Tag Archives: Outer Beltway

When the Bubble Pops

Image credit: Commonwealth Institute

Image credit: Commonwealth Institute

by James A. Bacon

Northern Virginia is so much more prosperous than the Rest of Virginia that it’s difficult for we RoVians to appreciate what is happening north of the Rappahannock. But the picture isn’t pretty. Gripped by the realities of sequestration and budget cuts, the Washington region has one of the worst-performing economies in the country at the moment. And when Northern Virginia sneezes, as the saying goes, Virginia catches cold. Virginia’s current budget travails can be traced directly to NoVa’s economic ailment.

Two new reports drive home the message that Northern Virginia, the state’s economic locomotive for the past three or four decades, has experienced an unfortunate confrontation with reality.

First, CityLabs has published a list, drawn from Bureau of Labor Statistics data, listing the 10 jurisdictions that gained the most jobs in 2013 and the 10 that lost the most. Three of the 10 biggest losers — Arlington County (-1.1%, Fairfax County, -1.2% and the City of Alexandria (-1.4%) — were located in Virginia. Interestingly enough, neither Washington, D.C., nor any Maryland jurisdiction was included in the list of Top 10 biggest losers, which I would attribute to the facts that sequestration has clamped down hardest on military spending and that Northern Virginia’s economy is more military-dependent than D.C.’s or Maryland’s.

Second, the Commonwealth Institute (working in collaboration with two other regional think tanks) has published a new report, “Bursting the Bubble,” on the challenges of living in the national capital region.  The broad conclusion:

Income inequality is growing. Employment levels for people without a college education are far lower than before the recession. Unemployment rates for several groups of workers, including those without a college degree, remain high. Black workers and young workers were particularly hard hit by the recession, even when compared to other areas residents with similar education levels. The high cost of living in the region is pushing many families to spend more than they can afford on housing, while others trade more affordable housing for long and expensive commutes.

The region has many successes worth celebrating. But broadly shared prosperity is not one of them.

College-educated workers are earning more than before the recession; everyone else is earning less. States the report: “While wages are rising at the top and declining at the bottom nationwide, the divergence is more extreme in the national capital region.”

“Bursting the Bubble” looks at a longer time-frame than the CityLabs article — the period from 2007 to 2012. Over those five years, which includes the Obama administration’s economic stimulus phase and ends before the CityLabs data picks up, public administration jobs (which disproportionately hires college grads) increased by 40,000 jobs while the construction sector (with mostly less-than-college grads) lost a comparable amount.

income_breakdownThe wage growth that did occur was overwhelmingly concentrated in Washington, D.C. Every other jurisdiction (but Stafford County) saw median incomes decline.

These employment and income trends make life especially hard for the poor. Between the high cost of housing, the high cost of child care and the long commutes, families need higher incomes to stay out of poverty. Adjusted for living costs, the region’s poverty rate is 13.4%, only a little lower the nation’ adjusted poverty rate of 15.3%.

The highest-cost housing (ranked by median home sales prices in 2012) was located in the metropolitan core — Arlington County the highest, followed by Alexandria, Washington, D.C., and Fairfax County. (It would be interesting to see a ranking based on the cost of housing per square foot.) Many homeowners are still struggling, especially in heavily African-American jurisdictions in Maryland’s Prince George County. Three percent of mortgages in the metro’s Maryland jurisdictions are in foreclosure compared to o.5% in Virginia.

Bacon’s bottom line: There’s only so much that state and local government officials can do to counteract the inevitable squeeze of federal government spending. Uncle Sam’s long-term budget crisis is far from over. The federal government will continue to be a drag on the regional economy for a long, long time. While there is a reasonable prospect that all the super-smart people who moved to the region will manage to reinvent the economy along more entrepreneurial, private-sector lines, that adjustment will take years to occur. Continue reading

Terry McAuliffe: Working Hard to Make His Own Mistakes

Terry McAuliffe: Denounce old guy, clean up his mess, make same mistakes.

Terry McAuliffe: Denounce old guy, clean up his mess, make new mistakes.

Governor Terry McAuliffe is working hard to clean up the transportation boondoggles of the McDonnell administration — but how many new boondoggles will he create of his own making? Yesterday, the governor announced $13.1 billion in transportation capital expenditures after making final adjustments to the state’s Six-Year Improvement Plan.

In the announcement, McAuliffe made much of the fact that his administration ramped up public involvement this spring “by getting out into the communities and holding hearings in nine regions across the state to solicit input. Nearly 400 people attended and 1,620 oral and written comments were collected. From that information, the CTB adjusted the program to reflect the needs and priorities of local officials, residents and the traveling public who use and know their transportation system better than anyone else.”

Cough! Cough! Hack! I think I just swallowed my tongue.

Who shows up to those public hearings? I blog about transportation and land use for a living and no one notified me. The overwhelming majority people who attended, I’ll wager, were people who are paid to track such meetings and represent a particular constituency or special interest. They are lobbyists, environmentalists, road builders, Chamber of Commerce executives and maybe the odd citizen gadfly with more time on his hands than he knows what to do with. McAuliffe didn’t consult with the public, he consulted Virginia’s political class.

What is the common thread of the people who showed up or submitted comments? If you read my previous post, you’ll know that they are people who want something for nothing. They want highways, rail service and other improvements to be paid for by someone else. Thanks to Bob McDonnell’s transportation “reform” (enthusiastically backed by McAuliffe, incidentally), that’s what we have — a transportation funding system that raises less money than ever from the people who use roads and rail and more from general revenue sources like the sales tax. That money goes into a giant slush fund that is allocated through the Six-Year Improvement Plan at the behest of local politicians and lobbyists. It’s one, big something-for-nothing scheme.

The outcome is hundreds of projects around the state, some of which, no doubt, are entirely justified and would pass any cost-benefit test, but some of which are entirely political in inception and would never see the light of day without massive subsidies from people who will never use them. So, according to Leesburg Today, McAuliffe justifies advancing the Bi-County Parkway in Northern Virginia on the grounds that Washington Dulles International Airport needs a boost to its cargo operations. (This project is one legacy of the McDonnell administration, it appears, that he is willing to live with.) Then there are $3.2 billion in transit and rail projects — nearly one quarter of the transportation budget — none of which would have a prayer of being built without massive public subsidies.

