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Highway would fuel sprawl, pave over history at Manassas

In July 1861, the Union and Confederacy met at Manassas (Bull Run) in the first great clash of armies in the Civil War. On August 28-30, 1862, the armies clashed in the Second Battle of Manassas. Exactly 150 years later, the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) is proposing a highway through the historic landscape of Manassas, with particularly harmful impact on the landscape of that second battle.

Photo by on Flickr.

A Washington Post article this week characterized the controversial Tri-County Parkway as a "done deal," citing a draft agreement between the National Park Service (NPS) and VDOT.

But the draft agreement and the Tri-County Parkway are a bad deal for the historic landscape at Manassas and for area commuters. VDOT and NPS failed to study a lower-impact alternative that would protect the battlefield and focus resources on the area's most pressing transportation needs.

Slated to run through the Manassas Battlefield Historic District, the new Tri-County Parkway would open up rural land to development, multiplying the already-major traffic woes on major commuter routes like I-66 and Route 50.

More harm to a historic land

Controversy over unwanted development in the area is hardly new. Manassas has been the scene of some of the nation's biggest preservation fights. Many longtime area residents will remember the 1994 fight to stop Disney's theme park just west of the Battlefield, which drew national attention.

Fewer may recall the fight in the late 1980s when local residents stopped developer John 'Til' Hazel from building a new shopping mall on then-unprotected battlefield land. Federal taxpayers paid an astounding $134 million to buy the Battlefield land and keep Hazel from building the mall.

VDOT now proposes to run a highway past that same land acquired at such financial cost in the 1980s and contested at such personal cost 150 years ago.

According to documents related to the 2006 expansion of the historic district surrounding the Battlefield, "The battlefield retains integrity of location, setting, feeling, and association with the historic events that occurred on the property during the Civil War. With reference to the man-made resources, such as the dwellings, military embattlements, and the Unfinished Railroad, Manassas Battlefield has integrity of design, workmanship, and material."

Map of proposed Outer Beltway routes. The current Tri-County Parkway plan follows the western alignment.

The Tri-County Parkway would cut directly through that historic district, taking up 20-35 acres of land, running past the August 28, 1862 position of the right flank of Confederate troops led by Stonewall Jackson and the left flank of the Union General Pope's troops. It would also cut off the August 29 approach path of General Longstreet, which led to the largest massed counterattack of the entire Civil War. Longstreet's approach path across Pageland Lane would be replaced by a 4-6 lane highway and major intersection.

This battle at Manassas enabled General Lee to march into Maryland, led to the Battle of Antietam, and played an important role in the series of battles that led President Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. Perhaps the Post misquoted Manassas Battlefield Park Superintendent Ed Clark when he reportedly questioned the historical value of the western edge of the battlefield. From our reading of history and the 2006 expansion of the historic district, the historic district and its rural landscape are indeed important to the setting of the Second Battle of Manassas and the critical strategic positioning of the Confederate army that led to their victory in that clash. The land in the historic district merits permanent preservation.

VDOT's own letter to reviewing agencies confirms the damage the new highway would likely bring. The letter states that the Parkway will "convert a portion of relatively intact rural landscape" into a highway, "introducing into this setting an increase in traffic-generated noise and visual elements that will alter and potentially obscure significant battlefield viewsheds. These direct and indirect effects will result in a diminishment of the integrity of setting, feeling and association of [Manassas National Battlefield Park] and the [Manassas Battlefield Historic District] [the adjacent land not formally in the park]."

The Coalition for Smarter Growth, National Trust for Historic Preservation, National Parks Conservation Association, Piedmont Environmental Council and Southern Environmental Law Center carefully reviewed the draft agreement between VDOT and the NPS, and submitted strongly critical joint comments.

In our view, VDOT and the Federal Highway Administration were obligated by law but failed to study prudent and feasible alternatives that could avoid harm to a historic resource like Manassas Battlefield. The composite low-impact alternative that we have repeatedly offered during both the Tri-County Parkway and Manassas Battlefield Bypass studies would not only preserve the historic landscapes of the battlefield, but also meet the National Park Service's goal of closing the roads through the Battlefield.

