CG/LA Infrastructure's InfraBlog
Thursday, August 8, 2013 11:15 am
Virginia Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton faced a rough crowd, mostly opponents of the proposed Bi-County Parkway, when he returned home to the Prince William County Board of Supervisors chambers Tuesday.
He was there to talk about the controversial Manassas-area roadway as well as long list of other road projects he said are possible now that the state’s transportation coffers are flush with new tax dollars.
Connaughton said new transportation taxes will funnel about $1 billion dollars to area improvements over the next five years, including projects to widen Interstate 66, U.S. 1 and Va. 28, extend Virginia Railway Express service to Haymarket, support an experimental ferry service from Woodbridge to Washington and further explore extending Metro service to eastern Prince William County.
“We think there are some major, major opportunities for transit in the Route 1 corridor,” Connaughton, a Triangle resident and former chairman of the county board, told many of his former colleagues.
But the crowd of about 150, who packed the board chambers and several overflow seats, came to hear Connaughton talk about the Bi-County Parkway — a road many oppose because they say it will spoil undeveloped and protected land in the Manassas National Battlefield Park and exacerbate commutes into Washington because of related plans to close Va. 234 Business (Sudley Road) once the 10-mile road is built.
Connaughton’s hour-long presentation detailed several reasons Virginia Department of Transportation officials believe the road is essential to meet the future transportation needs of Prince William and Loudoun counties, which are projected to grow faster in the next three decades than most other communities in the Washington metro area.
“The growth is not only people in these places, but there will be tremendous job growth in and around these counties,” Connaughton said. “These two put together mean tremendous demands on your transportation system.”
But Connaughton also repeatedly said the Bi-County Parkway, which would stretch from Interstate 66 to U.S. 50 partially along the western edge of the battlefield, is years away from completion.
The road is currently tied up in negotiations with the National Park Service, the Federal Highway Administration and state and federal historical preservation agencies, all signatories to a federally-required “programmatic agreement” that must be completed before VDOT can move forward with the next step: an environmental impact study for the road.
Connaughton said the road, estimated to cost more than $400 million, has yet to be funded or designed, all of which will take more time.
Connaughton also sought to allay concerns about increased cargo traffic on the road as well as related long-term plans to connect the Bi-County Parkway to Interstate 95 in Dumfries via a widened Va. 234.
Supervisors Maureen Caddigan, R-Potomac, and Marty Nohe, R-Coles, pressed Connaughton about the so-called “North-South Corridor,” a 45-mile project outlined in a study approved in June by the Commonwealth Transportation Board, an appointed panel with the authority to approve state road projects.
Caddigan has said the project threatens to turn Va. 234 into a six-lane, limited-access highway and would result in closing key intersections, including those at Waterway Drive and Spriggs and Purcell roads.
“This is about big trucks taking cargo to Dulles Airport,” Caddigan said in a recent interview. “The whole idea of it bothers me and I feel like I have to speak out.… Even if it is 2040 … I feel we have a responsibility and an obligation to ask these questions.”
But Connaughton insisted those plans would likely remain on the shelf. The state has neither the money nor the motivation, he said, to pursue the expanded North-South Corridor project. He also assured supervisors there are no plans to include high-occupancy or toll lanes on Va. 234.
“We have no intent, in fact it’s nowhere in our plan,” he said.
Regarding truck traffic on the Bi-County Parkway, Connaughton said most trucks currently take U.S. 17 south of Dulles Airport to I-95, to avoid congestion in Prince William and Stafford counties, and would likely continue to do so even if the Bi-County Parkway is built.
Pressed by Supervisor Pete Candland, R-Gainesville, about earlier VDOT assertions that moving cargo is a major reason for the road, Connaughton it would be “a different kind of freight,” specifically low-volume, high-value items like fresh flowers, seafood and microchips.
“It all goes by air freight because it is too valuable to put on a ship,” Connaughton said.
But the comments about truck traffic, and Connaughton’s refusal to answer Candland’s question about whether Sudley Road/Va. 234 in the battlefield would be closed prior to the completion of the full Manassas Battlefield Bypass, an unfunded federal road project, prompted jeers and applause.
Connaughton repeatedly extended his hand back toward the audience, admonishing them to “Stop!”
“Excuse me?” someone in the crowd replied.
After Connaughton left the chamber to meet with reporters, about 30 people took to the podium to speak out against the Bi-County Parkway, including state Del. Robert Marshall, R-Manassas, who remains opposed to the road.
Connaughton conceded he likely changed few minds. Nearly all transportation projects inspire opposition, he told reporters, because they are “big and ugly and messy.”
Asked about his personal goal for the road, Connaughton said he hopes to get the programmatic agreement signed and the environmental study completed by Jan. 16, 2014 – suggesting that the future of the road will likely be decided by Virginia’s next governor.
“That’s the day I leave office, by the way,” he added. “And then other people can make a decision about the road.”