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Now sprawl will save the planet, say Outer Beltway boosters

Outer Beltway lobbyists will say and do anything to unlock new land for sprawl in Northern Virginia's rural areas. The latest bizarre claim comes from the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance, whose email alert this week bore the title, "Save the Planet. Expand the Highway Network."

Sometimes, you just can't make this stuff up.

NVTA claims that a Fairfax County energy task force recommended a massive highway-expansion program as the solution to energy issues, and suggests that the county Board of Supervisors endorsed the idea.

There are only at least 3 problems with this: That's not what the task force report says, the statement NVTA quotes isn't even one of the recommendations, and the board didn't endorse anything about road expansion. Not to mention it's a terrible idea.

Highway-building won't save the planet

NVTA has been pushing for an Outer Beltway through the rural piedmont for decades, and apparently believes we should widen every other highway ad infinitum. Landowners at the edges of the developed region fund NVTA, and the edge highways they constantly lobby for will open up opportunities to create large subdivisions of single-family homes (exactly the types of housing in the locations the region doesn't need right now).

That certainly won't decrease congestion in the medium or long term, though. It will probably increase it, because thousands more commuters will then joint the predominantly east-west commuter routes to jobs.

Even if it does reduce congestion for a short while, that doesn't save the planet one bit. A review by Portland State University found congestion reduction programs often don't reduce emissions. While cars do pollute less when not in traffic, any congestion reduction also entices people to drive more, adding new emissions as well.

Transportation made up 36% of Fairfax's energy use in 2006. The national report "Growing Cooler," by Smart Growth America and the Center for Clean Air Policy, and "Cool Communities" by the Coalition for Smarter Growth in the DC region, demonstrate convincingly that smart growth and transit-oriented development are the best tools to reduce energy use and greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector. The compact development of smart growth also contributes to better building energy efficiency as well.

NVTA alert warps reality

NVTA's "Save the Planet. Expand the Highway Network" alert cites Fairfax County's Private Sector Energy Task Force, which, it claims, concluded:

Due to the need for transit to use highways and the need for most trips in the County to continue to use individual vehicles, a highway program to eliminate or at least drastically reduce congestion, provides the county with the largest opportunity for transportation energy reduction in the short and medium-term.
The NVTA alert also notes that "The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors recently endorsed unanimously its Private Sector Energy Task Force's recommendations." That certainly implies the board endorsed the above statement.

Besides the fact that the recommendation is dead wrong, NVTA is misleading on several fronts. This isn't really a recommendation of the task force at all, the county board certainly did not endorse this statement, and the report doesn't really only recommend highways as the solution to all problems.

The statement that the county should fix congestion with indiscriminate road-building appears nowhere in the task force's presentation to the Board of Supervisors or its formal recommendations. It does appear in a long document of "supporting material" which makes a very large number of different and sometimes conflicting suggestions.

Fairfax supervisors don't agree with highway agenda; neither did the task force

At Fairfax County's annual Revitalization Conference on October 22, Fairfax Chairman Sharon Bulova offered a very different vision than the one NVTA claims to ascribe to her. Stewart Schwartz of the Coalition for Smarter Growth attended, and reports that Chairman Bulova opened the conference with a strong statement that the county must focus addressing traffic congestion through land use policy, in particular by revitalizing and redeveloping its old commercial corridors.

The task force's membership happens to include people like Lon Anderson from AAA Mid-Atlantic, and Leo Schefer of the Washington Airports Task Force, who has long lobbied for the Outer Beltway. It's little surprise that a long list of supporting information from a task force containing professional road lobbyists and longtime road boosters includes a few road lobbyist statements. It also contains a great many recommendations that contradict the wider-roads-everywhere agenda.

Even in the congestion section, the supporting information document's long list of suggestions includes making it easier for people within 1 mile of rail stations to reach transit, and using road elements like roundabouts to improve flow without widening roads. The document advocates for tax credits and parking incentives for fuel-efficient vehicles, and encouraging more children to bicycle to school.

It's actually more telling that the task force demurred from endorsing the bad idea of focusing on expanding capacity to reduce energy use. Instead, there's a very vague recommendation asking the board to "review the transportation report" and possibly convey some findings to the Council of Governments.

Besides, the task force wasn't supposed to be about country transportation policy. A Fairfax County official said the goal was to find ways the private sector could help improve energy efficiency within the private sphere. It wasn't a transportation panel and its charge was never to try to set the county's priorities on transportation.

