Money for the Bi-County Parkway? I’ve Got a Nice Fireplace. Perhaps You’d Like to Burn Your Money There Instead.

Possible routes for By-County Parkway. Map credit: VDOT

by James A. Bacon

I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Buried within the massive Six Year Improvement Program approved by the Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB) last week was a line item that provides $5 million for preliminary engineering and design of the Bi-County Parkway (BCP). The parkway, the dream of a vocal element of the Northern Virginia business community, is widely seen as a preliminary step in creating an outer beltway for the Washington metropolitan area.

The Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance lauds the progress on the parkway, which would extend Rt. 234 in Prince William County all the way to Rt. 50 in Loudoun County. “In addition to connecting employment centers and residential communities in Northern Virginia’s second and third largest jurisdictions the Parkway provides a critical (and currently missing) link for travelers and freight to and from Washington Dulles International Airport, one of Virginia’s most important economic engines,” said the alliance in an email distributed last week.

I am tempted to laugh because the sum is so piteously small, no more than a sop to Northern Virginia’s development and construction interests. Yet I am moved to cry because that $5 million is utterly wasted. While one could have made a semi-plausible case during the 2000s real estate boom that the region would one day need a north-south corridor on the western fringe of the Washington metropolitan area, no such case can be made today. The dynamics of metropolitan growth and development have totally changed. Growth in Northern Virginia is (a) slowing and (b) moving back to the urban core. Infrastructure spending should be steered to supporting that growth, which is actually happening, not squandered on anticipating development that may or may not ever happen.

A few reminders from previous posts…

Northern Virginia population growth is slowing, and the prospect of restrained federal government spending — if not an outright collapse in federal spending — will reduce the demand for workers and all the housing, office and retail infrastructure that supports them. The experts have trimmed their growth forecasts in recent years, as can be seen in this chart published in a previous post. (See “Fairfax County’s Incredible Shrinking Growth Forecast.”)

The exurbs have lost their allure. In metropolitan areas across the country, property values are gaining value in the dense urban core and losing value in the low-density periphery. (See “Exurbs in Agony.”) Declining property values have boosted the rate of foreclosures. Bottom line: There is surplus housing supply  on the urban edge. There is no need to build much more.

Population growth has shifted to core jurisdictions. Consumer preferences are changing. People increasingly want to live in walkable, mixed use communities, ideally with access to mass transit. Empty nesters seek access to the cultural amenities that reside in the urban core. Saddled with college debt and more likely to be unemployed or underemployed, Gen Y is not buying into the American Dream of a house in the burbs with a two-car garage. (See “Population Growth Shifting to Cities.”)

The market is glutted with land available for development. There is no need to open up more land on the metropolitan fringe because so much property is available for development and re-development closer to the urban core. Fairfax County has embraced an Arlington-style strategy of increasing density around its METRO stops. Building is booming around the existing Dunn Loring-Merrifield METRO station, and developers are preparing for the opening of the Silver Line to Tysons Corner and beyond. Mixed-use re-development at higher densities is all the rage.

The only semi-plausible argument advanced by the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance is an economic development one — the bi-county road would help serve growing air freight traffic at Dulles. If Bi-County Parkway backers can make a persuasive case that the road could pay its own way through tolls, I’d be open to their argument. But if the road would require massive state subsidies like the proposed U.S. 460 Connector in southeastern Virginia, that’s a pretty good signal that the economics don’t work.

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  1. HardHatMommy Avatar

    Come visit us Jim and try getting around Dulles Airport in the morning. You have two choices and both blow. You can sit on 606 and creep along or you can battle Rt. 50 and Rt. 28 which is a crummy option as well. Lucky for me, that is no longer my commute and I now drive against traffic. But I see the miserable faces on the other side of the road sitting on the parking lot that is 606 and I feel for them – and that’s at 6:30 a.m.! By 8:00 a.m. the road is backed up onto Rt. 50. Anyone who implies there is a minimal, inconsequential North/South commute has never tried to get around the airport in rush hour. How anybody is going to drive to the 606 rail station, assuming it is built, is beyond me. Who wants to sit in traffic for an hour to get to the metro?

