Virginia Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton faced a tough audience at a meeting of the Prince William Co. Board of Supervisors.
Virginia Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton faced a no-win situation.
Invited to speak before the Prince William County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday afternoon about the state’s plans to build a major north-south highway in Northern Virginia, the secretary knew he would change no minds in a room packed with an overflow group of about 200 opponents of the Bi-County Parkway. Wearing t-shirts and pins that expressed their opposition to the ten-mile road project, homeowners derisively laughed at Connaughton’s presentation.
But among those who may possess the most influence in the county—the board of supervisors—Connaughton’s visit, part of the Virginia Department of Transportation’s new push to grow support among local elected officials, was not a total wash. The proposed Bi-County Parkway connecting I-66 and Rt. 50 is still supported by a majority of the Prince William board, which has affirmed the project in public votes and has retained the lane capacity in the county’s comprehensive plan.
“Listen, I appreciate the people here and I appreciate all the comments. We hear folks concerns,” said Connaughton, who twice during the meeting snapped “Stop!” at residents whose audible grumbling or sarcastic laughs interrupted his presentation. “Unfortunately, there is a lot of misinformation and even when we try to show them what this thing would look like they still won’t believe it, because they have heard about it through, you know, blogs or whatever.”
Sec. Connaughton’s presentation was composed of information and traffic projections exclusively reported first by WAMU 88.5 last week.
Virginia’s top transportation official explained to the supervisors that the Bi-County Parkway will be necessary to connect commuters to their jobs in Prince William and Loudoun, provide better access to Dulles Airport from its western side for both travelers and cargo freight trucks, and enable the state to close Rt. 234 through Manassas National Battlefield Park to all but visitor traffic. The Prince William supervisors have sought assurances from Connaughton that Rt. 234, a heavily traveled but narrow north-south commuter road cutting through the heart of the battlefield property, will remain open until the Bi-County Parkway is finished.
Supervisor Pete Candland (R-Gainesville) read aloud a list of names of local, state, and federal officials who either oppose the project or are asking the state to slow down its push, and then asked Sec. Connaughton if VDOT should try to build a highway unpopular with so many elected leaders.
“Every major project we are involved with has major opposition, okay?” Connaughton responded. “It’s just the nature of transportation.” In the secretary’s view—and in the view of county planners—the Bi-County Parkway would help the county control growth. Opponents believe the opposite is true: real estate developers are licking their chops at the prospect of a new highway opening up previously undeveloped land.
Connaughton said the Bi-County Parkway will not create an increase in noisy truck traffic heading for Dulles through Prince William, a claim that prompted more grumbling from residents in attendance. Trucks make up eight percent of all vehicles on existing Rt. 234 today, a percentage that should not significantly change, he said.
After his presentation, Connaughton was asked by reporters if the state can rid the negative label opponents attach to the project, “the outer beltway.”
“Maryland shows no interest in having any sort of beltway so you can put that to rest very quickly, because Maryland has made quite clear that they do not want to see any further Potomac River crossings,” Connaughton said.
Once the secretary departed, members of the public had their change to address the board of supervisors. One local resident’s testimony summed up the sentiment.
“You know that thing, don’t put it in my backyard? Well, don’t put it in Prince William County. Take it out of here,” the woman said.
The Bi-County Parkway’s popularity among the broader public—among the vast majority of residents who do not attend public meetings— remains more difficult to gauge.