considered acceptable.

      On the “what should we have done with the interstates originally” question, it’s a question designed to point out that the original intent of the interstates was to basically repair the original problem with the earlier pre-interstate Federal and State attempts to “connect” cities and in each and every case the original roads were co-opted for local development when then necessitated “bypasses”.

      So, in a sense, the Interstates (and their beltways) were subsequent attempts to provide super-bypasses around urbanized areas (where they were big enough to justify the cost of a beltway) – and they had an additional requirement – limited access – no grade-level intersections and no developed property and curb-cuts on the road itself.

      that worked but the development then shifted to the interchange ramps and then it was recognized almost immediately that a job could be at one ramp and a subdivision at another and so on and so forth.

      So.. here we are today where it is said that we need new roads to carry us around the existing congestion and now we have opposition to it because we fear (with substantial justification) that they roads will spawn more sprawl.

      so what’s the answer if you can’t build for the good purpose if it brings the bad stuff along with it?

      my answer is TOLLS. Tolls put a cost into the equation. But electronic tolls now days bring something even better into the mis and that is variable tolls that can actually be used to manage the flow and encourage people to make choices based on costs and their own “needs” rather than pretending that each and every trip – no matter the time or distance -has the same exact economic value.

      they don’t. and variable-priced tolls adjusted according to congestion levels do establish the value of the trip in terms of “worth” for each driver.

      I would even assert that if the interstate system had started out the way that Eisenhower wanted it – with tolls – that perhaps the beltway monster in the NoVa area would have evolved in a different way.

      • Up to the Tolls part, Larry, I’d say your on mark.

        Old US 1 north from Fredericksburg north through DC and beyond was good example of the kinds of long distance clutter to the Interstate’s were designed to overcome. I remember the first time driving from DC to New York City without a traffic light. It was a wonder of the world! And that Wonder of the World has been in slow decline ever since. Why?

        Because slowing then stopping then robbing passing traffic of its money is highly addictive to the human psyche. Humankind’s ingenuity at capturing other peoples wealth passing by is boundless. It’s where all those castles along the Rhine came from. Highwaymen along the River have been diverting interstate commerce to fill their own coffers for a millennium. Old as the Greeks, it’s a river art refined in Medieval times. Indeed, Pirates predate prostitution.

        And what is proposed by this north south transportation corridor is the latest iteration of the Rhine Highwayman. Here it is using the original Tyson Corner tactics even yet farther out – using cheap farm land to create a revolving door of ever more suburban office parks and housing subdivisions served by strip shopping centers and mega malls that will attract ever more traffic whose congestion will then “have to be solved” by yet another band of bandits setting up their shops even further out.

        In sum these bandits will keep building yet more rings of congestion out across the Virginia Piedmont until we’re are all butt up against the West Virginia’s mountain front. What an accomplishment! And of course by then all the rich Virginia land owner guys will have moved into gated communities somewhere out west. The newest iteration there of Aspen, going to Great Idea’s festival. Everybody else is left behind in clutter.

        About your toll solution I am not sure. Perhaps its a tool among many.

        • Isn’t part of the solution is locating some employment centers outside the WDC Core? For example, the SAIC office near Quantico makes good sense to me.

          • re: employment centers

            well… none of us would agree to tell people where to live, right?

            so we’d also probably agree that telling businesses where they can locate would also be just as wrong, right?

            I get amused at people who have moved down our way.

            they’d bristle if someone suggested that they not be allowed to move here but they more than willingly suggest that those that would follow them be so restricted……

            and then of course.. they’d “vote” to have METRO routed from NoVa to Fredericksburg – …. as long as the “state” pays for it….

            and … yes.. they’d “force” companies to locate down our way instead of NoVa….

            so after listening to them a while… I get no joy that they really have good ideas about what to do ..just ideas that suit them…. and their interests….

            that’s why I like my toll idea.

            let me decide – based on what it costs – which are real costs. It costs real money to build real commuting infrastructure and expecting RoVa to pay for it instead of the people who use it just strikes me as dumb as a stump.

            the people who want/need that infrastructure should pay for it – not some poor schmuck trying to make ends meet down in Farmville.

            everyone wants a “free ride” these days. they all want someone else to pay for their “needs” and/or they want to blame someone else for the problems – that they help to create when they decide to commute 50 miles to work and … I love this… their complaint is that “they have no choice but to do it”… no choice but to drive 100 miles a day solo in their car… it’s gotta be someone else’s fault…

            grump twice!

        • re: how do you build a road for transportation and not have it co-opted for development?