But for the people in Northern Virginia who single-mindedly pursue the Outer Beltway year in and year out, any task force seems to be an opportunity to push their same ideas. The Board of Supervisors should be cautious about these task forces or permanent panels, like the task force's suggestion to create a Public-Private Energy Alliance, if some members constantly try to hijack such forums to serve their own transportation and development ends.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


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Thing is, an outer beltway will never truly "help" fairfax county if it has nothing to connect to. Even if the board of supervisors was 100% pro-outerbeltway, good luck getting Montgomery county on board which is the only place for that beltway to go. Much like how there isn't much Fairfax can do about I-66 going to two lanes once it enters Arlington.

HOWEVER, if you look at smaller projects like light rail down 7, gallows road or route 1 then you can improve the commutes of many Fairfax residents and workers for the same price that you'd get for this outer beltway which would have a lot of through traffic for not as much benefit to Fairfax residents.

Moreover, the more people you get out of their cars the more room you have for people still in them on 495, and so forth.

by drumz on Nov 1, 2012 12:20 pm • linkreport

@drumz -- yes, but that's logical.

by Tina on Nov 1, 2012 12:26 pm • linkreport

For the most part, the Fairfax portions of the Outer Beltway are built.

by selxic on Nov 1, 2012 12:35 pm • linkreport

I agree with Selxic, 28 is the 'real' outer beltway, that would logically be the connection to MD if one were ever made. I think this activist group is asking for a 3rd loop out, that would really go through Prince William and Loudoun Counties.

by Gull on Nov 1, 2012 1:10 pm • linkreport

I thought the Fairfax County Parkway was supposed to be the outer beltway

by bone on Nov 1, 2012 1:20 pm • linkreport

In related news, children told their fathers that Mommy said they could eat more candy

by SJE on Nov 1, 2012 1:24 pm • linkreport

And the NIMBYs in Ward 3 contend that eliminating parking minimums will actually increase traffic.

by fongfong on Nov 1, 2012 1:35 pm • linkreport

Short term gain, long term pain. Reminds me of the Republicans who will invent a reality when the one at hand is inconvenient. I might actually be fine with an outer beltway if developers could agree to imposing growth boundries to preserve open land. I'd be dreaming to think that wall would hold up once the road was built.

by Thayer-D on Nov 1, 2012 1:42 pm • linkreport


Hahahaha. I lol'd at your sentence about preserving open land. If this road ever is built, before the ink even dries on the contracts, there will be another 10,000 homes built on farmland. This is such a horrible idea, for a county that has much more pressing needs (95) and it saddens me that it keeps popping up.

by Kyle-W on Nov 1, 2012 1:46 pm • linkreport


Of course your comment was in jest, just made me laugh to even think that something like that could ever work :)

by Kyle-W on Nov 1, 2012 1:55 pm • linkreport

Here's the take it or leave it solution. Upgrade the Fairfax County Parkway to Interstate status as it was intended, while extending the Blue Line in the median to VA-123 and then to the Silver Line. There are enormous opportunities along the parkway for infill highrises, plenty of empty land and if you allow highrise zoning withing half or one mile from the parkway, developers will buy people out.

That way you help mobility as well as transit.

by Jasper on Nov 1, 2012 1:56 pm • linkreport

what is halloween without an (outer) outer beltway sighting?

by charlie on Nov 1, 2012 1:58 pm • linkreport

I don't subscribe to emails from the NVTA so I did a search for them and I noticed on their site under the "Save the Planet" heading:

In 2040 77.5% of all daily trips in Fairfax County are likely to be internal; only 22.6% generally external in nature.

Doesn't that suggest that they are a group who wants to see Fairfax grow from a commuter suburb to one where people live, work and otherwise go about their daily interests outside the Beltway and don't have much of an interest in being part of greater Washington? Is it possible that they like to live within the confines of the stereotypical suburb?, as unattractive as most of us readers of GGW find it.

I agree that their pleas for saving the planet don't add up though.

by Fitz on Nov 1, 2012 2:03 pm • linkreport


not at all. A. a very large percentage of total trips are not work trips and most of those are already suburb even in 'stereotypical suburbs' B. FFX already has lots of employment and many commute trips are within the county. Thats true of lots of suburbs, though especially so in FFX. C. that does not mean there is no interest in being part of greater Washington - between the significant number of commuters to DC (and Arlington and Alex) reflected in those numbers, and the fact that many of the jobs IN FFX are connected to proximity to DC and arlington, FFX is definitely tied strongly to the region - indeed proximity to the core is a selling point for FFX vs Loudoun.

The FFX bd is surely interested in growing FFX (and especially Tysons) as an employment center. However they want to do that in part by increasing the non-auto mode share in the county, and especially for trips to and within Tysons. I think thats a goal many or most of the folks at GGW share.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Nov 1, 2012 2:34 pm • linkreport


I get what you're saying and maybe its just my optimistic outlook for Fairfax talking but I think most in Fairfax realize why the county is the way it is. Plus, it's too big to ignore, it's one of the most populated counties in the country and if it was a city (as was discussed last year by the BOS) it'd be bigger than Pittsburgh.