A misallocation of resources

By focusing on north-south highway movement in this particular area, the Tri-County Parkway also represents a misallocation of scarce transportation dollars. Expert review of the Tri-County Parkway study and our review of the most recent traffic counts based on VDOT's numbers show that the vast majority of traffic in the area of the new highway is moving east-west on I-66 and Route 50 to reach jobs. We also show that much less costly local road upgrades including roundabouts will address local trips, moving them efficiently around the Battlefield.

VDOT needs to husband every last dollar to invest in road and transit improvements in those corridors, including Virginia Railway Express, dedicated express bus and HOV lanes, parallel local roads, and fixing intersection bottlenecks. For those trying to reach Dulles Airport, the expanded I-66 and upgraded Route 28 offer the fastest route to the terminal and will continue to do so. The Tri-County Parkway and connecting routes west of the airport would be about three miles longer than these existing routes.

The development link

It's not surprising that advocacy for new highways follows speculative acquisition of land for development. Til Hazel's original purchase of battlefield land for a shopping mall strategically secured a site next to the future interchange with the 234 Bypass, the former name of the Tri-County Parkway corridor. VDOT constructed a section of the 234 Bypass from southwest of the City of Manassas up to I-66 based on a 1988 approval with the hope by proponents like Til Hazel that it would be extended northward past the Battlefield. Land records show that today others are hoping for a windfall, including an entity named "Route 234 LLC" farther north along Pageland Lane, reflecting an expectation of the extension of the Route 234 Bypass.

Loudoun County recently approved the southward extension and expansion of "Northstar Boulevard" and "Belmont Ridge Road," denying that these were connected to the Tri-County Parkway even as they plotted these roads on the same exact route as the Tri-County Parkway. The highway also corresponds with the 1997 proposed route for the Western Transportation Corridor and forms part of an Outer Beltway.

According to the Post, VDOT Secretary Connaughton says he might change the name of the highway to "234 Extension," the name it had back in 1988. Intentional or not, the many names for the road corridor can get confusing, and make it difficult for the public to track and evaluate the proposals.

Just a week after the Loudoun Board's decision on Northstar and Belmont Ridge roads, another Board matter proposed authorizing eminent domain proceedings to acquire land from two developers along the Northstar Boulevard/Tri-County Parkway corridor.

Secretary Connaughton told the Post that the Tri-County Parkway "could be financed in the future traditionally or through public-private partnership," which could involve proffer trade-offs with developers or private builders who collect tolls. This certainly indicates the continued close tie between development and new highways.

Simply put, the Parkway and connecting roads are about opening rural land in Prince William County's Rural Crescent and Loudoun County's lower density Transition Zone to much more development. This development would mean thousands more cars commuting on Route 50 and I-66.

In addition, Dulles Airport boosters have campaigned to create a freight warehousing and distribution center around Dulles Airport and want the highway in order to draw thousands of trucks into Loudoun County and western Prince William County. This proposed economic development strategy and related truck traffic would seem to undermine the quality of life for area residents, including those who were attracted to work in Virginia's knowledge economy.

A better way

Preservation of the historic district around Manassas National Battlefield and the associated rural lands would ensure less traffic from this area in the future. Conserving our scarce transportation dollars to invest in commuting options for the Route 50 and I-66 corridors and funneling growth to the right places would better address the priority needs of commuters.

Adopting a lower impact alternative and winning legally-binding commitments to close the roads through the Battlefield would preserve the Battlefield for future generations. But conceding to VDOT's highway and the draft agreement would destroy our history and waste our tax dollars.

If you're interested in learning more about the Tri-County Parkway and the Outer Beltway, visit the Coalition for Smarter Growth's Outer Beltway Resource Center. Convinced the new highway is a bad idea? Sign the Coalition's petition to Governor Bob McDonnell asking for the real transportation choices northern Virginians deserve.

