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The Virginia Department of Transportation continues its public relations push to win support for plans to build a major highway in Northern Virginia, fueling accusations the agency is misleading the public about two infrastructure projects.
As VDOT and the National Park Service continued to hammer out the details of an agreement that will let the state build the Bi-County Parkway over the western fringe of Manassas National Battlefield Park in exchange for closing two traffic-clogged roads that cut through the battlefield property, VDOT announced it would help the NPS finish the study and design of a separate but related project that has also spent decades on planning charts: the Manassas Battlefield Bypass.
Completion of the bypass, which would run east-west along the battlefield’s northern edge, would allow the state to close Rt. 29, the major east-west alternative to I-66 that intersects Rt. 234 in the middle of the battlefield, filling tourists’ ears with the sounds of cars and trucks backed up at traffic lights. Rt. 234 would close once the Bi-County Parkway is built.
VDOT’s announcement was meant to boost public confidence that neither Rt. 234 nor Rt. 29 would close before the new highways are completed, and that VDOT’s assistance of $4 million to the NPS would help put both projects on similar timelines.
“Both of these projects, the Bi-County Parkway and the Manassas National Battlefield Bypass, can go forward at the same time. We can finish the planning of it, and do the design concurrently so they are both ready to go,” said project spokesman John Undeland, a representative of the D.C.-based public relations firm Stratacomm, recently retained by VDOT to sell the merits of the Bi-County Parkway to a skeptical public.
“The visitors who come to Manassas National Battlefield have the experience marred by a lot of congestion. It often takes multiple signal sequences to get through the traffic light there. There is a lot of truck traffic that goes right through one of the most historic sites in the country,” he said.
Bi-County Parkway opponents immediately leapt on this news, saying there was nothing actually new about it.
“This was in the plan for at least a year, since 2012, something the Park Service had negotiated with VDOT as mitigation for building a highway through this historic resource,” said Stewart Schwartz, the executive director at the Coalition for Smarter Growth, which opposes large highway projects.
The superintendent of Manassas National Battlefield Park, Ed Clark, confirmed the information in VDOT’s announcement actually dates to last year.
“That's actually not anything new. That's been there for quite some time,” Clark said. “That’s been a part of the proposed mitigation from VDOT close to a year now. We are making progress in having continual conversations with VDOT and all the consulting parties, and I believe VDOT is just trying to show the ongoing process and the variety of things they are offering for mitigation.”
While the Bi-County Parkway ($440 million) is a state project, the Battlefield Bypass is a federal deal with an estimated price tag of $185 million. Congress currently has no funding earmarked for the project, and Clark’s office is planning for its completion as late as 2035.
“The Manassas Battlefield Bypass is on the Constrained Long Range Plan many years in the future so, certainly we are projecting around 2035 in terms of our planning process,” he said.
Critics point to that distant date as evidence that VDOT is raising expectations about a road that no one will actually be able to use as an alternative to Rt. 29 for more than twenty years.
“They are being disingenuous in saying the two highways would likely be constructed together. We don’t see any chance of that given the lack of federal funding for the Manassas Battlefield Bypass,” said Schwartz at the Coalition for Smarter Growth.
Speaking for VDOT, Undeland made clear that neither highway project currently is being funded, so estimating completion dates is not possible.
“Things can change, though. It is really incumbent on the federal government to come up with the money [for the bypass]. How that takes place, what role the congressional delegation may play, remains to be seen. 2035 is not a real date,” Undeland said.