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Virginia Officials Explore Expansion Of Route 50

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Residents quizzed Virginia officials at a public meeting yesterday on proposals to expand roadway capacity west of Dulles Airport.
WAMU/Martin Di Caro
Residents quizzed Virginia officials at a public meeting yesterday on proposals to expand roadway capacity west of Dulles Airport.

The Virginia Department of Transportation is studying expanding Rt. 50 to six or eight lanes to improve access to the western side of Dulles International Airport, part of the agency’s controversial plan to expand highways to connect the proposed Bi-County Parkway to the airport for better movement of cargo freight and airline passengers.

VDOT presented dozens of aerial maps to curious homeowners during the latest in a series of public meetings on the Bi-County Parkway plan Thursday night in Ashburn, Va. The maps were marked with dotted lines outlining the different possible paths of the “Air Cargo, Passenger, and Metro Access Highway,” the official name for the proposed limited access connection to the developing western side Dulles.

“We believe either of these alternatives would help relieve local congestion that is experienced today and would be experienced in the future,” said VDOT project manager Tom Fahrney, referring to the three alternatives in two corridors now under consideration.

The alternatives range in cost from an estimated $257 million to $1 billion. The least expensive plan under consideration would extend the proposed Bi-County Parkway on the same alignment as Northstar Boulevard (a north-south road west of the airport), then swing east on a new alignment south of Broad Run to connect to a planned interchange at Dulles Airport, part of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority’s master plan to develop as much as six million additional square feet of property partly for cargo space.

The most expensive alternative would expand Rt. 50 between the Bi-County and Loudoun County Parkways by constructing an elevated four-lane highway in the median, bringing Rt. 50 to eight lanes. The elevated road would descend to grade level at the Loudoun County Parkway where it would act as a separate, limited access connection to the airport.

The third alternative, estimated at $400 million, would expand Rt. 50 to six lanes and the Loudoun County Parkway to eight lanes, both being converted to limited access for cargo hauling trucks as well as motorists trying to get to their flights faster.

“Without improvements in the corridor, Rt. 50 would operate at level service F in the year 2040,” Fahrney said. “Both corridors and all the alternatives improve local congestion in our study area.”

In a May 14 letter to Governor Bob McDonnell, Virginia Congressman Frank Wolf urged the administration to slow down its push to have the project approved.

“I have spoken to officials at the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority and have been told proponents of the North-South Corridor should not claim the project will lead to an increase in cargo being handled at the airport,” Wolf said.

When asked if VDOT was over estimating the demand for cargo space at Dulles, Fahrney responded, “That’s something you’d have to talk to MWAA about.”

The proposed connection from the Bi-County Parkway (which opponents disparagingly refer to as an “outer beltway”) to Dulles agrees with Loudoun County’s long-term transportation plan. County Supervisor Matt Letourneau (R-Dulles) supports improving the road network west of the airport – with reservations.

“There are very legitimate concerns about some of the localized issues regarding the specific route,” Letourneau said. “But you can never alleviate unless you study it and you understand it, and at the end of the day make an informed decision.”

Critics contend an expanded road network would attract hundreds of noisy freight-hauling tractor trailers to the quiet rural areas. Those trucks are coming anyway, Fahrney said.

“Our fear is if a limited access highway is not built, those trucks will find their way through neighborhoods to get to the airport and it could have impacts on existing neighborhoods,” he said.

The airport connection would displace as many as 16 homes and businesses or as few as four, depending upon which alternative is chosen, according to VDOT engineering studies.

Many of the approximately 100 local residents who attended the Thursday night meeting inside a school auditorium seemed to be learning of the project’s details for the first time, but there were some opponents in attendance already convinced it should not be built.

“Dulles is land-locked airport. It has no seaport, it has no railroad. Air cargo is a very expensive way to move goods,” said Bonnie Mattingly, a resident of western Loudoun County and local environmental activist. “Air cargo at Dulles is not going to develop in the way some of the supporters have said.”

Others saw a personal benefit to more highway lanes in a rapidly developing part of Northern Virginia.

“Each option would be an improvement. I can see with the development happening in Loudoun, there is no way the current roads will sustain the future. I don’t want to stand for hours on the roads.” said Mrinal Singh, an accountant who drives from his home in Brambleton to Reston for work.

The public has two weeks to comment of VDOT’s proposal.

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