          • reed fawell III

            Interesting. Can you tack some meat on that bone?

          • I think one approach to avoid co-opting roads for development is to make any landowner who obtains additional density from such road (or transit project) to pay a majority of the costs for the road constructed. Tysons landowners are paying 90% of the costs for Tysons-wide road improvements and a total of 59.5% of all road and non-rail transit improvements. They have major skin in the game. They are very interested in that only key improvements are made and then in a manner that maximizes the traffic relief.

            If VDOT told the PW and Loudoun landowners they would be required to pay 59.5% of the costs for the Outer Beltway in order to achieve rezoning, they would run away from the project post haste. Ditto for other projects, such as the C’ville Bypass.

          • re: landowners paying for roads. The people who own land are not going to pony up money in advance for the road. In many cases, they’ll wait until the road is built then sell the land to a developer.

            I just don’t see how this would “work” for something like an outer beltway but perhaps TMT has a better perspective.

            re: tolls to mitigate “co-opting”. I do not think tolls will totally eliminate the co-opting but it will put a price on it that will complement the lower cost of a house further away.

            the problem with “free” roads is that they are not “free”. They’re not free in terms of maintenance and operations and they are certainly not free when you need more lanes in an urbanized area where right-of-way would cost 10 times what the actual road cost would be.

            It’s uneconomic but what do you do when traffic exceeds the capacity of the road?

            you would then let people decide how much their trip is worth to them by charging for it – charging for what it costs to maintain and operate the road – and to buy additional capacity.

            that would be fair to charge the people who want/need it than some poor schmuck in Farmville.

  7. In the ” “Updated Composite Alternative”:

    instead of:
    “upgrades to the Route 234/Route 28 connection”

    I hope they meant:
    “upgrades to the I-66/Route 28 connection”

  8. Lot of true in what Larry says in larryg | April 7, 2013 at 12:52 pm above.

    Example, Arlington paid much more to dig its share of Metro underneath its Main Street. Everybody there has been reaping the benefits ever since.

    Fairfax did it the fast buck El Cheapo way – put Metro above ground over the interstate. Its been paying through nose for that penny wise pound foolish decision ever since.

    Imagine if Falls Church had followed Rossylyn Ballston example. And/or if Fairfax had also put Metro underground through Tysons Corner? Fairfax would long ago and ever since be perched in the Catbird seat. (Perhaps the devils deal back then was to split the cost with Prince William and save a bundle. That bundle saved 40 years ago was big mistake. That fast cheap buck short term artistry has plagued Northern Virginia ever since.)

    Taxing districts for development is another subject. Very complex. Full of opportunities and big mistakes. So you gotta watch out. Not at all sure R-B Corridor would have happened at all that way is what I am saying. Point is that taxing districts versus public funding all depends on very complex and subjective judgements on then needs and circumstances of each case.

    One big thing for sure is that any and all of this is far better than forcing people to do things by taking other things away from them, including their rights – because at bottom a healthy neighborhood depends on voluntary productive action by all citizens. So for example R/B Corridor succeeded NOT because local government took away peoples cars or their ability to park their cars. But rather because local government and business gave people the ability to make that decision to drive freely on their own. Had it been the reverse, I doubt (indeed I am almost certain) that Arlington’s R/B Corridor would have failed to even get off the ground, much less succeed. It would have forced people away and stripped value out of the community.

    The lesson here is that to succeed in building healthy communities one must tap into people energies, give them as many options as possible and let them chose what’s best for them, not try to command and control citizens. Command and control by government never fails to suck the energy out of any and all social enterprises. That’s a huge mistake.

    • To summarize the above car comment –

      Arlington built mixed uses in R-B Corridor in a way that encouraged residents, workers, and shoppers to voluntarily walk, subway, or bus to work, shop and play because THEY WANTED to get there that way. But, at the same time, the county built a neighborhood that gave its people their right to the unfettered freedom and convenience that only their own car parked conveniently nearby allowed. So it was Win Win.

      Those electing to drive to, out of, or around the R-B Corridor fell dramatically. Those walking its streets increased dramatically. Plus everyone quickly and conveniently goes where only their own car can take them. Importantly the sorts of people who demand this latter right enjoy the easy option of rejecting anything less but are critical to any community’s success. Lose them and everybody loses, including the revenue collector.

      A community running them off elsewhere shoots itself in the foot.

  9. how do you build a road for transportation and not have it co-opted for development?

    Out where I used to live is a town that is bigger than the three main towns that were the originals. Know how the new town got started? An exit ramp for a truck stop.