So, merrily we skip along, funding highway and transit projects and adding to a transportation asset base that will have to be maintained and operated at considerable expense — even as the state faces a billion-dollar shortfall in the next biennial budget. And we do this knowing full well that the world stands on the verge of the most incredible transportation revolution since the invention of the automobile — the marriage of automobility with the Internet of Things — that will scramble the demand for roads, highways and transit in ways that we can only dimly imagine at the moment.

Transportation is a complex system in the midst of a massive perturbation and we’re treating it as a complicated system that warrants conducting business as usual. (Read “Complex Cities.”) Folly, folly, everywhere! It’s enough to drive me to despair.

Important update: The Washington Post adds critical perspective to the Leesburg Today article: “During the campaign, McAuliffe was noncommittal on the proposed north-south highway in Prince William and Loudoun counties, just west of the Manassas National Battlefield and south of Dulles International Airport. In April, Leesburg Today reported that McAuliffe said during a visit in Manassas that he liked the Bi-County Parkway ‘conceptually,’ as a way to ease traffic in and out of Dulles International Airport. However, he went on to say he was not taking a position on the proposal, because it still must go through an evaluation process approved by the Virginia General Assembly during this year’s session.”

It is extremely reassuring to hear that the Bi-County Parkway project will go through the Return-on-Investment evaluation process. I erred in bundling the Bi-County Parkway project with other projects listed in the Six-Year Improvement Plan. My bad. My apologies.

Whither McAuliffe on the Bi-County Parkway?

Over at the D.C. Streets Blog, Katie Pierce asks whether Governor-elect Terry McAuliffe will give thumbs up or thumbs down to the Bi-County Parkway. The answer: Nobody knows. (She quoted me in the article but I didn’t shed much light.) Still, it’s interesting that D.C. Streets, a pro-smart growth publication with a focus on Washington’s urban core, is paying attention.

The McDonnell administration will do everything it can to advance the project in the two months it has left. After that, it’s McAuliffe’s call. His decision will tell us volumes about the next four years of Virginia transportation policy.


MWAA Gets Its Kicks on Route 606


Orange dots show termini of upgrades to Rt. 606. Source:    2010 Loudoun Countywide Transportation Plan.        (Click for larger image.)

by James A. Bacon

Construction of the “Dulles Loop,” 18 miles of high-capacity roadway around Washington Dulles International Airport, will take a big step forward with the recently announced $106 million widening of Rt. 606 along the airport’s western edge.

Financing will come from multiple sources, including $40.5 million from the Virginia Department of Transportation, $41.2 million from Loudoun County and $24.4 million from the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA), which governs the airport. MWAA’s contribution includes the contribution of 56 acres of land valued at $12 million.

There is near-universal agreement that the upgrade is needed. In 2011, roughly 21,500 vehicles daily traveled on the two-lane road, which has a design capacity of 6,700 daily. Traffic is projected to grow to 32,250 daily by 2036.

“This partnership will make Route 606 safer and ensure that motorists and commuters reach their destinations more quickly,” said Governor Bob McDonnell earlier this week in a ceremony highlighting the funding partnership. “Once complete, it will mean easier, less congested commutes for Virginians on a vital transportation link.”

“Route 606, which is a bottleneck now, is a vital link that connects the Dulles South communities with the northern part of the county,” said Loudoun County Chairman Scott York. “Improvement of this road from two lanes to four lanes will be a tremendous relief to both commuters and business that depend on this route on a daily bases.”

The four-laning of Rt. 606 is uncontroversial, even among groups often skeptical of big-ticket road projects. “We have supported expansion of Rt. 606 to four lanes,” says Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. ” There is a two-lane stretch and strong existing traffic demand within Loudoun.  This would serve to better connect southern Loudoun to the Silver Line and jobs on the north side of the airport. ”

But Loudoun and MWAA have ambitious future plans for the roadway, and that’s where things get tricky.

The first ticklish point is the MWAA’s funding source. The airport authority is contributing land valued at $12 million — land donated to Dulles by the federal government. The balance of MWAA’s share is cash — cash thrown off by the Dulles Toll Road. The $12 million is a tiny sum compared to the hundreds of millions of dollars siphoned from the toll road to build the Silver Line metro extension, but it does potential set a potential precedent for tapping the toll road as a piggy bank for other projects.

MWAA spokesman Chris Paolino says the Rt. 606 funding commitment from the Dulles Toll Road goes back to the mid-2000s when MWAA took over the toll road along with responsibility for managing construction of the Silver Line.

MWAA justifies using toll road funds to improve Rt. 606 because it falls within the “Dulles corridor,” broadly speaking. MWAA’s 2013 budget (page 202) specifies the following expenditures among its “Dulles Corridor Improvements”:

  • Rt. 606 widening, Phase 1 (study), $550,000.
  • Rt. 606 widening, Phase 1 (design), $4 million
  • Rt. 606 widening, Phase 1 (construction), $20 million

In corridor-related projects, the annual report also alludes to planned improvements to Hunter Mill Road ($4.6 million), Fairfax County Parkway ($4.6 million), Reston Parkway ($4.3 million), Centreville Road interchange improvements ($5 million).

The second prickly point is future plans beyond the four-laning. Loudoun’s Countywide Transportation Plan for 2030 shows Rt. 606  as a six- to eight-lane freeway. (See map above.) The route is critical for developing the much-touted air-cargo business at Dulles. State plans call for integrating Rt. 606 into a multimodal North South Corridor providing a freeway transportation connection between Dulles, Interstate 66 and Interstate 95. Funding sources for the corridor, which could run into the hundreds of millions of dollars have not been delineated.

There are practical objections to tapping Dulles Toll Road revenues to fund upgrades beyond four lanes — citizens are already threatening a commuter’s revolt over the toll increases required to fund the Silver Line. On the other hand, MWAA has identified Rt. 606 as part of the Dulles Corridor served by the toll road. Anything is possible.

The Ladies of Pageland Lane

Page Snyder (left), Mary Ann Ghadban and Philomena Hefter in their “war room.”

In Prince William County populist conservatives and liberal smart-growthers have found common ground in fighting Northern Virginia’s proposed Bi-County Parkway.

by James A. Bacon

The command center for the fight against Northern Virginia’s Bi-County Parkway can be found in the dining room of Mary Ann Ghadban’s farmhouse on Pageland Lane in western Prince William County. Dubbing it the “war room,” Ghadban and her buddies Page Snyder and Philomena Hefter spend countless hours huddling and plotting strategy there. They have requisitioned the dining room table, littering it with papers, notebooks, coffee mugs, pens, highlighters, post-it notes, computer paraphernalia and stacks of documents. In the corner looms a map showing where the proposed route of the $400 million parkway would snake along the edge of the Manassas National Battlefield Park. No one will be holding a dinner party there any time soon. That’s OK, Ghadban laughs. “This is putting the room to good use for the first time!”