Stewart Schwartz is Executive Director and a founder of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, which he built into the leading smart growth organization in the Washington, DC region, addressing the interconnected issues of land use, transportation, urban design, housing, and energy. A retired Navy Captain with 24 years of active and reserve service, he earned a BA and JD from the University of Virginia and an MA from Georgetown University. 


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Since when is Virginia concerned with making the right choices?

by William on Sep 6, 2012 1:21 pm • linkreport

I am delighted in seeing the CSG stand up for our Confederate Heritage! Bravo, boys!

by charlie on Sep 6, 2012 1:44 pm • linkreport

"It would also cut off the August 29 approach path of General Longstreet, "

if they can do that, Pope can win. Which may in the long run be bad for the Union, but will at least save us most of the Cult of Stonewall.

by AWalkerThroughThePast on Sep 6, 2012 1:48 pm • linkreport

This road is much needed in order to help small businesses, create jobs, increase worker productivity, and enhance the quality of life in Northern Virginia.

by B. Arnold on Sep 6, 2012 1:56 pm • linkreport

I really don't understand the need for a 4 or 6 lane divided highway in this north south corridor. You've got 15, a rural expressway about 5 miles west, and route 28, an enormous 8 lane freeway from route 7 to i-66, only 5 miles to the east. If anything, the construction that should happen here is conversion of 28 south of 66 to limited access until it meets the 234 bypass.

Having lived in the Chantilly area for 9 months (never again, oh god), I can sorely attest to the fact that this road will be completely useless.

by Nick on Sep 6, 2012 1:58 pm • linkreport

Better long term transportation solution for Manassas area residents than the Bi-County Parkway/Manassas Battlefield Bypass:

by mcs on Sep 6, 2012 2:56 pm • linkreport

Yeah, I've said this before but I'd really like to see VDOT explain why it has to be a new road rather than reconfiguring some of the existing roads.

by drumz on Sep 6, 2012 3:07 pm • linkreport

Surely a project this size would require a full NEPA process, as well as SHPO review of impacts to a historic district? If that is the case, then there are opportunities for public hearings, which would certainly introduce the opportunity for dissent and disruption - hardly a done deal.

Also, as a resident of South Riding, I cannot agree with the claim that we need more north-south corridors in this area. The east-west routes are the problem, compounded by a miserable dearth of public transportation and communities designed to make one dependent upon a car for travel.

by Sarah on Sep 6, 2012 3:24 pm • linkreport

Last summer I went on the guided tour for Battle 1. Some of the areas we went to, were a few miles from the battlefield where skirmishes and such took place. Development had over run those. So I was thinking, ok, there's a compromise here. That development is done and that's ok. But please don't touch the battlefield.

I try not to be the curmudgeon but with the two battles, their importance, the lifes lost, this is truly sacred ground.

Looks like Manassas 3 is about to be fought. Let's call up the re-enactors on both sides, unfurl the preservation flag, we'll fight them on all fronts!

by Jay Roberts on Sep 6, 2012 4:12 pm • linkreport

I still believe that this project amounts to wishful thinking by a very small number of people and that it will never actually go anywhere.

by movement on Sep 7, 2012 12:08 am • linkreport


You are absolutely right. Commuting to I-66 or Braddock Rd from eastern Manassas via Route 28 is a nightmare. I think that highway would really help Manassas and Manassas Park, and I love the bike trail.

by m2fc on Sep 7, 2012 9:58 am • linkreport

If you want to save traffic in that area, you need to extend the Orange Line via Manassas to Gainsville and Warrenton, if not Culpepper.

You also need a metroline along US-50 (preferably all the way from the Mall out). It's US-50 that's stuck there, despite all the widening. Too much traffic and too many traffic lights - a lot of which should be replaced by roundabouts.

Roadwise, VA-234 from I-66 to VA-28 and then VA-28 from thereon further to Dulles and VA-7 need to be upgrade to full interstate status (I-666), with a tunnel under the historic part of Manassas. If they want a link to I-95, they should upgrade the PW PArkway (OLD-3000, now VA-294) from Manassas (I-666) to I-95 and call it I-166 or I-995.