    It’s just plain ignorant for us to have an international airport and have it take over an hour to get around either side of the darn thing.

    In my opinion (based on my experience, with not a fact to my name), the bi-county parkway is the most important project out there besides helping Hampton Roads with their various nightmare traffic issues.

    1. DJRippert Avatar


      Don’t you know the population in NoVa is set to shrink? Oh … wait – Bacon’s graph actually says it will grow – just not as fast as originally thought. So, the traffic nightmare you describe will only get worse – but it won’t get worse as fast as you thought. Doesn’t that make you feel better?

      Jim Bacon loves driving around the un-congested and free four lane beltway that surrounds Richmond but doesn’t see why you and I should be able to get from Point A to Point B in a reasonable time. Why should he? the transportation infrastructure around Richmond is so over-built that he’ll never have to face what you and I face even if all road in the state comes to a grinding halt.

  2. DJRippert Avatar

    “The only semi-plausible argument advanced by the Northern Virginia Technology Alliance is an economic development one … “.

    I think you meant the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance.

  3. DJRippert Avatar

    Also, the only thing your graph about population growth forecasts proves is that the forecasts are often wrong and subject to endless revision. Given that – it’s hard to see what stock you put in those forecasts.

    South Riding, for example, is a planned community that opened in 1995 and currently has a population of 24,000 – about the same as Short Pump.

    If Loudoun County would make an honest effort to do what Ed Risse always preached – this road might make a lot of sense.

    1. Don, You miss the point (surprise, surprise!). I’m not saying NoVa doesn’t need more money for transportation, I’m saying that the money should be spent on projects that will support population growth where it’s going to occur in the next 10 years — not where we thought ten years ago where it was going to occur.

      Tricky concept, I know. Not everybody is smart enough to figure it out.

      1. DJRippert Avatar

        Here’s an even trickier concept – build roads where there are daily traffic jams. Like – all around Dulles Airport.

        Or, we can have Richmonders using their crystal balls to predict where housing will be built in the next ten years and just let the traffic get worse and worse where it’s already a fiasco.

  4. HardHatMommy Avatar

    Jim, the specific commute I want you to test drive is from Catharpin Va to Sterling Va. That would give you an excellent taste of the North/South hellish commute. 234 to Gum Springs to 606 (aka Loudoun Co Pkwy) and into Sterling/Herndon. You’ll change your mind if you drive that commute at 8:00 a.m.

    And as far as cargo goes, we might as well forget that little dream without the bi-county connector. Nobody would be foolish enough to put trucks on that miserable path out of Dulles.

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      HardHatMommy –

      Jim doesn’t believe in building roads to relieve traffic jams. He believes in building roads to go to places where housing will be in a couple of decades.

  5. larryg Avatar

    I’m all for it – as a toll road. From now on, we ought to be asking ourselves who – other than us – should be paying for these “needed” roads.

    And if you say we “need” them but you don’t want to pay tolls, then we know just how badly “needed” they are.

    Yeah…we’d all like wonderful commutes, free electricity, and front row seats for cheap seat prices but at some point – we need to recognize that the things we want – we need to pay for and the very first think I’d want to know about that road is how much it would cost and how many people would use it as a toll road.

    If the answer is that more than enough people will use it as a toll road – then I’m in favor of it. It’s an excellent self-regulating paradigm that gives a “right” answer to whether the road is for unnecessary growth or legitimate need.

  6. HardHatMommy Avatar

    I would personally pay tolls for a bi-county connection but I bet the cargo folks wouldn’t find that attractive. It is a little silly that we have this airport and no easy way to 81, 66, 95. That has to add up to missed opportunities – right?

    And as a side note, those people from Manassas and Catharpin who commute to Sterling and Herndon are not lawyers and doctors and such. There are more old Toyota Camrys than Mercedes on that commute. South Riding and Stone Ridge have the shiny, new mini-vans, but they aren’t exactly Lexus people either. I bet the average income of the North/South commuter is dramatically less than the East/West 66 commuters.