An agreement between the National Park Service and the Virginia Department of Transportation outlining the terms and conditions for running the four- to six-lane highway past the battlefield was nearly complete when Ghadban got wind of the project last year. She turned to Snyder and Hefter, friends and neighbors whose homes would be impacted, too.The three women have dedicated themselves to dissecting the project and warning the citizens of Prince William County what it means to them.

The ladies of Pageland Lane are not professional organizers, although Snyder did learn some tricks of the trade from her mother, local legend Annie Snyder, who spearheaded the defeat of plans by Disney Corp. and, later, mega-developer Til Hazel to develop land near the battlefield. She certainly has her mother’s rough-and-tumble spirit. A banner on the fence in front of her house just down the country road shouts, “Say, ‘No!’ to Tri-County Parkway!” A home-made sign nearby proclaims, “No Highway. Manassas Battlefield Park Betrayed Us.”

Hefter, whose deceased husband served as Prince William County planning commissioner, does much of the research. She issues Freedom of Information Act requests and dredges through the mind-numbing minutiae of public documents to spot subtle changes in VDOT or Park Service stances.

Ghadban, a local real estate developer, hones the message. She downloads audio clips from public hearings, blasts out the email newsletter and maintains the web presence. “We’ve learned about Facebook,” she says, beaming as she adds, “We have 1,500 likes.” Then, she qualifies, “We don’t tweet. I can’t quite get a grasp on it.”

They may be amateurs but they have taken on the Republican McDonnell administration, the Prince William board of supervisors, local chambers of commerce and various groups funded by real estate developers, and they appear to be winning. So successful have they been in stirring up opposition and packing public hearings that a half-dozen GOP members of the General Assembly have joined the movement to stymy the project. The administration felt compelled to hire a Washington, D.C.-based communications consultancy, agreeing to pay $289,000 to “engage the public and foster a deeper and wider understanding” of the parkway project.”

The three amigas have tapped a vein of conservatism on the rural fringe of the Washington metropolitan area that responds to the call for fiscal sobriety and property rights. Remarkably, some of their most important allies in the struggle are typically thought of as liberal — smart-growth groups such as the Piedmont Environmental Council (PEC), the Coalition for Smarter Growth and the Southern Environmental Law Center. While those organizations have not turned out intimidating masses of citizens to attend public hearings, they do bring to the debate a deep knowledge of Northern Virginia’s transportation system, the bureaucratic machinery of VDOT and the political process.

The working relationship between the Pageland populists and the smart-growth movement is too informal to be termed an alliance. But their messages often align. They largely agree (a) that the Bi-County Parkway is a waste of public dollars, (b) that the project is driven by developers who want to enrich themselves at public expense and (c) that building the parkway is inconsistent with the goal of preserving the Civil War heritage of the Manassas National Battlefield Park and its environs.

The cooperation is reminiscent of the ad hoc alliance between fiscal conservatives and conservationists in 2002 when Northern Virginians defeated a referendum to impose a regional sales tax to raise money for transportation construction. The arguments back then were similar — the revenue would be co-opted by development interests and tax dollars would be wasted on bad projects enabling sprawl. But after the referendum was defeated, the two sides went their separate ways.

One problem, suggests Chris Miller, president of the PEC, is that the two groups don’t trust each other due to disagreements on other issues. He points to the example of Bob Marshall, R-Manassas, a controversial social conservative who opposes the Bi-County Parkway. “There is no member of the General Assembly who is more in tune with what is going on in his district. But people [in liberal conservation organizations] just can’t get over his social positions,” Miller says. Similarly, he adds, he didn’t exactly feel encouraged to engender conversation across the philosophical divide when the Tea Party burned him in effigy. “I take it little personally.”

America is so politically polarized today that liberals and conservatives don’t spend much time talking to each other. But the battle over transportation policy is an area where they could benefit from doing so. Strip away the culture-war issues, and the big divide in fast-growth regions is not between liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats, but between the growth party and the preservation party, between those who would utilize tax dollars to perpetuate the geographically expansionist, autocentric pattern of development that has prevailed since World War II and those who would support walkable urbanism and preservation of the countryside on the other. Read more.

McDonnell Team to Spend $289,000 in Taxpayer Money to Sway Taxpayers on Bi-County Parkway

John Undeland, StrataComm senior vice president

John Undeland, StrataComm senior vice president

by James A. Bacon

The McDonnell administration has agreed to pay a Washington, D.C., communications consultancy $289,000 to help win public support for the proposed Bi-County Parkway in Northern Virginia.

The details are laid out in a Scope of Services agreement obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request filed by Del. Robert Marshall, R-Manassas. The contract calls for Stratacomm to “engage the public and foster a deeper and wider understanding of the Bi-County/North-South Corridor and its benefits, laying a foundation of support for the subsequent steps of the project.”

Marshall said that to his knowledge it was unprecedented in the Commonwealth of Virginia for the state to use taxpayer dollars to hire an outside public relations firm to conduct a grass roots campaign in support of a highly controversial project still going through the public approval process. Said Marshall: “I’ve been in office 22 years. I’ve never seen anything like this. If it has happened, it has been very rare.”

The McDonnell administration has made it a top transportation priority to advance a North-South Corridor running along the western fringe of the Washington metropolitan area. The middle segment of that corridor, known as the Bi-County Parkway, is highly controversial. Citizens have packed public hearings in opposition, Republican members of the General Assembly have publicly denounced the project, and the Prince William County Board of Supervisors has backed off from providing its endorsement.

The Virginia Department of Transportation is required to go through public hearings and other steps as outlined in its Policy Manual for Public Participation in Transportation Projects. The Scope of Services agreement spells out how Stratacomm will supplement those hearings with “additional meetings, public interface and marketing activities”  in accordance with the Communications, Consultation, Public Outreach and Community Engagement Plan.

