MS. REBECCA SHEIR
I'm Rebecca Sheir. Welcome back to "Metro Connection." This week, our theme is Friends and Neighbors and in just a bit, we'll find out how basketball is creating special bonds in one D.C. neighborhood. But first, we turn to a major event that divided friends and neighbors, sometimes whole families. It was the Civil War. And we're just weeks away from the 150th Anniversary of the Second Battle of Manassas, which took place right here in our region and left more than 20,000 killed, wounded or missing.
MS. REBECCA SHEIR
Fast forward to today and we see a very different battle underway at Manassas. And that's the topic of our weekly transportation segment "From A to B."
MS. REBECCA SHEIR
The state of Virginia plans to build a four-lane highway that'll run past the western edge of the Manassas National Battlefield Park. And as Martin Di Caro reports, those plans are sparking an increasingly heated war of words.
MR. MARTIN DI CARO
All right, so where are we headed?
MR. STEWART SCHWARTZ
We're gonna head into the battlefield to the.
When you pass by the open fields and split rail fences that stretch over seven square miles at the Manassas National Battlefield Park, you can picture the massive armies that clashed in late-August 150 years ago.
Confederate troops formed up on these grounds and this land here.
You can imagine General Longstreet's 30,000 troops crashing into the Union flank like a hammer on the third and decisive day of the battle. The current battle of Manassas is not as dramatic and while it also involves maps and roads, the crack of musket fire has faded into history. The new battle is one of competing visions of northern Virginia's future.
The park service should do everything it can to protect the integrity of the entire battlefield and the entire landscape including the full landscape of the Second Battle of Manassas.
Steward Schwartz is the executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. He drove us around the battlefield to point out where the state plans to build what he calls an outer beltway. A four-lane divided highway from Route 7 in Loudoun County to I-66 in Prince William. It would run right past the western edge of the battlefield. Virginia officials say the new road is needed to reduce congestion and better connect residents to their jobs. But Schwartz says it'll turn this hallowed ground into a median strip in a sea of development.
You can end up with the worst of all worlds, which is a new highway, more development sparked on the western and northern boundaries of Manassas Battlefield, more traffic and political pressure to never close the roads to the park.
The current proposal would pave over four acres of battlefield land on the periphery of the property away from where most of the fighting took place.
And imagine the precedent. The Park Service would potentially be agreeing that highway agencies can take historic battlefield land or other park land for highway projects.
Schwartz says the road does not even address the Virginia Department of Transportation's own priorities.
First of all, we've shown that -- and their own studies show that the dominant traffic problem is east-west commuting on I-66, Route 50 and other such roads. Since resources are tight, we need to spend every last dime on helping commuters in those corridors.
This summer is critical to the future of the project. Virginia officials are negotiating with the National Park Service on what amounts to a trade-off. The highway would be built on the battlefield's outskirts in exchange for closing the two main roads that currently carry commuters through the park. Manassas Battlefield superintendent, Ed Clark, supports this plan.
MR. ED CLARK
It would enable us to remove all of the traffic as most folks in northern Virginia are aware of how serious the traffic is along the I-66 corridor. That traffic really does detract significantly from the battlefield experience.
Clark is also lobbying for a separate project that the Park Service has been pushing for decades, the Manassas Battlefield Bypass. It would partly overlap the proposed four-lane highway with the same goal of moving traffic around the battlefield, not through it.
It becomes a balancing act between what you're giving up and what you're gaining.
For every salvo Schwartz fires, the man who leads Virginia's Department of Transportation has a return volley. Secretary Sean Connaughton says the new highway would help the battlefield.
SECRETARY SEAN CONNAUGHTON
That, unfortunately, no one goes to because of the enormous transportation problems getting to the battlefield and once you're there, you can't even cross the street at the battlefield because of the heavy congestion.
To the charge that the new road would spur unwanted development and sprawl, Connaughton says, get real.
The development is there today. This is not the 1980s or '70s. And this is not pristine farmland. There are tens of thousands of homes already there along this right-of-way.
Don't believe him? Connaughton says check for yourself.
I really, really encourage folks to go onto Google satellite. Go onto Google maps. Look at the map. Look at reality -- what's there today. The growth is there.
Just as the warring sides 150 years ago both claimed to be fighting for freedom, the two sides today both claim they're fighting for the same thing, the future of Manassas and better transportation in northern Virginia. There are no Stonewall Jacksons or heroic stands this time around, but the outcome of this battle will bring lasting changes to historic ground nonetheless. I'm Martin Di Caro.
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