I am not sure that would help with traffic on I-95 though. The PW Parkway already causes massive congestion. And with the HOT-lanes coming, there can be no more widening of I-95.

by Jasper on Sep 7, 2012 10:09 am • linkreport

It amazes me they are even putting effort into designing this road through the battlefield when it takes 30 minutes just to get from Manassas to I-66/Centreville (5mi) on Route 28. Their are no plans in the MWCOG CLRP to even improve or widen the road in the next 25 years.

The western PWC area needs an more transportation options and more cooperation with Fairfax county on regional transportation issues

by mcs on Sep 7, 2012 11:53 am • linkreport

Weak argument: Highway harms historic battleground because I don't think the community really cares that much about the amount of harm being dine to the battleground. Also, weak argument is that we should have no new highways in the exurbs or that we shouldn't build up the exurbs as a matter of principle (as opposed to a matter of economics)

Strong argument: The highway will cost too much money at a time when VA is strapped for transpo resources. The money would be better spent on higher priority and higher returning transpo investments. Also, the infrastructure required from taxpayers for exurban development often exceeds the return to taxpayers from increased tax revenue.

Compromise: The highway should be tolled and a large part of it should be paid for by developers and special tax districts, similar to how the Silver Line is being financed.

by Falls Church on Sep 7, 2012 11:56 am • linkreport

If you want to save traffic in that area

There's a common misconception that the purpose of highway construction such as this is to save traffic. The point is to CREATE traffic by developing greenfield sites. That's the only way the highway can possibly pay for the investment required. So the question is not which transpo project saves the most traffic but which one facilitates the creation of high paying jobs and wealthy residents

by Falls Church on Sep 7, 2012 12:03 pm • linkreport

@Falls Church; I appreciate your distinctions there. Tolling really isn't the answer, however.

The real problem is planner love 25 year old plans, and tend to stick to old ideas. I'd agree this may not be the best dollar spend -- but since it is to go to plan we keep coming back to it.

by charlie on Sep 7, 2012 12:08 pm • linkreport

@ Fall Church:There's a common misconception that the purpose of highway construction such as this is to save traffic.

That's why I propose building more metro and a bit of (ridiculous) roads because otherwise VDOT goes nuts.

by Jasper on Sep 7, 2012 12:49 pm • linkreport

Virginia builds a highway to try to help solve its traffic woes...Shocker

For a state so obsessed with its sh*tty Confederate "heritage" I'm actually surprised that they're building the road through the battlefield.

by King Terrapin on Sep 7, 2012 1:03 pm • linkreport

Tolling really isn't the answer, however.

Charlie, I'm not wedded to tolling per say, but think that a large chunk of the highway should be self-financed in some way. That could be special tax districts or having the developers pay or some other method. If the highway can't pay for itself (or at least a significant portion of itself, like the Silver Line is doing) and instead relies primarily on state government largess, then it needs to be killed. Let's get in the habit of applying fiscal discipline to our transpo projects and let them survive or thrive on their own merits.

As much as people like to complain about cost overruns for the Silver Line, the bottom line is that very little money needs to come from the state gov't to make that project work. It self-finances because the local community is willing to pay for it because it will create more value than it will cost. That's a great discipline to apply to our road projects as well.

@Jasper -- what I meant to say is that evaluating the road based on whether it will save traffic is unfair. It's not designed to save on traffic. It's designed to spur development and economic growth. That said, your ideas for expanding the orange line are a good alternative method for spurring economic growth against which the highway project can be measured.

by Falls Church on Sep 7, 2012 2:30 pm • linkreport

@fallschurch, the problem with tolling is in large part related to who does it.

Tolling makes sense when it might actually capture that amount of money. That is the reason why private companies will build them. They can get a 99 year loan and the return on the toll is higher than the payments.

A public entity is restricted in the ability to get the money, so the toll will be even higher.

And you want to road to be used. otherwise you've got an ICC situation where the toll is too high.

