A highway proposal 30 years old has been dealt another setback, but not a fatal one. As both supporters and opponents have come to agree over the decades, the Bi-County Parkway is the highway plan that never dies, and the latest development ultimately may only delay, not determine, a final judgment — if one is possible.
The Prince William County planning commission voted on Feb. 17 to remove the parkway from the county’s long-range plan and to study alternatives. The commission succumbed to political pressure from the county’s board of supervisors as well as local opposition to the 10-mile, four-lane highway proposal.
A state project with an estimated $300 million price tag, the north-south Bi-County Parkway would connect Prince William and Loudoun Counties, running west of Manassas National Battlefield Park and Dulles Airport. Opponents view the parkway as a pet project of developers that would divert precious funds from more urgent, east-west transportation needs.
Even with slipping local support, state transportation officials could still back the parkway under a new scoring process for all road and transit projects in the Commonwealth. The highest-scoring projects receive priority for funding.
“It is not dead. I think the action by the planning commission is short-sighted,” said Gary Garczynski, a real estate developer and Northern Virginia representative on the influential Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB).
The CTB has the prerogative to nominate projects for the new scoring process if local jurisdictions decline to do so. Thus, opposition in Prince William County would not necessarily stop the CTB from elevating the Bi-County Parkway for evaluation.
“The soonest it would be is next year,” said Garczynski, a Bi-County Parkway booster whose term on the CTB ends this June.
Bi-County Parkway controversy reflects region-wide debate
The parkway epitomizes the debate over transportation priorities in the Washington region. With more needs than could possibly be funded in the short-term, such projects pit transit advocates and environmentalists against highway builders and some members of the business community.
The former generally oppose all road expansions as wasteful and at odds with the region’s goal of multi-modalism and emissions reductions. The latter argue the parkway is necessary to accommodate population growth and connect workers to jobs where the north-south road system is lacking.
“For us, this is about access. Obviously, our region is outside of the Beltway. One of the main issues we have is traffic congestion,” said Brendon Shaw, the director of government relations at the Prince William Chamber of Commerce, a parkway supporter.
“We are very happy with some of the things that are happening on I-66. That will obviously have a great impact on east-west issues, but we also have major north-south issues. Some of our existing roadways are just packed,” he said.
The Virginia Department of Transportation is moving ahead with plans to build HOT lanes on I-66 both inside and outside the Beltway. HOV carpoolers would ride free. Single-occupant commuters would pay a toll for the guaranteed faster trip. But the Bi-County Parkway, once a priority of former governor Bob McDonnell, has been on hold.
After Gov. Terry McAuliffe took office, the idea of removing politics from the transportation decision-making process took shape in House Bill 2. The legislation created the scoring process for future projects.
The Bi-County Parkway was not “nominated” by local officials for the first round of scoring. But, as Garczynski contends, the CTB may not forget about the highway whose origins date to the mid-1980s.
“There will come a time when north-south routes will have to be looked at again,” Garczynski said. “If nothing happens with the Bi-County, routes like 29 and 234 that run through the battlefield will continue to be plagued as a bottleneck with backups that will run for miles.”
Opponents plan to continue the fight
The move by the Prince William planning commission to kick the Bi-County Parkway off the county’s comprehensive plan can be viewed only as a temporary setback, according to Chris Miller, the president of the Piedmont Environmental Council, who contends the project would damage Manassas National Battlefield Park and open up new lands to developers.
“I don’t think the proponents are ever going to drop the project,” Miller said. “Underlying their interest in transportation is the fact that many have a long-standing property interest to bring a major infrastructure investment in the form of a highway through areas they still own property in.”
“It's not a priority of local government. It's not a priority of state government. It's a priority of the proponents of the road,” said Miller, who said he has been fighting the proposal since 1986.
Gov. McAuliffe spoke favorably of the Bi-County Parkway early in his term, but now his top transportation official is withholding further judgement until the project is scored under House Bill 2.
“I don't want to prejudge what may or may not be scored,” said Virginia Secretary of Transportation Aubrey Layne.
Sec. Layne declined to comment on the Prince William planning commission’s anti-parkway vote, but added, “It is very important for a transportation project to succeed to have local support.”
Still a complicated picture
The Bi-County Parkway has been in county-level planning documents in both Prince William and Loudoun for decades. The Virginia Department of Transportation also has studied it for years. But the parkway cannot be built without federal approval.
The National Park Service has supported the project along the western fringe of the Manassas battlefield so it could displace traffic that clogs the local roads crisscrossing the national park. But federal officials report no progress in negotiations that would allow Virginia to build the parkway over part of the hallowed Civil War ground.
VDOT must receive environmental approval from the Federal Highway Administration to pave over about 12 acres of the battlefield property, under previous terms of an agreement that has been on hold for two years. In exchange, the state would cede control of Route 234 so the NPS may close it to north-south traffic that noisily invades the tranquil Manassas fields.
Any agreement would require the approval of five bodies: Federal Highway Administration, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, VDOT and the National Park Service.