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Before the McDonnell administration’s final days in office expired, transportation officials moved to complete an agreement with the National Park Service and historic preservation groups to allow the Virginia Department of Transportation to pave the ten-mile Bi-County Parkway over the western edge of Manassas National Battlefield Park.
A final draft of the programmatic agreement — dealing with land use and historic preservation issues — was submitted to the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) where it still sits, the reins of power in Richmond having now transitioned to the Democratic administration of Governor Terry McAuliffe.
The deal has yet to be submitted to five signatories. Its signing would be a key milestone opening the way to final federal environmental approval and possible funding of the project in Prince William and Loudoun Counties. In short, the Bi-County Parkway will never be built unless the agreement is signed by the following: the FHWA, Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, Virginia Department of Historic Resources, VDOT, and National Park Service.
But there is no timetable for this process, raising hope among the project’s opponents that the McAuliffe administration may seek alternatives to building a major highway over a historic Civil War landscape.
When McAuliffe was running for office, he declined to take a position for or against the Bi-County Parkway. During an August debate he emphatically stated, “I do not make decisions, nor will I make decisions, until I have all the facts in front of me.”
McAuliffe promised to look at the proposed north-south highway between I-66 and Rt. 50 before lending his administration’s support. On Monday, a spokeswoman for VDOT said the new administration, including new Secretary of Transportation Aubrey Layne, is reviewing the Bi-County Parkway and the final draft of the programmatic agreement that was the product of the previous administration’s work.
“We are encouraged that Governor McAuliffe is acting on his campaign statement that he would like an opportunity to sit down and really re-evaluate this, and look at it as whether it's a priority,” said Chris Miller, president of the Piedmont Environmental Council (PEC). The group, which generally opposes new road building, was a consulting party to the long running negotiations that produced the programmatic agreement over Manassas Battlefield.
“We are trying to get a reasonable consideration of outstanding issues. Having spent two years looking at the proposal, the parties had identified serious impacts on the park, minimal benefits in terms of reducing traffic inside the park, an increase in traffic around the park on the western edge, and no way of mitigating those impacts,” Miller said. “Our feeling is they have to make a thorough reconsideration of whether there are alternatives that will meet the goal of improving transportation without as many negative consequences.”
The McDonnell administration rejected the group’s list of recommended alternatives, and in a Jan. 9 letter the federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation notified the consulting parties, including the PEC, “We believe that VDOT has made a concerted effort to allow flexibility in the design to develop a highway that minimizes harm to the historic landscape, including a process that ensures collaboration among the consulting parties and signatories.”
Whether the new administration in Richmond will accept the proposed agreement concerning Manassas battlefield is unclear. Sec. Layne, having been in office for just a few days, was not in position to comment on Monday.
Although the signing of the programmatic agreement would be a significant step toward realizing the construction of the Bi-County Parkway, important hurdles would remain.
The FHWA is studying whether a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) – first approved eight years ago – requires additional environmental analysis. Either a supplemental DEIS will be prepared or FHWA and VDOT will proceed to a Final Environmental Impact Statement. But FHWA’s final decision on the project, the Record of Decision, is even further off.
If the federal government eventually approves the Bi-County Parkway, the McAuliffe administration and General Assembly would have to agree to fund it in a highly competitive atmosphere for new revenues created by McDonnell’s transportation funding overhaul. The estimated cost of the ten-mile, limited access highway west of both Manassas battlefield and Dulles Airport is $440 million.