Given where this roads is, I don't see this highways as promoting much new development.

by charlie on Sep 7, 2012 2:38 pm • linkreport


This highway is definitely about promoting new development. Today, the zone of "generally fully developed land" comes out to 28. That's basically the development border. The idea of this highway is to extend that zone so that the new border is the new highway. Both sides of this issue agree that the new highway will spur development (although they don't agree whether that's a good thing):

“It’s a critical north-south link for a number of reasons, including connecting Dulles Airport with I-95,” said Bob Chase of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance, a group of business leaders which supports development and growth in the region.

The Tri-County Parkway “is simply about sparking development in the rural crescent” of Prince William, said Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth

If tolling won't capture enough money to support the road (with some help from the State), then it's not a road worth building. I believe the ICC tolls are collecting the money they are supposed to. It's enough money to pay the ICC bonds which was the purpose of the tolls. I happen to think they would collect more money overall if they lowered the toll a bit (I agree with you they are set too high) but the model works. I think the tolling model will also work for the HOT lanes. If the tri-county highway can't support itself economically like the HOT lanes, ICC, and Silver Line, then its not worth doing. That said, I think special tax districts would probably be more effective than tolls in this specific instance but a detailed analysis would be needed to determine the best way to self-finance.

A public entity is restricted in the ability to get the money, so the toll will be even higher.

They should do a public-private partnership. We don't need big government to do everything for us.

by Falls Church on Sep 7, 2012 2:53 pm • linkreport

We don't need big government to do everything for us.

Yeah, great idea. Let's all start building our own roads!

This whole idea of government is to do things that individuals cannot do themselves. Infrastructure, be it roads, rails or tarmac, is as good an example of a core government task as defense and safety are.

The only reason toll-roads exist is because politicians are too weaselly to increase taxes and explain to the people that new roads do not descent from thin air. Just like wars don't pay for themselves.

by Jasper on Sep 7, 2012 3:11 pm • linkreport

@FallsChurch; the quote you have doesn't really suggest the conclusioin. Of course Stewart Scharwz is going to say the road=development. I fully admit I never make it out to Manassas -- because the place sucks --but the idea you don't need a N-S in Fairfax is as bad as you don't need E-W in MoCo.

In terms of public private partnerships, everything I wrote above about financing just applies again.

In terms of ICC pricing, the price for off hours should be free, but then it won't pay itself back.

by charlie on Sep 7, 2012 3:21 pm • linkreport


What is the problem with toll roads? They make the actual costs of driving more immediate and perform the same function as telling people that roads do not descend from thin air.

The only reason toll-roads exist is because politicians are too weaselly to increase taxes and explain to the people that new roads do not descent from thin air. Just like wars don't pay for themselves.

This is true, and I think people would have gotten sick of our wars a lot faster if forced to face their costs more directly, through either increased taxes specifically to fund the wars, or through drafting regular citizens to get sent off to fight in them.

by MLD on Sep 7, 2012 3:45 pm • linkreport

The existing 2nd beltway; compromised of the ICC, the Fairfax County Parkway, and part of Route 301, is already mostly built. Let's just connect the darn things with two new bridges. This would alleviate a lot of the traffic woes in this area - connecting many existing areas of existing medium and high density mixed use development and many many existing job centers (Fair Lakes, Reston, Rockville, Springfield, Fort Meade).

Even the existing 3rd beltway (comprised of Route 28 in Fairfax and Route 294 in PW County) is mostly built in VA. A short, inexpensive bypass around the east side of Manassas connecting these two would also do more to alleviate congestion than a new road.

While I do not object to new development overall, this road, essentially a new 4th beltway, would clearly be to spark new growth rather than alleviate existing congestion.

Connect the existing roads first, alleviate the congestion you have then let's talk new development.

by stevek_fairfax on Sep 8, 2012 8:31 am • linkreport

@ MLD:I think people would have gotten sick of our wars a lot faster if forced to face their costs more directly, through either increased taxes specifically to fund the wars, or through drafting regular citizens to get sent off to fight in them.

