Community Battles Back Against VDOT Construction In Their Backyard | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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Community Battles Back Against VDOT Construction In Their Backyard

Alexandria leaders pledge support to Overlook neighborhood

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Construction is already underway on the new ramp not far from homes in the Overlook community.
Martin Di Caro
Construction is already underway on the new ramp not far from homes in the Overlook community.

For the first time since they began fighting the construction of a highway ramp near their homes, a coalition of eight homeowners' groups in Fairfax County and Alexandria are getting some official help in their battle with the Virginia Department of Transportation.

Alexandria city leaders are pledging to lobby state transportation officials to reconsider the placement of the planned northern terminus of the future I-95 Express Lanes — 30 miles of high-occupancy toll lanes extending from the Edsall Road area in Fairfax County to Garrisonville Road in Stafford County. The $1 billion public-private project is scheduled for completion in December 2014.

Clock is ticking on halting construction

Before winning the public support of Alexandria city hall, the group Concerned Residents of Landmark had been rebuffed by public officials in their bid to convince VDOT to stop construction. One of the group's leaders, Mary Hasty, whose home in Alexandria's Overlook community will stand just 75 feet from the completed exit ramp, says time is running out.

"We're racing against the clock, yes. And my understanding is that VDOT has accelerated the building project of the ramp because they want it to be done so the opposition will stop," Hasty says.

VDOT will begin pile driving at the site next week, a significant step in the building process, but Hasty remains steadfast.

"Even if they've driven the piles, when the public health issue comes to light, they can stop," she says.

Alexandria Vice Mayor Allison Silberberg says the city has a responsibility to represent its constituents.

"Science is convincing, and they had an outside firm that's very prestigious do this research and it is very convincing," Silberberg says. "We are certainly going to make the case from an environmental and health perspective."

Concerned Residents of Landmark spent more than $70,000 to hire the national law firm of Shrader & Associates to perform a traffic and environmental analysis of the project. Their study found backed up traffic on the exit ramp will spew a cloud of pollution in excess of federal safety standards, the group says.

"My biggest concern with VDOT is that they failed to fulfill their requirements under NEPA, the National Environmental Policy Act," says Hasty, who said VDOT did not perform localized studies of pollution impacts on her community.

Reconciling the study findings

VDOT officials dispute the homeowners' accusations.

"Our studies were approved back in the end of 2011, which met all federal and regulatory requirements and that is why we are proceeding with construction today," says John Lynch, VDOT's Northern Virginia megaprojects director. "Their study used a different modeling technique and so we are trying to see why there is a big difference in the outcome of the two models."

The Shrader study says 80,000 people in Fairfax County and Alexandria will be affected by pollution from vehicles exiting I-95, especially from particulate matter equivalent to what was spewed by the coal-fired GenOn electric plant that was closed down last year after a long battle with Alexandria.

"This is a health issue. It's incumbent on our elected officials to carry this message to Richmond," says Herb Treger, the vice president of the board of directors of Watergate at Landmark, a community of 4,000 residents that joined Hasty's coalition.

In order to determine if the project's environmental impacts met federal safety standards, VDOT studied the location with the most traffic volume in the project corridor, the Springfield interchange, Lynch says. That "worst case scenario" conformed to federal standards, clearing the way for construction throughout the corridor, Lynch said.

"For the localized 'hotspot' analysis there are guidelines from the EPA to choose different locations for your project and typically you choose the worst place," Lynch says. "It's a qualitative analysis. If you do it at the worst case scenario then you assume that it is fine everywhere else."

VDOT has no plans to stop construction, and local residents say they have no plans to stop fighting.

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