  7. larryg Avatar

    well.. it’s not about Lexus Lanes. It’s about choosing to live in a place that is not near where you work.

    It’s your choice of course but it’s not someone else’s responsibility to make your choice work better.

    If we all took that attitude all of us would be expecting everyone else to pay for our needs.

    we already know that’s a good way to bankrupt transportation funding, right?

    If we are “really” worried about the low income folks who have to drive to get to work -then fine, let’s give them free EZPASS transponders (or pre-funded enough to pay for their commute) but I have to say everytime I’ve suggested this, the argument quickly shifts to “tolls are just plain wrong” or similar complaint.

    I firmly believe that a a new road is seriously needed that people will pay to use it. Hell.. I’d GLADLY pay to get around DC with a predictable transit.

    We go WEST to I-81 when we go north PRECISELY because I do not want to get trapped in the beltway monster.

    The last folks to visit us form the north drove 3 hours south and then spent another 3hrs struggling through a bad beltway day. They would have GLADLY paid a few bucks to buy a one-hour transit through NoVa.

    My EzPass enables me to breeze through the toll booths and the latest innovation is open road tolling – no toll booths at all.

    5 million dollars is not chump change but it is pitiful in terms of what it will buy for a project that will be not only controversial but very expensive – perhaps as expensive as Md’s Intercounty Connector at 100 million a mile (and no hope of paying for it with tolls alone – so far).

  8. If Virginia can flush $5 million down the toilet on this project, it doesn’t need a tax increase.

    Here’s Bob Chase’s lie – “In addition to connecting employment centers and residential communities in Northern Virginia’s second and third largest jurisdictions the Parkway provides a critical (and currently missing) link for travelers and freight to and from Washington Dulles International Airport, one of Virginia’s most important economic engines,” said the alliance in an email distributed last week.” This argument is so stupid that it could have been written by Lee Hockstader – the doofus who lives in D.C. and writes editorials about Virginia.

    Look at the map. What major employment centers are being linked? Leesburg? Manassas? It doesn’t go near Ashburn. Connection with IAD? One possible link connects near Leesburg, which the last time I looked is no where near the Airport. The other link hits IAD at its backside. It’s no where near the terminal.

    It’s all about building a road to please Til Hazel. Spend the money widening Route 7 and adding a lane for BRT. Now I know where they found people to buy the Facebook stock at the offering price.

  9. larryg Avatar

    re: ” “In addition to connecting employment centers and residential communities in Northern Virginia’s second and third largest jurisdictions the Parkway provides a critical (and currently missing) link for travelers and freight to and from ….”

    this is pretty much standard boiler plate for many proposed roads. It’s the argument used for the Pocahontas Parkway in fact and for the Western Transportation Corridor and the Potomac Crossing.

    There are in each case, elements of truth but precious little in the way of reliable projections.

    So we ended up with a ton of these roads put in a 6-yr plan with some getting built and most others stranded, “waiting for funding” which never showed up and then Gov McD “found” all the “stranded” money and rolled it into real funding for Charlottesville and start-up money for Hampton Tunnels and US 460.

    But now the money is pretty much re-allocated and there is no more.

    What gets built from now on – will have to come from PPTA proposals which basically will be toll roads.

    Now the interesting thing to me is that we ALREADY have TWO toll roads at Dulles and yet HHM says the traffic STILL BLOWs.

    Well.. if a north/south corridor is so important for for Dulles, why was it not done at the time the other ones were?

    I have my suspicions that this is not really about Dulles anymore than the DTR and Greenway really are only for Dulles or for that matter the METRO expansion only for Dulles.

    Having said that – it’s clear – for reasons not totally understandable – other than access to Dulles, that this particular area (as opposed to other places in NoVa) seems particularly poised for growth – both business and residential.