Stratacomm describes itself as a “strategic communications consultancy that helps clients educate, persuade and motivate people to drive desired results.” One of the company’s areas of specialties is transportation projects. John Undeland, senior vice president and partner, is a former public affairs manager for the American Automobile Association. His corporate bio lists the $2.5 billion Woodrow Wilson Bridge project across the Potomac River as the firm’s “flagship” project. “John’s navigation of the project’s public image steered it from being a magnet for controversy to a point of regional pride.”

Marshall objected to the expenditure of public funds to “lobby public officials to do something they don’t want to do.” He characterized the outreach to homeowners associations and civic groups as “propagandizing.”

“Transportation Secretary Sean] Connaughton has no business at all doing this,” Marshall said. “He ought to be ashamed of himself. This is stealing public money.”

According to the agreement, the outreach extends to elected officials, media, the traveling public, property owners, homeowners associations and civic groups and business groups. The initiative will focus on Bi-County Parkway positives, including “mobility and accessibility benefits,” “associated economic benefits,” and “safety improvements.” In coordination with state authorities, Stratacomm will develop a “comprehensive stakeholder database to track and manage stakeholder communication,” provide content for the project website, establish a point of contact for public inquiries, and assist in the development of fact sheets and a newsletter.

The Coalition for Smarter Growth, which has actively opposed the $400 million Bi-County Parkway,  also took exception to the expenditure of public funds to influence the public. Said Executive Director Stewart Schwartz in a prepared statement:

We should expect VDOT to conduct objective studies and to fairly consider alternatives when evaluating billions of dollars in transportation expenditures.   Yet for the BiCounty parkway VDOT hasn’t been objective and they never fairly evaluated an alternative to a highway in this corridor.  They have steadfastly ignored community and preservationist concerns.

Rather than reevaluate their proposal, they have decided to pay a PR firm $289,000 to SELL the public and elected officials on the highway, using our tax dollars. …

It’s one thing to do outreach to encourage the public to participate in the study process and offer their input.  That’s a legitimate use of tax dollars, but to use tax dollars to fund what amounts to  propaganda campaign is another matter entirely.

While Marshall and Schwartz both regard the expenditure of public funds in this manner as inappropriate, neither could say if it was illegal. State law does prohibit local governments from expending public funds to influence the electorate on referenda. Governments can disseminate information but it must be “neutral.”

Bacon’s Rebellion left a message with Deputy Secretary of Transportation David Tyeryar asking why the administration hired Stratacomm and whether, in his view, the expenditure is legal. In his FOIA response to Marshall, dated Oct. 3, 2103, he noted that “as of this date, no invoices have been submitted and/or paid.”

An expense itemization attached with the agreement projected 500 hours of work by a senior vice president, presumably Undeland, at a billable rate of $250 an hour, for a total of $125,210. The agreement also would pay an account director for 390 hours of work at $210 per hour, as well as smaller sums for the work of other employees.

Air Cargo Case for Bi-County Parkway Crashes and Burns. Will McDonnell Pivot to New Justification?

Graphic credit: Center for Regional Analysis.

Graphic credit: Center for Regional Analysis.

by James A. Bacon

Cognitive Dissonance, anyone? There is an interesting juxtaposition of articles in The Washington Post today….  The local section carried an article about George Mason University President Angel Cabrera expressing support of the Bi-County Parkway, while the business section ran an article about a new report emanating from The Center for Regional analysis at GMU, which concludes that improved highway access would provide only a marginal benefit to Washington Dulles International Airport.

Chasing air cargo a fool’s errand. The Center for Regional Analysis report concludes that “improved western road access” to Dulles would increase demand for air cargo at Washington Dulles International Airport by only 8%. The McDonnell administration has cited the economic-development benefits of Dulles’ air cargo business as one of the main justifications for building the North South Corridor west of Dulles at a guesstimated cost of about $1.5 billion. (The most controversial segment of that corridor is the $400 million Bi-County Parkway.)

Coincidentally or not, the McDonnell administration has been downplaying the air-cargo angle recently. Many Prince William citizens are up in arms over the prospect of thousands of additional tractor-trailers using their roads and highways every day as the result of expanded air-cargo operations. Now it turns out that the aspiration to convert Dulles into a world-class air-cargo center is a pipe dream.

The working paper by David E. Versel, “Factors Affecting Air Cargo Operations at Washington Dulles International Airport,” notes that domestic air-cargo traffic has declined nationally since 2000 due to an intermodal shift from airplanes to trucks and trains. Meanwhile, the odds of gaining market share within a slow-growing international market are slim. The existing international gateways will not be easily displaced. “While opportunities do exist for Dulles Airport to expand its international air cargo activities, it will continue to be at a competitive disadvantage relative to other airports that have more international destinations,” Versel writes.

A 2010 study commissioned by the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) projected air cargo traffic to 2030 by applying trend lines from 1990 to 2006. The volume of air cargo was expected to increase from 746 million pounds in 2006 to 1.76 billion by 2030. “The forecast now seems ambitious,” Versel observes dryly, “as the actual cargo weigh in 2012 had declined to 591 million pounds.” 

A GMU survey of freight forwarders found that traffic congestion around Dulles was a relatively minor factor in decisions whether or not to ship air-cargo in and out of the airport. Schedules, route diversity and capacity were the driving factors. Local traffic congestion was classified as more of an annoyance. “Most air cargo movement occurs overnight,” writes Versel, “and is therefore not very sensitive to the negative congestion on surface highways around airports.” (If cargo transloaded to trucks moves mainly at night, it’s worth noting, foes’ fears of tractor-trailers creating congestion- and safety-related issues are probably exaggerated as well.)

A new rationale. So much for the air-cargo justification. But real estate developers really, really want to build the parkway, which would open up much of eastern Loudoun County for upzoning of projects already on the drawing boards. Enter Angel Cabrera.

Cabrera wants improved connectivity to fast-growing Loudoun County for GMU’s Prince William campus which serves more than 4,000 students and which anchors the county’s Innovation Technology Park. Many faculty and students live in Loudoun, he says. Writing in a GMU blog, he says:

As we continue to invest in this campus, create new programs in high-demand areas and attract millions of dollars in research funding, it is critical that the transportation infrastructure around our campus continues to improve. Both east-west connectivity — which facilitates access to and from our campuses in Fairfax and Arlington and the resources in the National Capital Region — as well as north-south connectivity — which facilitates access to the growing residential and business centers in Loudoun County and our future Loudoun County campus — are critical to our future and our ability to deliver on our mission.