    Many states used to have roads for transportation and not development, before they let them get away. They were called…


  10. turnpikes with tolls, right?

  11. “How do you build a road for transportation and not have it co-opted for development? Like Turnpikes. Like Turnpikes with tolls.”

    Truth is I have no idea beyond this. I suspect physical and legal solutions are obvious as you suggest. But getting them accomplished politically is hard part. Here I’m largely clueless except to say that people too often split into two extremes on these issues. The pro-build anywhere group versus all development is evil group. There seems no middle ground save for those asleep at the wheel. So our political system for reaching active solutions have be mostly gridlocked by these hardened views based on perceived self-interests built up over generations.

    So how to you break it? Can you narrow the divide? How do you show people that reality is that bad development hurts most everyone? That good development helps most everyone and hurts almost no one? Then how do you build a workable cultural consensus politically to enforce solutions like limited access on more Virginia roads while also building the same for right development at the right places via some fair workable allocation formula?

    We have got to break down the divide. Somehow convince pro business folks and preservation environment folks of what good development is, and what it does, and why it can work for the good for everyone, including how and why it can accommodate most everyone’s reasonable best interests.

    Beyond these platitudes I have no ideas, only questions.

    • This North South Transit Corridor would seem to widen the divide yet further. Funny thing though is that I consider myself very pro-business. And that business success demands that we do things far better than in the past. And the right way to do that is to learn and benefit from past mistakes. And also at the same time build off the lessons learned, including past successes.

  12. Regarding North South Transit Corridor consider this exchange triggered by other more recent follow up articles on this website that brings several points together to reach some conclusions, namely:

    TMT | April 9, 2013 at 5:01 pm | Reply

    I don’t disagree. At least for Tysons, proffers have been tightly targeted to relieve those any only those costs imposed by the development. For example, additions to, or renovations of, parks and open space needed to serve additional residents and workers. As far as I’ve seen, the money and in-kind contributions are going to Tysons areas impacted by Tysons (e.g., schools that would educate Tysons children, but may be located outside Tysons, such as Marshall High School). Also, one landowner might provide more than is required for a facility type, but would receive relief on some other facilities. For example, a landowner building a fire station would not be required to build a library as well. CapOne is building a community center, while another developer is handling costs for athletic fields that would otherwise be assigned to CapOne.

    But growth at Tysons will increase traffic congestion. All the traffic studies show this. It’s also the reason major road improvements are tied to growth in Tysons.

    reed fawell III | April 9, 2013 at 7:45 pm | Reply

    I sense its likely those Tysons Corner proffers do not work but rather prove my point. Think about it this way:

    R/B Corridor had 5 million sq. feet office, most in Rosyln in 1980. Today its got 25,000,000 ft of office. But traffic is same. Why? Because it drove traffic down with dense residential. (see last comment to Fiscal Fix.)

    Today Tyson’s can REDUCE its traffic (and many other peoples traffic) far more than Arlington did building its downtown, by Tysons taking all its office commuters off Interstate 495 simply by giving its workers the space to live and work in Tysons. That way they can walk to work every day instead of putting everybody’s I-495 and Toll Road in gridlock every day. And free of Tyson’s Corner from its own gridlock everyday too.

    The beneficial results of this use change in Tysons will be huge.

    But tyson’s doesn’t want to do it apparently. Likely that is why it paid those big proffers — so as not to reduce traffic right way but rather to increase it the wrong way by building as many new office buildings as it can ultimately get away with and end up with.

    I haven’t the details to be sure about this, but that is my sense of it.

    reed fawell III | April 10, 2013 at 7:04 pm | Reply

    This problem of deferred maintenance acerbating the cost of rebuilding roads like I 95 beltway built 50 years ago is yet another powerful article showing why we need to build up existing communities like Tyson’s Corner so they reduce traffic on existing roads while they also powerfully generate YET more revenue to maintain our existing roads.

    Conversely it is lunacy for Virginia to do the reverse – namely to spend two billion dollars for new roads like the north south transit connector yet farther out into the hinder-lands that will increase traffic on closer in preexisting roads while diluting our means to maintain them.




  13. I grew up in Fairfax from 1964-89 when we moved to Loudoun. Our home is on a state highway (Rt 659). When we moved in there were approx 300 cars a day. These days it is closer to 15,000. Same 2 lane road.

    Build the friggen highway! Build a few! Sprawl arrived a long time ago and not building will not stop development. Build roads A LOT of them. Enough already with the shallow excuses for not building more roads.

    Thanks. I feel better now.

  14. good! are you prepared to pay to build them?

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