Dulles’ Grand Plan

dulles_neighborhoodHow is it that Northern Virginia, with some of the worst traffic headaches in the country, has embarked upon an economic development plan to bring thousands more trucks into the region?

by Reed Fawell III

In October 2005, the Washington Airports Task Force (WATF) got a wake-up call. Its transportation consultant reported that traffic heading east and west past Washington Dulles International Airport had begun to strangle both the airport and its neighborhood. Travel around the airport was already impaired, and gridlock soon would be overwhelming. Jobs, prosperity, education, leisure, shopping and normal daily activities were all at risk. Stated the report: “If prompt remedial action is not taken, gridlock will lead to economic decline in 10 to 15 years.”

Despite the dire warning, airport officials have embarked upon plans to triple the airport’s daily passenger traffic, triple daily truck volume and vastly expand the number of employees commuting into the airport. New strategic and development plans outline an intention to build what amounts to an entire new city in and around the airport property. “We are sitting on the crown jewel at Dulles,” Jack Potter, CEO of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) said December. “The combination of convenient global and regional access plus a healthy business environment make Dulles the land of opportunity.”

Airport officials, along with their allies in Loudoun County and Virginia state government, see Dulles as the nucleus for a massive logistical complex growing out of the airport’s air cargo business, as well as massive commercial development with no direct aviation tie-in. MWAA plans six million square feet of development in just the first phase of development on airport property, encompassing 430 acres among the 3,000 acres available — equivalent to two downtown Restons. Much of that anticipated development will feed off proximity to Dulles’ passenger service and development advantages such as the lower cost to develop and hold land exempt from various state and local taxes and land-use regulations.

Essential to the success of Dulles’ massive commercial venture is improved road access for thousands of new workers and visitors, not to mention the long- and short-haul tractor-trailer cargo trucks that will load and unload at a vastly expanded air cargo facility. The truck traffic will drive up the proposed North-South Corridor from I-95, I-66, U.S. 29 and I-8I. A critical link in that “corridor of statewide significance” is the proposed Bi-County Parkway through the Manassas Battlefield Park that has roiled so much controversy in Prince William County. The North South Corridor also is deemed critical to handle all the new auto commuters that a development boom would create.

In addition to the six million square feet of building on Dulles property, Loudoun County plans call for massive development on privately held land nearby. As reported by the Loudoun Times, Robyn Bailey, manager of business infrastructure with Loudoun County’s Department of Economic Development, said in April that land along the Rt. 606 corridor on Dulles’ western edge has the potential for 14 million square feet of high-end industrial space, while land north of the airport served by METRO and the Dulles Greenway has building potential for 23.5 million square feet of commercial and office space. Land slated for commercial and industrial development on nearby Routes 7, 28, 25 and 50 could accommodate another 38 million square feet.

Enjoying a unique central location for long- and short-haul trucks, Dulles airport officials aspire to be the major growth gateway for international air cargo into the eastern United States. Fifty-six percent of the nation’s population resides within 1,000 miles of the airport, a catchment area extending from Jacksonville, Fla., to southeastern Canada, to Chicago, Ill., Nashville, Tenn., and Birmingham, Ala. Boosters envision Dulles as the entrepot between international airlines and the trucks delivering cargo across most of the eastern United States. That’s the plan. And that’s why Dulles Airport and its friends all want this North South Corridor built.

Remarkably, this flood of traffic is being proposed for Northern Virginia despite the fact that Dulles, from an air cargo perspective, is located at the end of a cul de sac. There will be no way for trucks to exit the Dulles neighborhood except by the way they came — heading south down the North South Corridor before jumping on to Interstate 66, Interstate 95 or U.S. 29 on the way to destinations north or west — or venturing onto congested local roads.

What happens if the main routes are gridlocked, like I-66 at Manassas, one of the most congested intersections in all of Virginia? What happens if truckers or airport workers decide to go directly north to Point of Rocks and cross the river to Maryland, or head west on Route 50 to Winchester and I-81, or go east on the Dulles Toll Road into D.C. or Maryland? Will they swell the traffic load on Northern Virginia’s already overloaded roads?

How did airport officials go from a 2005 expert’s warning of an impending traffic disaster around Dulles to instituting plans that would only accelerate the automotive Armageddon? How do airport authorities propose to make all of this work? How do they expect to get away with it? How will their schemes affect the citizens of Virginia?

Upcoming articles to be posted here on Bacon’s Rebellion will try to sort these questions out.

Reed Fawell III was formerly president of a Washington, D.C., law firm and head of its commerical real department practice. He has developed commercial real estate in Northern Virginia and Washington, D.C.