A presentation on the Bi-County Parkway on Tuesday evening was sparsely attended.
Since hiring a D.C.-based public relations firm to improve its messaging, the Virginia Department of Transportation has stepped up its efforts to build public support for the Bi-County Parkway project, a ten-mile connection between Prince William and Loudoun Counties west of Dulles Airport and Manassas battlefield.
The public relations campaign continued Tuesday night inside a Loudoun County high school, where VDOT held an information meeting loaded with maps, charts, and details of VDOT’s latest proposed agreement with the National Park Service to potentially pave over four acres of battlefield land in exchange for closing Rt. 234 inside the battlefield—once the Bi-County Parkway is built.
The meeting was sparsely attended. Many local residents who showed up seemed to have already made up their minds to oppose the project.
“I have a preconceived idea of what I think is right,” said Lisa Abeel. “I do oppose the project from what I knew prior to coming to this meeting.”
When asked if VDOT’s information might have changed her mind, she responded, “I felt that the presentation boards were so [badly] put together, similar to what a fifth grader would do. They are pretty bad.”
Her friend Jill Monk agreed. “I came as a skeptic and I’m even more opposed. The way they have thought through the project has been really disappointing.” Both Monk and Abeel said they donate to the Piedmont Environmental Council, a group that adamantly opposes the Bi-County Parkway.
VDOT’s plans have raised a range of issues, provoking critics to label the project an “outer beltway.” While proponents contend the parkway is necessary to reduce traffic congestion by providing a missing north-south link between two quickly growing counties as well as access for travelers and cargo-carrying trucks to Dulles Airport, opponents have questioned each and every VDOT claim.
They have pointed to the agency’s own traffic counts that show far greater demand for east-west travel, questioned the plausibility of expanding the airport’s cargo capacity, and raised hackles over giving up hallowed Civil War ground for a highway that could displace or infringe upon dozens of homes near Manassas.
“On any project we do there are skeptics and we impact people on mostly every project we do, and we understand that, and we will try to mitigate a lot of those concerns when we get to the design phase,” said Tom Fahrney, VDOT’s project manager.
While no funding is currently allocated to build the parkway, the agency is pressing ahead in the approval process. Fahrney said he hopes to have a final agreement signed by the end of the month with the National Park Service to pave over the western fringe of Manassas National Battlefield Park.
The Federal Highway Administration (FHA), Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, and Virginia Department of Historic Resources are also signatories to the agreement. Once signed, Fahrney said VDOT expects to receive final approval from FHA on its environmental impact study by the end of the year—a key milestone.
“This is dependent on when the federal government goes back to work, but the best case is that we can get a programmatic agreement signed at the end of October. We would then submit the final environmental impact statement to [FHA],” Fahrney said.
A small group of protesters with a long banner reading “No Outer Beltway” stood off to the side inside the large meeting room. They claimed VDOT officials angrily asked them to leave the premises but a local legislator interceded and they were allowed to stay. A VDOT spokesman explained it is the agency’s policy to forbid protestors from demonstrating at public information meetings so people can ask questions and submit comments without feeling intimidated.
Most folks conversed with VDOT officials, peppering them with questions about how a 200-foot wide project in a 600-foot wide corridor would affect their neighborhoods.
“I was reassured by some of what I saw here tonight,” said Bob Reed, a member of Sudley United Methodist Church in Manassas, who fears the closure of Rt. 234 through the battlefield could reduce access to the church. “Thirty percent of our members live to the southeast of the battlefield and there is no access provided without Rt. 234.”
VDOT’s next public meeting on the Bi-County Parkway takes places Thursday night from 6 to 9 p.m. at Stonewall Jackson High School, 8820 Rixlew Lane in Manassas.