Bacon’s bottom line: Just as the air-cargo ploy goes down in flames, Cabrera seemingly has extended a lifeline to Bi-County Parkway supporters. But has he really? The majority of students at the Prince William campus commute from around the region because there is only one residence hall serving the campus, the GMU president mentions in passing. Hmmm…. Which would be more cost effective — building a couple of dormitory buildings with dedicated revenue streams at $20-$30 million a pop or building the $400 million Bi-County Parkway? Cabrera doesn’t ask that question. But taxpayers should.

Low Truck Volume on Rt. 234? Really?

by James A. Bacon

Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton returned yesterday to his old stomping grounds in Prince William County to make the case to the Board of Supervisors, a body he once chaired, to back the Bi-County Parkway. The board took no action but, Connaughton certainly got a first-hand taste of the controversy the project has engendered.

The Bi-County Parkway is the key missing link in a proposed North-South Corridor that would connect Washington Dulles International Airport to Interstate 95 to the south, providing a free-flowing route for truck traffic and supporting the airport’s bid to become an air-cargo transportation hub. Opponents fear that the parkway would open up Prince William’s so-called “rural crescent” for development and disrupt commuting patterns along U.S. 29 and Rt. 234.

Connaughton argued that the parkway is needed to accommodate future transportation growth in the region, which is expected to see dramatic population growth by 2040, according to Washington Post coverage of the event. “How are we going to move these people back and forth?” he asked. He downplayed fears that Rt. 234 would be widened and that truck traffic would increasingly use the route to reach Dulles. Reports Jeremy Borden:

“We have no intention to widen [Route] 234,” Connaughton said. He also said that the thousands of residents who live along and near Route 234 – and fear living along a new “Outer Beltway” – will not experience huge truck traffic volumes.

Air freight going to the airport is “very low volume, but very high value,” Connaughton said.

Bacon’s bottom line: What’s this? Air freight will be low volume? I would refer readers to the 2005 Dulles Access Study, which projected traffic in and around Dulles to the year 2030. Specifically, I refer readers to page 20, where they will find the following table (my highlights):


Truck traffic to and from the airport will increase 131% to 34,000 trips by 2030. Is an extra 19,300 truck trips daily “low volume?”

Assuming those traffic volumes materialize — and there is ample reason to believe they will not — where will those trucks be heading? Some will hop straight onto the highway to far-away destinations. Others will head to nearby distribution centers where the cargo will be warehoused. Other trucks will pick up the cargo at those distribution centers, and the plan is for them to use the North-South Corridor to reach markets to the north, south and west. Some will divert west along Interstate 66 at Manassas, but others will continue south along Rt. 234 to I-95.

There is only one way that the truck traffic does not materialize, and that’s if the Dulles air-cargo business never takes off. But if the air-cargo business never takes off, guess what else happens? Loudoun and Prince William Counties won’t see the surge in logistics-related economic development that would create the demand for the workers who, with their families, account for the population growth that Connaughton says will require a north-south highway.

As argued repeatedly on this blog, population growth is shifting back toward the urban core to in-fill and re-development projects in Washington, D.C., Arlington County, Tysons, and along the planned Silver Line Metro route. If economic growth and population growth in the wide-open expanses of eastern Loudoun/western Prince William does occur, it will be driven by growth at Dulles. It all hinges on Dulles. If Dulles’ plans don’t pan out, you can kiss much of the projected job and population growth forecasts good-bye.

Connaughton can’t have it both ways. He can’t argue that there will be population growth without the truck traffic. They’re a package deal.

The Eminence Grise Behind the Bi-County Parkway

Robert E. Buchanan. Photo credit: Washington Post.

Robert E. Buchanan. Photo credit: Washington Post.

by James A. Bacon

Everybody who’s followed the politics of real estate development in Virginia has heard the name of John T. “Til” Hazel, the high-profile attorney and developer who did so much to shape the human settlement patterns of Northern Virginia. Hazel was gregarious, combative and willing to campaign like a politician to counter environmentalists, NIMBYs, fiscal conservatives and anyone else who stood in the way of his vision for more taxes, more roads and more real estate development.

Hazel, now in his 80s, is no longer active in the public arena. Filling his shoes is a fellow developer, Robert E. Buchanan, the principal of Buchanan Partners. Unlike Hazel, however, Buchanan does not seek the limelight. He is more content to work from behind the scenes.

Jonathan O’Connell did important yeoman’s work in profiling Buchanan last week in The Washington Post. The article highlighted Buchanan’s role in pushing the controversial Bi-County Parkway near the Manassas Battlefield Park, which is critical segment of a larger North South Corridor that would upgrade highway access to the Washington Dulles International Airport.

Buchanan has development projects around the Washington area, including the building of 175 apartment units over a Harris-Teeter grocery store in Alexandria. In response to shifting market demand, he’s getting out of the McMansion business, he says, and building more apartments. In the 1990s, 2/3s of the housing units he built were detached, single-family dwellings. Today, the figure is closer to 5%.

While he can alter the market mix of what he builds, Buchanan cannot as readily change where he builds. Over the years, he has accumulated a significant portfolio of properties west of Dulles airport, including a 400-acre property near the intersection of Rt. 50 and Rt. 606 known as Arcola Center. During the 2000s, go-go area of Northern Virginia real estate, he planned to build some two million square feet of commercial office space, 800,000 square feet of retail and more than 1,000 homes. But development stagnated when the housing market tanked.

Buchanan was instrumental in the creation of the 2030 Group, an organization of Washington-area developers “focused on advancing regional long-range decision-making and solutions that enable a strong regional economy.” That group, according to the Post‘s O’Connell, spent more than $520,000 over three years on economic research at George Mason University and the University of Maryland projecting the Washington region’s population and GDP growth with the aim of showing that region needs to make a commensurate investment in transportation. As one recent study stated:

The region’s economic future will continue to rely on significant investments in transportation infrastructure — investments that will need to provide key transit support for some economic centers and major support and investments for auto access and connections for almost all economic centers.

The 2030 Group website takes a high-altitude perspective in its research, press releases and blog posts, not staking out positions on specific projects like the Bi-County Parkway. Its primary focus has been to push for greater transportation funding, especially in Virginia.

But Buchanan has taken a personal interest in the Bi-County Parkway. In his article O’Connell describes him as sitting quietly in the fourth row of the auditorium in a Northern Virginia hearing organized by the Virginia Department of Transportation hearing while a crowd of  road opponents strenuously objected.