While they may not be interested in the region the region definitely needs to be interested in Fairfax. (to paraphrase and misquote Lenin).

by drumz on Nov 1, 2012 2:35 pm • linkreport

" it's one of the most populated counties in the country and if it was a city (as was discussed last year by the BOS) it'd be bigger than Pittsburgh."

So would Montgomery, Prince George's, Anne Arundel, and Balt. Co. There's a lot of suburban counties that have populations greater than major cities, but that doesn't mean they should incorporate, especially since they're mostly low density (<5,000 sqmi).

Fairfax is still a sleepy cookie-cutter bedroom suburb. If any county should incorporate, Arlington is clearly the obvious choice. It wouldn't be a bad idea for 'Tysons' to incorporate either.

by King Terrapin on Nov 1, 2012 4:39 pm • linkreport

It's still one of my smart growth dreams. The idea of being able to roll up to the edge of town after going through agricultural or natural land and have a clear boundry. Would be nice! Maybe in 100 years when preserving large swaths of open land for ecosystem viability, or when fossile feul's costs are honestly tabulated, and we see the insanity of the enterprise.

by Thayer-D on Nov 1, 2012 4:49 pm • linkreport

FFX considering incorporating was a matter of particular autonomy under Va law. It has nothing to do with either how big or how urban you are - not that City of Falls Church and City of Fairfax are cities, and much more fit 'sleepy bed room community" than FFX county does (im not sure how an entire county, with houses built from the 19th century to 2012, can be 'cookie cutter' shouldnt that apply to a single subdivision?)

by AWalkerInTheCity on Nov 1, 2012 4:51 pm • linkreport

I think in Virginia given its distinct political subdividing, they are not allowing any more independent cities in the whole state. Arlington would gain nothing even if it were allowed to incorporate because it already functions like its own independent city and even controls its own roads. Alexandria has a higher population density than Arlington and it is incorporated as its own independent city. Anyway Virginia is weird like that.

by tee.rooa on Nov 1, 2012 4:58 pm • linkreport

Yes, there is already an outer beltway in VA. This is a proposal for an outer outer beltway in PW/Loudoun.

Frankly, we don't need to make every highway expansion a battle in the culture/political war. We should apply similar objective economic criteria to each transportation project regardless of its politics. If the outer beltway can be paid for like the Silver Line -- with no more than a 5% contribution from the state, and the rest paid for by local governments and tolls -- then they have every right to build it. So, it's not a contentious matter of culture wars or politics, it's a simple matter of dollars and cents.

by Falls Church on Nov 1, 2012 5:34 pm • linkreport

Walker explaine the whole city issue well enough. I would hesitate to call Fairfax sleepy and suburban. This is a county that has Tyson's and Reston and plenty or urban areas. We can talk about the quality or degree, but we are beyond essentializing over what makes DC a city and Fairfax a suburb when both places have both types of neighborhoods

by Drumz on Nov 1, 2012 5:38 pm • linkreport

for some discussion of the city county thing, see

Independent Cities and Counties
in Virginia: Substitute Jurisdictions?
Geoffrey K. Turnbull and Michael T. Tasto
Urban Studies Journal 45:1 48 (2008)

but yep, a big county lightly populated on a square mile basis doesn't a city make. cf. Houston...

by Richard Layman on Nov 1, 2012 6:18 pm • linkreport

we are beyond essentializing over what makes DC a city and Fairfax a suburb

If you really wanna press to the extreme, you could see DC as a suburb of Fairfax, given that Fairfax has twice the population of DC, and is considerably more industrial (non-political) HQs than DC, despite DC being the Capital of the US.

by Jasper on Nov 1, 2012 8:17 pm • linkreport

Recently I took a pleasant drive out to the far end of I-66, and turned south to get onto old US-11 exiting at Strausburg. I was road-testing a new car and thought I'd drive down some pleasant country roads to take in a bit of the hill country and rural America.

Lo and behold, what do I see? An immense development chock full of the Biggest McMansions Evar. Nearly as big as the White House, each and every one of all approximately 800 of them.

I drove around a bit more, and a bit more.

You don't have to drive far to find such developments... yet no matter how far you drive, there's one such development not far away.