And exactly for that same reason you need politicians that tell the people that roads do not descend from thin air and will cost extra tax money. Otherwise, you end up with boondoggles like the ICC, which is underused due to its high tolls, while being subsidized by an increase in all other tolls in MD

As I said above, I believe that providing infrastructure is one of the core tasks of government. It is up to our elected officials to weigh the needs of different regions in their jurisdiction, and to weigh the cost of necessary projects. If they are needed and there is no money, then taxes need to go up. That gives real choices at elections. That is a responsible way to run a place.

Tolling is a hassle and unfairly puts the cost of roads on local users, because good infrastructure is a basic need for an economy to run well. You and I need I-80 going through Iowa if we want to eat produce from California. That is the reason why everybody needs to chip in on the interstate system, and we don't put the cost solely on a few Iowans. It is much more efficient to have everybody chip in through general taxation than to have pay tolls at every border.

Another example: The DC Beltway does not only exist because of our local commuting needs. It is also a major transportation road to get oranges from Florida to Maine, and snow birds from Jersey to Hilton Head.

by Jasper on Sep 8, 2012 12:50 pm • linkreport

Viewed from across the Potomac, this piecemeal segmentation of the outer beltway is harrowing. It is aimed at the heart of Montgomery County's rural crescent to the north, and at Mattawoman Creek in Charles County to the south, where a new bridge for the outer beltway is proposed. Mattawoman has been termed "the best, most productive tributary to the Chesapeake Bay" by Maryland fisheries scientists, but it is now ailing from watershed urbanization. This urbanization was jump-started around 1990 when speculators anticipating the outer beltway compelled Charles County politicos to carve out of this rural county a "development district" larger than Washington, DC. As development mounts, false arguments will be revived for traffic relief via a new Potomac bridge just south of Mattawoman. In fact, the same would-be speculators that benefited from the huge development district in Charles by proposing the Chapman's Landing mega-development on the Potomac also bought the Cherry Hill peninsula in Virginia where the outer-beltway bridge would cross, and renamed it...Southbridge! (The Chapman's Landing site was preserved in 1998 as Chapman Forest and is now Chapman State Park.)

Then consider the push for a major new gambling casino at National Harbor. The draft Environmental Impact Statement for this project noted that the new Wilson Bridge would be overwhelmed when National Harbor was built out. If it occurs, a casino there will also clearly be a force for a new bridge south of Mattawoman. Unless sanity prevails, Mattawoman, southern Maryland, and Prince George's County's rural tier will all fall to the highway-induced sprawl of an outer beltway.

by Jim on Sep 9, 2012 1:09 pm • linkreport

Keep up the communications and efforts to offer alternatives!

by Scott Mingus on Sep 9, 2012 7:38 pm • linkreport

Yes folks, I still live.

MCS suggested what is effectively a Godwin Blvd extension up to I-66. On one side, it should be built as a 4-lane road. On the flip side, it would likely involve Section 104(f) impacts to Bull Run Park and as a result will probably not be built.

A better interchange at I-66/Route 28 is sorely needed, as are the improvements to I-66 and Route 50 that CSG supports (although I suspect the actual level of improvement needed will be more than what CSG will actually support).

Agree with numerous others that the problem here is east-west, not north-south. That said, a *STRONG* argument could be made for building a segment of the parkway from I-66 north to Sudley Road, whether as a 2-lane or 4-lane parkway roughly parallel to Pageland Ln. This is what would allow for closure of Route 234 through the park. It does not need to be extended north of Sudley Rd.

2 errors to what Nick posted at the beginning: Route 15 is only an expressway from I-66 to Sudley Rd/234. It's only 2 lanes outside of that (really needs to be 4). Also, 28 is 6 lanes, not 8. Though the CSG statement suggests they'd support an additional lane if it's for buses/HOV. Personally, I'd like to see LRT along the Route 28 corridor. Combined with beefed-up VRE and/or an Orange Line extension to Centerville, it would be a useful option for the numerous office parks along 28 (and perhaps even promote redevelopment of the acres of parking lot too).

by Froggie on Sep 10, 2012 3:53 am • linkreport

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