He also sits on the board of the Washington Airports Task Force, a business coalition that has actively backed the North South Corridor in support the development of a world-class air-cargo hub at Dulles. Also, Russ Gestl, executive vice president of Buchanan Partners, sits on the board of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance, which has been an outspoken supporter of the North-South Corridor and the Bi-County Parkway.

Del. Robert G. Marshall, R-Manassas, describes the Bi-County Parkway a “developer’s road” designed to open up large swaths of Prince William County and Loudoun County to development. Corbelis Development, of instance, has petitioned Loudoun County to rezone 737 acres from one home per three acres to one home per acre — an addition of 802 units — in anticipation of the Bi-County Parkway. I don’t know what Buchanan might have planned for his properties in the corridor but there is little doubt that he would be one of the biggest beneficiaries were the project funded.

Building the Bi-County Parkway and up-zoning land along it, should that occur, would create windfall profits of hundreds of millions of dollars for landowners along the route. I have no problem with developers making profits…. even big profits. They take considerable risks in assembling land, developing a plan, getting it approved, investing millions of dollars in infrastructure and waiting for the market to materialize. Capitalism is a beautiful thing. But I do have a problem with developers racking up windfall profits — reaping private rewards while the public pays the freight — because they worked the political system to get highways and interchanges built near their property. Crony capitalism is an ugly thing.

A Mortgage on NoVa’s Future

Dulles’ speculative bid to become a national air-cargo hub dominates the transportation, growth and economic-development agenda of Northern Virginia. Can it succeed? And if it does, will it crowd out other paths to prosperity?

air_cargoby Reed Fawell III

In 2005 the Washington Airports Task Force (WATF) hired William G. Allen, a transportation planning consultant, to conduct an assessment of surface transportation demand in and around Washington Dulles International Airport. Dulles was in the midst of a $4.1 billion capital improvement program, including construction of new air cargo facilities. Everyone knew the traffic situation in Northern Virginia was bad but WATF wanted to know how bad.

That October, Allen submitted his findings in the “Dulles Airport Access Study.” Without prompt action to stem the rising tide of traffic, he warned, the major transportation arteries around Dulles would be gripped by gridlock by 2015. Northern Virginia was “trying to squeeze a quart-and-a-half of traffic into a pint-sized road system.” By 2030, the region would be paralyzed.

The problems were complex and not readily solved. Loudoun County’s land use plans called for an estimated 29,000 new households within a 15-minute drive of the airport by 2030, while jobs would soar by 99,000 to 201,000. At Tysons, at the other end of the Dulles Toll Road, Fairfax County expected to double the number of vehicle trips generated daily to 500,000. Then there was the impact of Dulles’ own ambitious growth plan to consider. The air cargo initiative would boost large-scale industrial development west of the airport. All together, a tidal wave of growth and development would add a mind-bending 1,100,000 trips per day — including 34,000 tractor-trailers — most of it in an east-to-west direction, through and around Dulles Airport, by 2030.

Compounding the challenge of accommodating the traffic surge, the 17-square-mile airport itself posed a major barrier to county-to-county movement. Traffic originating west of Dulles would have to snake around the airport — along Route 50 on the south and Route 7 on the north, both severely congested even back in 2005 — to reach job centers on the east, and then run the same gauntlet on the return trip.

Despite the devastating numbers, which showed Northern Virginia plunging into traffic sepsis, the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority and its allies have proceeded full bore ahead with their expansion plans. The McDonnell administration is pushing hard to win approval for a series of projects — the Rt. 606 segment of the so-called Dulles Loop, a set of highway improvements circumscribing the airport, and the North-South Corridor, providing access to Interstate highways — that could cost $1.5 billion to $2 billion or more to complete. (No definitive cost estimates have been made.) Yet those investments fall far short of what Dulles needs to become competitive in the air-cargo arena, according to one of the airport’s own studies commissioned in 2009.

The Dulles expansion amounts to one of the biggest economic-development gambits in modern Virginia history — if the multibillion-dollar Rail-to-Dulles METRO line is included as part of the package, nothing comes close. But a Bacon’s Rebellion analysis suggests that the bet may be a head’s-you-win, tails-I-lose proposition. If Dulles succeeds in transforming itself into a world-class air-cargo hub, the ensuing real estate development and traffic will overwhelm the road network in Loudoun and western Fairfax Counties, making the region unlivable for citizens and unattractive to other industries. If the initiative fails, Virginia will have diverted $1.5 billion from other pressing transportation needs to build highways that no one but the airport needs, and the highly leveraged airport authority could find itself financially maimed.

The truly remarkable thing is that, while bits and pieces of the plan have been presented to the public, only a handful of insiders are aware of the full scope of Dulles’ ambition and the risks it entails, not just for Dulles but the entire region. Loudoun County has part of the picture, Fairfax has part. The McDonnell administration is in a position to put the pieces of the puzzle together, but it is not clear if anyone within state government actually has. The general public around Dulles is only dimly aware that a massive industrial and truck-depot zone is part of their planned future. Other than a handful of conservationists and citizens who stand in the path of the planned highways, few are asking whether these massive road investments, or the Dulles air-cargo strategy they are designed to advance, even make sense. Read more.

Source: "Connections between Washington Dulles International Airport and Corridors of Statewide Significance in 2035."

Source: “Connections between Washington Dulles International Airport and Corridors of Statewide Significance in 2035.”

VDOT Terms Conservationist Alternative an Impractical “Thought Exercise”

Traffic on I-66

Traffic on I-66

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.

Battle for the Battlefield

Manassas Battlefield Park Superintendent Ed Clark stands by a federal cannon with a statute of Stonewall Jackson in the background.

Manassas Battlefield Park Superintendent Ed Clark stands by a federal cannon with a statute of Stonewall Jackson in the background.

The Manassas Battlefield has become the scene of yet another irreconcilable conflict: this one between VDOT’s road-building plans, park service preservation goals and local residents protecting their way of life.

by James A. Bacon

As superintendent of the Manassas National Battlefield Park, Ed Clark enjoys regaling visitors with stories about the colorful characters who took part in two of the most important battles of the Civil War. But the administrative aspects of his job require most of his attention. Clark oversees the restoration of historical structures in the park and the updating of exhibits. He directs the plan for restoring the landscape to its 1862 form, which means cutting down some of the woods that have grown up since then, replacing invasive trees with native species, and doing something about those confounded deer. He keeps careful tabs on the private property inside the park and on its periphery. He would love to buy out the handful of property owners who still live within the official park boundaries, and he dreams of acquiring select properties outside the boundaries.