I'm just sayin'... the Sprawl is already there.

by Thomas Hardman on Nov 2, 2012 2:29 pm • linkreport

"If the outer beltway can be paid for like the Silver Line -- with no more than a 5% contribution from the state, and the rest paid for by local governments and tolls -- then they have every right to build it. "

1. I have not heard they want to finance it with only a 5% state contribution

2. If Im in Fairfax, and this road will do net harm to Fairfax's economic future, by encouraging more low density development in PWC and southern LoCo that competes with FFX (not to mention the GHG implications), why would I want even one cent of the money we send to richmond used for this? When we have many unmet needs?

by AWalkerInTheCity on Nov 2, 2012 2:47 pm • linkreport

Yeah, its not so much the financing of an outer beltway that I'm concerned about its about the externalities that mean that Fairfax (and other localities)won't be able to actually go to solving congestion problems and improving commutes.

And as I said, for the cost of the outer beltway you could put in A LOT of improvements to the existing transportation infrastructure here in fairfax and help the people already living in the densest parts of the county.

by drumz on Nov 2, 2012 3:02 pm • linkreport

I don't understand - rail or increased density is not always the solution, especially in Fairfax County. We no longer have a spokes of a wheel commuting situation in Fairfax, but more of a spider net, and our road network needs to support that. What would benefit the county is a reliable network of crossing bus routes, but until our secondary road network is improved so as to allow bus transport, it wouldn't work.

Just think of buses feeding our current and future Metro stops. Can you see them on Hunters Mill Road, on Lawyers Road, on and on?

People don't take mass transit cause it's not convenient and it's not convenient because we don't have a road network that will support it.

There is also a need for a connection between Fairfax and Montgomery counties, and probably Prince William and its across the river neighbor. Forcing interstate traffic to have to use core arterial roadways does no good for either the local or the through traffic.

by jeff parnes on Nov 2, 2012 6:09 pm • linkreport

Jeff: One of many problems with the outer beltway and some of the other highway expansions is that they divert funds needed to improve local road networks.

In terms of traffic solutions for Fairfax as the county grows, the benefit of compact, transit-oriented redevelopment of the commercial corridors is that the new residents and those who downsize from their single family homes will not only use transit, but they will walk and bike more and take shorter car trips. Transit will work effectively within and between these centers.

But yes, it will be hard to serve suburban neighborhoods with transit not as much because of the road network, but because of how spread out they are. Suburban residents would need to walk or bike to the main arterial bus routes to make these work well.

As for your reference to Potomac bridge crossings, the main need is a transit connection along the Am Legion Bridge corridor to connect the Silver Line and Red Line (Tysons and White Flint). Most of our traffic involves local commuters during the peak hour and focusing on that traffic should be the priority -- with transit key for moving more people in the peak hour. Back in the early 2000's Cong Wolf commissioned a study which showed that an upriver highway bridge would harm too many neighborhoods between Ffx and MoCo and Loudoun and MoCo.

by Stewart Schwartz on Nov 3, 2012 10:41 am • linkreport

1. I have not heard they want to finance it with only a 5% state contribution2. If Im in Fairfax, and this road will do net harm to Fairfax's economic future, by encouraging more low density development in PWC and southern LoCo that competes with FFX (not to mention the GHG implications), why would I want even one cent of the money we send to richmond used for this? When we have many unmet needs?

I'm jist saying IF they can finance it locally, then they can build it. If not, then they can't. As for kicking in 5% from the state, other parts of VA did that for the Silver Line (which makes fairfax more attractive relative to other parts of VA) so its reasonable that they should also receive 5% state funding for their project. If the state never funds a project that helps one part of the state more than another, they'll never fund anything.

by Falls Church on Nov 3, 2012 11:01 am • linkreport

There are other rural areas often overlooked in this discussion that would be devastated by an Outer Beltway. Think south! Unlike the north, where a new Potomac bridge would meet resistance from Montgomery County, in the south we have Charles County, Maryland. Plans are already moving ahead for expanding the Nice Bridge. The Outer Beltway also has an option for a new bridge just south of Mattawoman Creek (Option E2-a). Either way, this stellar Chesapeake Bay tributary is on the chopping block, because land-use plans exploit highways for the profit of speculators, rather than protecting our environment, and hence the quality of life of citizens. Charles County is presently revising its land-use plan. The speculator-controlled Planning Commission has rejected Smart Growth plans proposed by county staff--with strong public support--and is instead adhering to business as usual. A Virginia megadeveloper has even started to make inroads over here. Congestion on the Wilson Bridge that would ensue if a gambling casino were allowed at National Harbor also points to the southern option. The sad thing is, most people don't want land-use plans that cater to developers, but feel powerless in the face of their influence and money. But with enough public education about Smart Growth, it could be turned around.

by Jim Long on Nov 3, 2012 11:36 am • linkreport

Aug, this is terrible. More sprawl will definitely *not* be beneficial. We need to be building more mass transit and alternative transportation infrastructure, not more highways. In the meantime, we can all carpool together more often to cut down on carbon emissions, traffic and costs:

by Barrymore on Nov 5, 2012 8:03 am • linkreport

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