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Virginia Weighs Which Roads To Build

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Proposals to expand roadway capacity west of Dulles International Airport prompted questions from residents in a public meeting last year
Martin Di Caro/WAMU
Proposals to expand roadway capacity west of Dulles International Airport prompted questions from residents in a public meeting last year

The Virginia Department of Transportation presented its proposals to build a highway on the western side of Dulles International Airport at a public hearing in South Riding Tuesday night, two weeks before the public comment period ends on four different plans to improve airport access for passengers and air cargo traffic.

Airport road one of many in planning documents

Officially dubbed the "Dulles Air Cargo, Passenger, and Metro Access Highway," the proposed road would connect the northern end of the planned Bi-County Parkway to a new entrance on the airport’s western side. Neither the Dulles access highway nor the Bi-County Parkway is currently being funded, and both roads — which critics view as pieces of a larger “outer beltway” highway network — face public opposition.

VDOT’s new preferred alternative (pdf), created at the urging of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors, calls for constructing highway express lanes within the Rt. 50 corridor stretching from the Bi-County Parkway to Dulles’ western side.

VDOT studied three other options ranging in cost from an estimated $257 million to $1 billion to help the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority develop as much as six million additional square feet of property at the airport, partly for cargo space.

“We certainly want to wait and see what public comment is going to come out of this, and I know there are strong feelings on both sides,” said Virginia Secretary of Transportation Aubrey Layne. “Of course, this project is not currently funded. And so it will have to go through prioritization.”

Projects will have to compete for dollars

The state’s new transportation "prioritization" process was established by legislation passed by the General Assembly. It requires the influential Commonwealth Transportation Board to use five factors when ranking projects before deciding to allocate funding, including congestion relief and economic development.

“They are projects that are being looked at, and by law we are going to be required to have a score before the final determination is made,” Sec. Layne said. “We are never going to take all the politics out of these projects. But at least it will give the CTB some objective measure of how it stacks up.”

Funding decisions for both the Dulles access highway and Bi-County Parkway are at least 12 months off, Layne said. While the road projects, including planned improvements to Rt. 606 west of Dulles Airport, may be viewed as different pieces of a larger highway system, they do not all have to be approved simultaneously, VDOT officials said.

“All three projects have independent utility and are not dependent on each other. Any of the three could go ahead without the others,” said VDOT project manager Tom Fahrney.

New administration going slower on highways

One criticism often leveled at the McDonnell administration was that it believed it could pave Virginia out of its congestion problems. The new administration — in office just over 100 days — appears to be pursuing road building with less urgency. The legislation establishing the scoring criteria for funding may be the most obvious reason, but Sec. Layne said Governor McAuliffe is committed to reviewing each project on its merits.

“Governor McAuliffe came into office wanting practical solutions to problems and building the right projects,” Layne said.

So far the young administration’s record is mixed.

The governor shelved the costly Rt. 460 project in southeastern Virginia after the state spent $300 million on it, only to learn it lacked the necessary permits from the Army Corps of Engineers. The controversial Bi-County Parkway remains under review after years of study. A stalled study on a new Potomac River crossing received new life after McAuliffe took office, although Maryland remains opposed to building a new bridge connecting the two states.

Groups opposed to highway construction as a means of congestion relief say they are cautiously optimistic the new administration will continue to reevaluate the McDonnell team’s commitment to road building.

“We remained concerned that projects like the Bi-County Parkway would devote limited resources to a new highway corridor that does little to reduce existing congestion and would encourage more and longer trips in Northern Virginia, attract heavy truck traffic, and negatively impact the Manassas battlefield,” said Dan Holmes, state policy director at the Piedmont Environmental Council.

“Virginia has an opportunity to make investments that will substantially improve transportation and land use,” Holmes added. “Improving rail service on the I-95 corridor, expanding VRE service to Gainesville and Haymarket, the Silver Line corridor, and the related improvements to local road, transit, pedestrian access and areas served by transit will make existing conditions better.”

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