But Clark’s biggest preoccupation these days is traffic… rush hour traffic. The theme that animates his thoughts is how to improve the experience of the roughly 600,000 people who visit the park each year. And traffic congestion, he says, is ruining that experience.

About 24,000 vehicles per day use two two-lane roads — U.S. 29 (Lee Highway) and Rt. 234 (Sudley Road) — that intersect in the heart of the battlefield park. The two roads are direct descendants of the old Warrenton Turnpike and a local dirt road that played key roles during the battles. Clark knows they can’t be restored to their primitive, 19th-century condition but he’s not happy with the way they have been co-opted as regional transportation arteries serving the development sprouting all around in western Prince William County.

For three to four hours each morning and then each evening, traffic stacks up at the intersection near the old Stone House, one of the most visible battlefield landmarks. The driving tour, which many people take because the distances are too far flung to walk within the seven-square-mile park, requires crossing that intersection eight times. “The traffic detracts from the visitor experience,” says Clark. “Basically, it shuts down the park to visitors.”

The superintendent now finds himself embroiled in a political slugfest worthy of the artillery duel where General Thomas J. Jackson was said to stand as steadfast as a stone wall. But the 21st-century conflict is more complex and more drawn out. Manassas Battlefield sits athwart the route of a four- to six-lane highway that the McDonnell administration wants to run from the City of Manassas past Dulles airport. Local landowners, smart growth groups and even many local Republican legislators don’t want to see this rural corner of Northern Virginia developed.

Clark says he is doing his best to reconcile the park service’s preservation goals with McDonnell administration transportation policy, all the while respecting the rights of local landowners. He is negotiating a “programmatic agreement” with the Virginia Department of Transportation that would allow the state to run a major north-south highway past the western edge of the park, sharing alignment with a portion of a planned battlefield bypass that will loop around the northern periphery. In exchange, the park service would get to close the north-south segment of Rt. 234 inside the park and, when the bypass is complete sometime in the indefinite future, close the east-west segment of Rt. 29.

“We’re at the end game of a lot of conversations,” he says. Now the negotiations have boiled down to minimizing the footprint of the highway and mitigating its noise and visual impact.

But Clark may not be as close to the end game as he thinks. Only recently have citizens gotten wind of the details of the draft programmatic agreement, and they’re fired up.

“We feel like sacrificial lambs. Our way of life, our quality of life, our ability to live here” are all threatened,” says Page Snyder, daughter of the legendary Annie Snyder, who successfully spear-headed resistance to a regional mega-mall next to the battlefield park in 1988 and a Disney theme park five years later.

Snyder is one of roughly 100 property owners along Pageland Lane who will be directly affected by the agreement. But neither she nor they act like lambs being led to slaughter. Local foes of the proposed plan have packed public gatherings by the hundreds, joined forces with Smart Growth groups, recruited six Republican General Assembly members and Rep. Frank Wolf, R-10th, to their side, extracted a promise from the Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB) to delay accepting a Master Plan for the proposed North-South Corridor of Statewide Significance, and persuaded the Prince William board to delay a vote affirming its support for the Bi-County Parkway, the linchpin of the North-South Corridor.

The outcome appears very much up in the air. Continue reading

A Bump in the Road

Under withering criticism for a lack of transparency, the Commonwealth Transportation Board has agreed to a one-month delay before formally endorsing the McDonnell administration’s vision for the North-South Corridor.

by James A. Bacon

Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton, a former chairman of the Prince William County board, is a key driver behind the North-South Corridor.

Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton, a former chairman of the Prince William County board, is a key driver behind the North-South Corridor.

In deference to a scathing letter from Congressman Frank Wolf, R-10, and personal appeals from two members of the General Assembly, the Commonwealth Transportation Board voted Wednesday to delay formal acceptance of the Northern Virginia North-South Corridor Master Plan by a month.

Any recognition of the master plan would have been purely symbolic — it represents no more than an aspirational vision for a north-south multimodal corridor west of Washington Dulles International Airport. Blocking the plan would not thwart any of the specific projects discussed within it. And the deferral was equally symbolic. Not a single member of the CTB expressed reservations of any kind about the plan. Its acceptance in June seems pre-ordained.

But in the trench warfare over new transportation projects, warring parties place great stock in even symbolic victories and defeats. And opposition to the linchpin segment of the 45-mile North-South corridor, the so-called Bi-County Parkway (also referred to as the Tri-County Parkway), is intense. The crux of the conflict centers on the alleged necessity of routing the Parkway through or around the Manassas National Battlefield Park. The interests of stakeholders as varied as the McDonnell administration, the National Park Service, Northern Virginia commuters and residents of nearby farms and subdivisions seem largely irreconcilable.

Approval of the Bi-County Parkway, which is moving along its own bureaucratic track, is not contingent upon acceptance of the North-South master plan. But accepting the master plan would confer legitimacy upon the Parkway. And that was enough to goad several Prince William County residents to travel to Richmond to address the CTB and to inspire two elected officials, Del. Tim Hugo, R-Centreville, and Bob Marshall, R-Manassas, to endure four hours of CTB tedium in order to speak on the behalf of constituents who had packed previous Northern Virginia gatherings to protest plans for the parkway.

Tim Hugo

Tim Hugo

“Normally, we can’t get 15 people to a town hall meeting. We had 400 people show up,” Hugo told the CTB. “Congressman Wolf is not a flamethrower. I’m not a flamethrower.” But both are concerned by how the project is progressing. The Bi-County Parkway, the delegate said, will create “a traffic armageddon.”

But the Parkway had its defenders, including representatives of the Loudoun County and Prince William chambers of commerce and an aide to Loudoun County Board Chair Scott York. Brian Fauls, manager-government affairs for the Loudoun Chamber, said Loudoun needs a north-south highway to improve access to Dulles airport. Like the ports in Hampton Roads, Dulles is regarded as an economic engine of the state. But unlike Hampton Roads, which is served by five existing Corridors of Statewide Significance, Dulles is served by none. The North-South corridor would remedy that deficiency.

Richard McCary, past-president of the Committee for Dulles, also pointed out that the corridor is needed to serve the massive population growth in eastern Loudoun/western Prince William projected by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.

