Virginia transportation officials expect a key agreement to be reached by the end of the year that would open the way for final federal environmental approval of a controversial highway project next to Manassas National Battlefield Park.
The fourth draft of a proposed agreement among the Virginia Department of Transportation, National Park Service, Federal Highway Administration, Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, and Virginia Department of Historic Resources would allow VDOT to build the Bi-County Parkway over several acres on the western fringe of the Civil War battlefield. In exchange, the state would agree to close Rt. 234 — a congested north-south route — through the battlefield to all but visitor and local traffic.
“We believe the latest version of the [agreement] addresses all of the signatories’ comments and our hope is they will sign by the end of the year. We then can proceed with submitting the Final Environmental Impact Statement to FHWA in January,” said Tom Fahrney, the project’s director at VDOT.
The Bi-County Parkway has been studied for a decade with varying degrees of urgency, but the McDonnell administration has made the $440 million, ten-mile, limited access highway a priority to connect growing job and population centers in Loudoun and Prince William Counties. The signing of the agreement would mark an important first step toward construction, although considerable hurdles remain.
If the Federal Highway Administration approves a final environmental impact statement, the next administration in Richmond would have to commit to funding the project. Governor-elect Terry McAuliffe has yet to take a position either for or against the Bi-County Parkway. Calls and emails to his transition office were not returned. The project also faces intense opposition from some homeowners and environmental groups who say the parkway would push suburban sprawl into land where development currently is limited or prohibited.
“There is currently no real funding attached to it except some preliminary engineering that will enable to scope out what the potential roadway would look like,” said Virginia Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton, who has 34 days left in office.
Sec. Connaughton has criticized the length approval process to date, blaming it on the federal bureaucracy. “It’s been going back and forth forever. It could potentially go back and forth forever, or we could end up seeing finally an agreement from the federal government regarding the mitigation and the scope of the agreement.”
The National Park Service is eager to close traffic-clogged Rt. 234 through Manassas battlefield as part of the proposed agreement with VDOT. The agency views the deal as one step toward that goal.
“There is a lot that would have to take place before a road is actually built. This is a compliance document and there is still a lot of planning, a lot of hurdles to overcome before actual construction takes place,” said Ed Clark, the superintendent of Manassas National Battlefield Park.