Return of the Outer Beltway?

Apparently, Rail-to-Dulles is not enough to sate the Northern Virginia appetite for controversy. It looks like another battle royal over transportation and land use is brewing, this one centered on a proposal to declare a new Corridor of Statewide Significance (CoSS) that could pave the way for the controversial Outer Beltway.

The issue surfaced in March when Doug Koelemay, once a regular contributor to the Bacon’s Rebellion newsletter, and another board member submitted the proposal during a regular meeting of the Commonwealth Transportation Board (CBT). Consideration of the motion was deferred to a meeting scheduled for tomorrow. Now environmental groups are mobilizing to block a CoSS designation until it has gone through the same process of “expert analysis, inter-agency collaboration, local consultation, and public input” that other corridors of statewide significance have gone through.

I could find no explanation of the Corridor of State Significance on the CTB website. Environmentalist and smart-growth groups are portraying it as a bid to create the long-discussed Tri-County Parkway, which could be expanded into a longer Western Bypass. (See the press release issued by the Coalition for Smarter Growth.)

Circumstantial evidence supporting that view comes from the McDonnell administration’s vagueness about plans to allocate $3 billion raised through borrowing for transportation projects. As noted in a previous smart-growth press release, $1.5 billion would go toward unspecified Public Private Transportation Act projects, while a separate infrastructure bank could tap $150 million in General Funds and another $250 million could be taken from maintenance accounts to subsidize low-interest loans to PPTA projects. That’s a lot of loose change.

The smart growth groups contend that a north-south Outer Beltway (click on map for more legible image), long sought by Northern Virginia developers, would do little to relieve east-west travel congestion but would encourage development in areas lacking support infrastructure, making fiscal, environmental and congestion problems worse. The initiative also would divert funds from other projects that would address maintenance needs and bottlenecks in built-up areas of Northern Virginia.

I have long been skeptical of Gov. McDonnell’s use of borrowed money to jump-start highway construction in Virginia. He is advancing a set of priorities assembled during the massive real estate boom of the 2000s when easy money was pushing growth and development in the Washington region ever outward. But times have changed. There is no more easy real-estate money, local governments are more fiscally strapped than ever, gasoline prices are rising and demographics are shifting in favor of development closer to the urban core. Growth patterns in the 2010s will shift decisively. The Commonwealth Transportation Board needs to overhaul its spending plans in light of those new realities. Pushing an outer beltway, or even the first segment of one, seems imprudent at this time.

Of course, I have yet to hear the proposal, much less the justification for it, so I keep an open mind. But an Outer Beltway, if that in fact is what’s in store, has a very high hurdle to clear before I would be comfortable with it.

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