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Virginia Pushes For 'Outer Beltway' That Critics Say Isn't Needed

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Opponents of the so-called "Outer Beltway" say that Virginia traffic numbers show that the new roadway isn't needed.
Martin Di Caro
Opponents of the so-called "Outer Beltway" say that Virginia traffic numbers show that the new roadway isn't needed.

Virginia transportation officials are pressing ahead with plans for a major north-south highway connecting I-95 in Prince William to Rt. 7 in Loudoun County, even as VDOT figures show the far greater demand for lane capacity lies on east-west routes, with the exception of Rt. 28 where it intersects I-66.

The Virginia Department of Transportation has released its traffic study for the proposed 'north-south corridor of statewide significance,' a 45-mile, multilane highway running west of both Dulles Airport and Manassas Battlefield and also connecting I-66 and Rt. 50. The study, based on population and job growth projections, found that if the new highway—the bi-county parkway—is not built traffic would increase significantly on some north-south routes. (The study's executive summary is below.)

"By 2040 we anticipate the bi-county parkway is going to have 45,000 to 61,000 cars per day using the facility between Route 66 and Route 50," said Maria Sinner, VDOT's transportation and land use director in Prince William County.  

Without the new highway "Gum Spring Road, Virginia Rt. 659, anticipates to increase in traffic anywhere from 70 percent to 203 percent," Sinner said. "Rt. 15 is going to increase an additional 11 to 20 percent higher, depending on the segment."

The debate over where Virginia should focus its congestion relief efforts centers on mountains of VDOT statistics showing which roads have the most traffic. Opponents of the proposal to spend an estimated $1 billion to construct another north-south highway—referred to by critics as an "outer beltway"—point to these figures to support their argument.

In Prince William, Rt. 15 (from Rt. 234 to the Loudoun County line) carries about 15,000 vehicles per day, according 2011 VDOT traffic tables. Two other north-south routes, Rt. 234 (from Rt. 29 to Rt. 659) and Rt. 659 (from Rt. 234 to the Loudoun line), carry even fewer cars daily.

The major east-west route in Prince William in the general study area of the north-south corridor, however, is significantly more crowded.  I-66 (from Gainesville to Rt. 234) carries about 60,000 vehicles per day. The exception is the north-south Rt. 28 and its 54,000 daily vehicles. Rt. 28 carries traffic into Fairfax County to I-66 where travelers either turn onto the interstate for east-west movement or continue on Route 28.

"If they are saying that they need this road because of the pressures on Rt. 28 then this investment would be a complete failure, because their own [study] shows there is minimal effect on Rt. 28 north of I-66 if this road were to be built," said Stewart Schwartz of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, a vocal opponent of the proposed bi-county parkway. VDOT's traffic study found that Rt. 28 would see a one to two percent increase in traffic if the new highway is not constructed.

In Loudoun County, the north-south Rt. 659 carries between 8,000 and 16,000 vehicles per day, depending on the segment, while the east-west roadway Rt. 50 carries between 15,000 and 40,000, depending on the segment. Again, Rt. 28 in Loudoun is a north-south highway that carries as much traffic as the east-west routes, but Schwartz says those cars are traveling to job centers near and east of Dulles Airport. The proposed "outer beltway" would lie west of Dulles.

"If you look at current traffic numbers immediately around where this highway would be built around Manassas Battlefield, the traffic volumes north-south are very low, and the dominant traffic problem that we all recognize is on roads like I-66 and Rt. 50," he said.

State transportation officials say they are attempting to tackle both east-west and north-south issues, pointing to plans to expand I-66 along with its interchanges at Rts. 15 and 28. It's not an either-or proposition.

"We need to do both," Sinner said.

Supporters of building the 45-mile highway in the "corridor of statewide significance" also argue a new north-south highway can improve east-west traveling. A driver in Loudoun or western Fairfax trying to get to I-95 today might take Rt. 267 east to I-495 to I-95. A better connection south to I-95 would alleviate that east-west movement, this argument goes. 

Moreover, planners say the case for a new north-south highway in Northern Virginia is obvious when you consider the impact of job and population growth in the region in 20 to 30 years.

Schwartz counters those projections fail to make a convincing case. "A lot of the projections are based on horse trading in between the counties and optimistic thinking."

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