    Giving the benefit of the doubt – I still come down to the need to analyze each road proposal as if it were to be tolled as from now on – sans some new funding mechanism – this is going to be the alternative.

  10. HardHatMommy Avatar

    Larry, you’re probably right about tolling being the best bet. But we always hear that the Port of Virginia in Hampton Roads, Dulles Airport, and the inland ports are economic engines that need better infrastructure surrounding them. I was at a community meeting last week and heard that Dulles is the only east coast airport that has room to grow and add new terminals. But because the Fed Ex types can’t get cargo out of the airport onto 66 and 81, we aren’t as attractive as we should be. Is there truth to that?

    Now if the bi-county parkway doesn’t hook up to 606 and the back entrance to the airport, then I’m not a fan and I just think 606 needs a couple extra lanes and we can call it a day.

    1. DJRippert Avatar


      I think you have the answer! If local drivers need to pay to fund the infrastructure around Dulles Airport then the localities should keep all the state and local tax revenue associated with Dulles Airport. Ditto for the port in Tidewater.

      If the Imperial Clown Show in Richmond (c) doesn’t want to pay for infrastructure then they shouldn’t steal the proceeds that infrastructure provides.

      Death to Dillon.

    2. I agree that it’s useful to compare the U.S. 460 Connector project with the Bi-County Parkway for their economic development value. Setting aside my personal reservations about massive state subsidies for the U.S. 460 Connector, let me make a couple of points. First, the Virginia Port Authority is contributing $250 million toward U.S. 460 over several decades. Would Dulles Airport be willing to do the same? Second, U.S. 460 is about more than helping the ports generate more cargo traffic, it’s about attracting logistical and manufacturing investment. Dulles might be able to attract logistical investment (warehouses) with expanded road access, but it’s not likely to attract any manufacturing to the state. Another difference is that Hampton Roads has competing ports; by committing to the investment now, the McDonnell administration argues, it can lock in investment from shipping companies they might not otherwise get. It’s a chicken-or-egg thing. Whereas, Dulles has no effective competitors for increased air cargo — as you said, it’s the only airport with the space for expansion. There’s nowhere else to go.

      You can go back and forth on these things forever. People can claim anything they want, and there’s no way to prove them right or wrong. In the final analysis, money talks and bull**** walks. If someone is willing to pony up money to build a toll road, I say, let ’em build. That is clearly NOT the case for in the U.S. 460 Connector. And it’s most likely not the case for the Bi-County Parkway either.

  11. Tippecanoe and Tyler too. Build a road, any road. Will it address traffic problems? Tippecanoe and Tyler too. Build a road, any road. Tippecanoe and Tyler too.
    MWAA won’t offer a dime for this road. Why should they. One possible path does go near the Airport and the other comes to the back side. Tippecanoe and Tyler too.
    Let Til put up his own money and build a toll road.

  12. larryg Avatar

    well, we have an interesting dilemma here HHM. Do you REALLY want MORE 18-wheeler traffic on the roads around you? Is that what upgrading the roads around Dulles REALLY about?

    But if we do, then should it not be at least part of the responsibility of the Fed Ex types who would benefit from it?

    Toll roads have big advantages over “free roads” in terms of who pays. If you want to have fair payment by the users, you have an excellent way to allocate those prices including negotiating with Fed Ex for ..say… a fixed price for transponders for their equipment – a quid pro quo that CAN be implemented with tolls that would be impossible with non-toll roads.

    At the end of the day, a toll road allows a much more discrete calculation with regard to economic cost/benefits.

    I am more troubled like Jim with regard to US 460 in that it appears that it will be overtly subsidized by taxpayers.

    The “good” about this is that we know it up front because we can compute costs and likely toll receipts (assuming VDOT has gotten better at doing that by relying on private sector analysis via PPTA RFPs).

    So we get a number for the actual taxpayer subsidy. Then the question becomes, is the sharing of the costs between the various parties including taxpayers – a good “investment”?