The Master Plan outlines several components to the corridor. One piece already exists — Rt. 234 (the Prince William Parkway), which runs from Interstate 95 to Manassas. The corridor would continue north past the Battlefield Park and through the rural, western reaches of Prince William County — the Bi-County Parkway — and then tie into a northern segment aligned with Northstar Boulevard in Loudoun. Additional pieces of the corridor would include an east-west link to Dulles airport and a widening of Rt. 606 on the airport’s western edge. VDOT has not yet developed a cost estimate for the projects.

The great sticking point is the middle segment where it would run along the western edge of the battlefield and through the so-called “rural crescent” of Prince William. According to the latest version of a deal negotiated between the National Park Service and the Virginia Department of Transportation, the Bi-County Parkway would align with the western half of a proposed battlefield bypass. When the Bi-County parkway is built, park authorities would close Rt. 234, a parallel north-south road that runs through the center of the park, and install unspecified traffic-calming measures on a section of U.S. 29 that runs east-west through the park. Traffic on those two roads, which park officials say disrupts the visitor experience, carry roughly 24,000 cars a day. In theory, completing the eastern half of the bypass will improve conditions for east-west commuters, but no one has identified a source of funds for that project. Continue reading.

VDOT to Study Potomac Crossings

Area covered by VDOT Potomac-bridges study.

by James A. Bacon

Three days ago the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) issued an innocuous press release announcing that it would sponsor and fund a study of future travel demand across the Potomac River. Specifically, the study will focus on cross-river traffic and demand between the Route 15 crossing north of Leesburg to the Route 301 crossing some 60 miles to the southeast.

Stated the press release: “The study will develop a common set of data from which Virginia, D.C. and Maryland can discuss approaches to ease congestion and increase multi-modal mobility among the three jurisdictions. The study will define the problem, not recommend the solution.”

Can you spot the asymmetry in this arrangement? Virginia, Maryland and D.C. will collaborate to study the demand for cross-river transit but Virginia will pay for the study.

Why would Maryland not help chip in to cover the cost? An October letter from Maryland’s Acting Secretary of Transportation Darrell B. Mobley to Virginia Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton provides a clue:

The Maryland Department of Transportation’s (MDOT’s) highest priority remains the preservation of our existing infrastructure and the safety of the traveling public. MDOT does not intend to revisit the years of debate regarding new crossings of the Potomac River.  We are interested in the study of potential improvements to existing crossings, including: The Governor Nice Bridge along the U.S. 301 corridor, the American Legion Bridge on the Capital Beltway, and the potential addition of transit across the Wilson Bridge. … We believe that exploring the concept of additional crossings of the Potomac at this time could create unrealistic expectations and defer the time and resources that should be dedicated toward addressing regional needs by improving our existing crossings.

… I recognize that this may alter your willingness to pursue the study as you envisioned, but our staff participation would be contingent upon constraining any analysis to the existing crossings.

The VDOT press release does not state that the study is motivated by a desire to explore an additional crossing, but that’s the conclusion of the Coalition for Smarter Growth and a passel of other environmentalist and smart-growth organizations from the Piedmont Environmental Council to the 1000 Friends of Maryland.

Connaughton, states a joint press release, “is intent on pursuing new bridges.” Last spring Gov. Bob McDonnell had met with Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley to discuss the topic of another Potomac River crossing. McDonnell and Connaughton have been “relentless in pursuit” of a bridge crossing in association with an outer beltway. Meanwhile, VDOT is studying the practicality of building the Tri-County Parkway, a southern link in the outer beltway that would bridge the Potomac.

“It is very odd that Virginia officials keep pressing for new bridges upriver for that would divert scarce public dollars away from urgent needs like fixing existing roads, highways and transit,” stated Dru Schmidt-Perkins of 1000 Friends of Maryland in the press release. “Maryland has consistently pointed out, as they do in their recent letter, that they have much more urgent needs, and this isn’t one.”

So Begins the Fifth Battle of Manassas

Uh, oh, here we go again!

The McDonnell administration wants to build a highway through the Manassas National Battlefield Park and foes are mobilizing to black the initiative. Call the coming clash the Third Battle of Manassas.

Actually, no, don’t. The third battle occurred when mega-developer John. T. “Til” Hazel tried to build a giant mall next to the battlefield back in 1988. A fourth took place in 1994 when the Walt Disney Company tried to develop a major theme park near the battlefield, suffering a defeat as ignominious as General John Pope’s. So, it looks like the latest controversy is shaping up as the figurative Fifth Battle.

Last year, at the bidding of the McDonnell administration, the Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB) ordered the Virginia Department of Transportation to begin developing a master plan for a north-south “corridor of statewide significance” on the western periphery of metropolitan Washington. That corridor would align with a long-proposed Tri-County Parkway that would link Interstate 95 with Washington Dulles International Airport.

Recently, VDOT has sought an agreement with the National Park Service to build the highway on 20 to 35 acres of land within and adjacent to the battlefield. Last week a coalition of conservation and smart-growth groups — the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), the Piedmont Environmental Council (PEC), the National Parks Conservation Association, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Coalition for Smarter Growth — submitted formal comments detailing the project’s shortcomings.

“The proposed ‘Tri-County Parkway,’ with its 200-foot-wide right-of-way, up to six traffic lanes, and increased traffic and noise, would damage Manassas Battlefield’s historic character, trigger new development and traffic, and would set a bad precedent for building new highways through national battlefields and national parks across the nation,” stated the five organizations in a joint press release.

“Not since the threat of the Disney theme park in 1994 has Manassas National Battlefield been at such risk,” said Chris Miller, president of the PEC. “We urge Governor McDonnell and other decision makers to reject VDOT’s proposed highway in favor of a lower impact alternative.”

“Given the national significance of the battlefield park, VDOT should analyze all feasible and prudent alternatives to the new highway, but it has failed to do so,” said Morgan Butler, senior attorney for the SELC. “Moreover, the impacts of both the Tri County Parkway and the Manassas Battlefield Parkway should be analyzed together.”

The coalition is pressing for a “low-build alternative” that would focus on improvements to east-west commuter routes like I-66 and Highway 50, and upgrades to local roads that would avoid unnecessary noise and traffic impacts on the battlefield.

The McDonnell administration and its Northern Virginia business backers say that a north-south corridor is needed to provide congestion relief and expedite air cargo shipping in and out of Dulles. Such a corridor also might lead, in the indefinite future, to an additional crossing of the Potomac River.