Virginia transportation officials are drawing closer to an agreement with the National Park Service as part of a plan to build a major four-lane divided highway connecting Route 7 in Loudoun County to Interstate-66 in Prince William County, what opponents charge will be the first piece of an outer beltway in northern Virginia.
Negotiations with the Park Service involve a proposal to build the new road along the western edge of Manassas National Battlefield Park in exchange for closing - except to visitors - the two heavily traveled roads (Routes 234 and 29) that currently crisscross the park.
The new bi-county parkway would pave over 12 acres of the Manassas historic district and four acres of actual battlefield land on the periphery of the property away from where most of the fighting occurred during the Second Battle of Manassas from Aug. 28-20, 1862. As the 150th anniversary of that key Confederate victory approaches, opponents say the new road will create more sprawl and development, turning the hallowed ground into a "median strip."
"Imagine the precedent," says Stewart Schwartz, the executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. "The Park Service would potentially be agreeing that highway agencies can take historic battlefield land or other park land for other highway projects."
Schwartz says plans to build major highways in northern Virginia have been pushed for decades. In the late 1980s, a study that examined the possible construction of a Washington Bypass west of the capital was rejected by the governors of Virginia and Maryland.
"We've shown - 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," says Schwartz, who says the state's traffic data show there is less need for a north-south corridor.
"Very clearly they are putting together the pieces of a circumferential highway in northern Virginia, and they've pressed Maryland for bridge crossings," Schwartz says.
Manassas Park superintendent supports the plan
"It becomes a balancing act between what you are giving up and what you are gaining," says Ed Clark, the superintendent of Manassas National Battlefield Park.
For giving up a few acres out of seven square miles of battlefield ground, the National Park Service hopes to gain a better experience for tourists. The Commonwealth Transportation Board understands that the National Park Service will not agree to a new highway along the Manassas battlefield's western edge unless Routes 234 and 29 are closed through the park, Clark says.
"The road we are primarily interested in is the Manassas Battlefield Bypass," he says, referring to a separate project that would circle the western and northern park boundaries, overlapping a future north-south highway along the battlefield's western side.
"It would enable us to remove all of the [park] traffic, as most folks in northern Virginia are aware how serious the traffic is along the I-66 corridor," Clark says. "That traffic does detract significantly from the battlefield experience from this hallowed ground."
A Battle over growth
While opponents believe a new highway from Loudoun to Prince William County will open up new lands for development, supporters, including Virginia Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton, say anyone who looks at Google Earth can see that residential growth is already crowding the Manassas battlefield.
In Connaughton's view, a four-lane divided highway would serve several purposes. "Prince William and Loudoun Counties are two of the fastest growing jurisdictions in the country," he says. "We are trying to make better connectivity between the counties to deal with current and future population growth, and to also open up the commercial development area on the back side of Loudoun County."
Virginia is also working with the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority to establish Dulles Airport as a cargo hub, which new road infrastructure would help facilitate.
"When you put all these together, it makes sense for the state to move forward and try to make this thing a reality," Connaughton says. "It's been on the books for a very, very long time. It's not an outer beltway."
"I really encourage folks to go on Google satellite and see that this isn't about opening up areas for future growth. Look at the map. Look at the reality of what is there today. The growth is there."
Smart growth advocates say there are better ways to deal with current growth and traffic congestion. The proposed highway is not the answer. "You could wind 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 through the park," Schwartz says.
Developers are pushing for more roads in order to lobby for zoning changes that would clear the way for more homes and commercial properties to be built in Loudoun and Prince William Counties, Schwartz says.
As evidence, Schwartz points to a February 2011 meeting of the Virginia Commonwealth Transportation Board. Board member and developer Gary Garzinski made clear his intention to seek a major north-south connection "from 95 or 234 extended up to a corridor, up to and including Route 50... that would extend Route 234 to Route 50 to join what is called the Dulles Loop that gives access to Dulles Airport to more people from the south," according to a transcription of the board meeting.
In a letter to the Transportation Planning Board of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments in February, smart growth advocates proposed several alternative solutions to address east-west traffic congestion in northern Virginia.
The proposals included "improving I-66, including the extension of HOV and bus lanes; funding and expanding the capacity of the Gainesville Interchange... co-locating Route 29 onto the improved I-66 to allow Route 29 to be closed through the Battlefield; upgrading Pageland Road west of the Battlefield with shoulders, roundabouts at intersections, and turn lanes..."
"Bi-County Parkway" moving forward
The state's environmental impact study of the new highway is expected by the end of the year. A deal with the National Park Service about the location of the road along the western edge of the battlefield is expected this summer.
The project should have been completed years ago, Connaughton says.
"Because of bad policies and bad decisions in the past, we've ended up with residential development and not the transportation infrastructure we need to support it," he says.
Just as Confederates and Yankees 150 years ago both claimed to be fighting for freedom, the two sides today both claim they are fighting for the same thing: the future of Manassas, and better transportation in northern Virginia. There are no Stonewall Jacksons or heroic stands on Chinn Ridge this time around, but the outcome of this battle will bring lasting changes to historic ground nonetheless.
[Music: "Civil War" by Dennis M. Reed from Syntropy Music Publishing]
Photos: Manassas Battlefield