    My view is that we will likely argue that point but more important is that we know the numbers whereas with “free” roads it’s not really determinable and VDOT can and does cook the books willy nilly to show “need” (and of course they have never ever proposed a “free” road that they’ll admit is a loss to taxpayers – it’s not a concept with free roads while it is a serious focus on toll roads).

    So..toll roads don’t mean no taxpayer skin in the game – only that we have a much better idea of how much skin even with the secret provisions of PPTA proposals.

  13. If freight companies and airlines want better access from western and West Virginia, why aren’t they proposing a plan to build and pay for what is needed? It reminds me of how the Tysons Task Force said we’d all be benefited from Tysons with loads of new tax dollars, protection of the existing neighborhoods, etc. from an urban Tysons. Now the County is trying to figure out how to fund $5.46 B in infrastructure til 2051. Whoops!!! n When the most likely beneficiaries of a road don’t want to pay much for the road, why the **** should taxpayers build it?

  14. HardHatMommy Avatar

    You have a point TMT. The Tysons model is filled to the brim with lies. Vienna is about to see their buffer of woods that separate them from Tysons taken away in order to build an access road that could clearly be built on the developers’ property instead – which is currently covered in asphalt. So much for protecting existing neighborhoods and so much for being a sustainable community. You can’t just throw up some LEED buildings and some bike paths and call yourself green while you recklessly take out one of the few patches of woodlands in Tysons. That isn’t smart growth.

    I read this blog sometimes and it just seems like there aren’t any solutions that add up. Every time an idea seems to be viable, its bubble gets popped. It’s time for Mommy to take off for a week of Lake Anna relaxation and leave Northern Virginia traffic in the dust. Maybe I’ll see you on the roads out in Spotsy county next week LarryG. Happy 4th of July to all.

  15. HHM – I know about Vienna. I know Pam Konde & her efforts to save the woods that shields neighborhoods from Tysons. The best thing going for them is that the extended road must go through a Resource Protection Area since there is a stream bed in that part of Tysons.
    As my late father used to say, “You can put about 10 lbs in a 10-lb sack.” Tysons already has about 25 lbs in the sack.

  16. Hydra Avatar

    You obvoulsy have never tried to travel North and south in that area.

    That road is needed and it will be built and the commerce it generates will more than make up for its cost.

  17. Hydra Avatar

    Build a road, any road. Will it address traffic problems?


    Roads are not supposed to solve traffic problems: they are supposed to carry heavy traffic, and man yof them do just that.

  18. Hydra Avatar

    At the end of the day, a toll road allows a much more discrete calculation with regard to economic cost/benefits.


    Maybe, but the costs of making that caclulation is incaclulable.

    Who cares if they can fine tune the tolls between 10 cents per mile and 12 cents?

    Either way it is over $2.50 per gallon in equivalent gas tax.

  19. larryg Avatar

    re: “incalculable” … not really and far more “calculable” than other pricing paradigms such as the gas tax.

    At the very least – in the planning stages – a proposed road can be estimated in cost and estimated in use and from those two components, an estimate cost-per-use can be determined.

    And I would assert that knowing that number tells you a lot about just how “needed” the road is.

    For instance, if the per-use price is 10 cents a mile, a 10 mile road would be well worth it to many but at a buck a mile, the road would likely be in-feasible.

    You can do that calculation – even if ultimately you decide to not toll – it STILL will give you an idea of cost vs benefit and better calibration of “need”.

    If we did this approach with all new roads, we could actually rank them according to the cost-per-mile metric and the ones with the better numbers would be ranked as “more needed”.

    this is much, much better than funding new roads from a single gas tax fund and each road is “fudged on “need” with lots of “help” from developers and others who would derive personal wealth from publically-funded infrastructure.

    Let Til Hazel and others form their own PPTA and make a proposal and get in the game themselves instead of “urging” Va and local govts to foot the bill.

  20. I am more concerned about the $4.5 million for the Battlefield Bypass (UPC: 103319) than the “234 EXTENSION/Bi-County Parkway” (UPC: 99482 – $5 million)

    What a waste…

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