Virginia just finished up work on the 495 Express Lanes project and now is about to kick off the next massive transportation plan.
Maps and charts filled a high school auditorium in Loudoun County Tuesday night as the Virginia Department of Transportation held an open house to introduce to homeowners plans for a major north-south corridor in Prince William and Loudoun Counties that would change the face of the region.
The "corridor of statewide significance," as it's been dubbed, is still in the conceptual stages. Neither the exact route of a new highway nor the number of lanes has been decided, but the agency's vision is coming into focus: a dramatic expansion of Northern Virginia's road capacity to benefit commerce, as well as the growth of Dulles Airport into the east coast's largest freight hub.
Skepticism from some residents
Todd Sipe of South Riding, Va., was one of many homeowners who attended the info session who were skeptical of needing a major highway west of the airport.
"I'm concerned that they are going to build a road at six lanes going 60 miles an hour much like the Beltway or Highway 28. They are going to need to do four lanes and they will have to slow it down," he said.
"It seems to be more aimed at industry and transporting freight to Dulles Airport," said Sterling resident Bill Roman. "In terms of our needs here in the county, people commute east-west mostly, not north-south. There are no north-south issues."
The corridor runs 45 miles, arcing west of the airport from Interstate-95 in Prince William County north to Interstate-66, then through Loudon County and ending at Route 7. VDOT officials say a limited-access highway that improves access to Dulles Airport and incorporates HOV lanes and bus lanes would serve the most people.
"We are going to work the best transportation system that we can and meet the needs of the public. There has to be political consensus to do that, said Garrett Moore, VDOT’s Northern Virginia district administrator. "We can limit access. One of the things we'd like to do is get predictable and fast transport, additional capacity and carpools to include express and bus rapid transit."
Limited access would bring in private investment
That limited access is a key point for Loudoun County Supervisor Matt Letourneau, who represents the Dulles district and supports the concept.
"When you talk about limiting access you have two main benefits," he said. "It makes it easier to privatize the road to get it paid for, which is what I think VDOT is primarily interested in. The other benefit is that you can limit development in areas that are undeveloped."
In addition, Letourneau says, the Loudoun County Board has a responsibility to support all the new housing development that is coming to Loudoun County.
"If development is not approved by the board of supervisors a lot of it happens by right. That means the county reaps nothing back in terms of capital benefit and we see the development occur anyway," he said. "I think the important thing to remember is the economic engine that Dulles Airport is. And we really won't see it live up to its full potential unless we improve access to it."
Enviros: Highway would cause sprawl
Some environmental groups are adamantly opposed to this idea, especially if it would absorb any property on the periphery of the Manassa battlefield.
"In the context of our limited resources in Virginia, this is one of the worst expenditures we could make with very limited dollars," said Chris Miller, president of the Piedmont Environmental Council. "The fact that it might be a public-private partnership doesn't change that analysis."
A public-private partnership might also mean new tolls. To Miller, the highway would be an "outer beltway" that would lead to new development in 100,000 acres of land that is now farms and rural subdivisions.
"There's a big choice this region is going to make over the next ten years," Miller added. "Are we going to take advantage of the investment in the Silver Line, or are we going to allow development to occur in this large 100,000 acres. The McDonnell administration is encouraging sprawl by encouraging this highway."
This story is the first in a two-part series. Part two will explore how the new corridor would affect the capacity of Dulles International Airport.