Posts about Prince William
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.
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.
On Monday, a meeting hosted by Congressman Gerry Connolly will talk about the potential to extend Metro to Woodbridge. The hurdles are large, especially funding, and on the pure transportation merits another mode might be better. However, it's still a good idea for the Congressman and residents of Prince William to talk about Metro.
Why talk about an idea which might never happen and might not even be the best of the options? There are many good reasons:
- Talking about Metro gets people excited, and can stimulate the real important conversation about all transit modes.
- It takes a long time to build big transportation facilities, and by the time this happens, Metro might be the best option after all.
- There is political value as well as mobility value in bringing some forms of transit to all communities, not just the densest ones.
- Transportation "megaprojects" tend to suck up all the transportation funding, and transit megaprojects should be among the options when funding comes available.
Metro is a starting point for the broad discussion around transit.
The meeting revolves around a bill Connolly introduced to study running Metro specifically in the area. But as he explained, his goal is "not to prejudge Metro" as the right or wrong mode, but rather to get a conversation going about transit in the area. That is sorely needed.
Earlier this week, we discussed the merits of many transportation options, from light rail to improved VRE to extending the Blue or Yellow Lines (or both). All of these have their pros and cons and any discussion of transit options for southern Fairfax and eastern Prince William should consider them all and more.
But the simple reality is that if Connolly had called a meeting entitled "Discussion of multimodal travel alternatives in the I-95 corridor," almost nobody would show up. But announce a meeting on "Metro to Woodbridge!" and it gets major coverage in the press.
We have to think very long-term.
Prince William County needs to start thinking about transit. If they fill the county with entirely car-dependent development, they'll end up regretting it in 30 years, but it'll be too late to cost-effectively provide any alternatives. Designing more walkable and transit-oriented communities in a few spots and focusing most of the growth there can help the county grow without making traffic worse for all its existing residents.
But these things take a long time. Connolly pointed out that rail in the Dulles corridor was first discussed in a federal document in 1962. 47 years later, Virginia signed the first funding agreement to build it. The question is not just what's best for southern Fairfax and eastern Prince William today, but what's best in 2058 as well.
And for all we know, 47 years from now there will be automated tunnel-building machines which can not only dig tunnels, like today's TBMs, but handle utility relocation and everything else to make building a long tunnel far cheaper than it is today. Or maybe not, but we can't know today.
Transit planning is also politics.
Some argued in the comments on Tuesday's article that we should focus on transit in the core. That is where the capacity crunch is greatest. On the other hand, transit in outer areas will bring transit accessibility to the greatest number of people who lack it today. Not only is that good public policy, but it builds public support for transit generally.
When there's no transit in a community, nobody uses it, nobody builds with it in mind, and so few people can imagine how transit could be a part of their transportation mix. If a big transit project is coming to the area, people have something to look forward to and advocate around.
Also, designing transit for all communities is an important way to bridge the "culture war" gap between the urban and suburban lifestyle. When transit is an element of many communities from the densest urban ones to the lowest-density suburbs (perhaps with different modes, like commuter rail or express buses), it helps prevent or reduce the political dynamic where the more numerous suburban legislators want to cut transit entirely since they have no constituents who use it.
Bad road projects shouldn't be the only megaprojects to choose from.
Finally, our system of government and media has a bias toward transportation megaprojects over many smaller ones. A huge project gets headlines and attention. Leaders, from local to federal, like to be associated with big public works. Big projects make people feel that something significant is getting done.
This is unfortunate, since a larger number of smaller transportation improvements can make more of a difference for less money. As I noted in the Post, Capital Bikeshare (which was itself a big deal) could be built 18 times over for the price of the massive Gainesville interchange rebuild alone. Individual bike lanes, sidewalks, roundabouts, street reconnections, bus lanes, bus service enhancements, and more each cost little but add up to a lot of value.
The 2030 Group/Bob Chase/Rich Parsons survey of unnamed transportation experts fell (or deliberately leapt) into this trap, asking transportation engineers what their short list of 10 big projects would be to address regional mobility. Naturally, those engineers picked 10 very large projects even if 100 or 1,000 small ones would do more.
But if transit advocates simply stop thinking big, the result won't be more sensible projects, but just more big, sprawl-inducing, induced demand-creating road projects. There are always more pie-in-the-sky big freeways. The state DOTs have been studying some of them for decades, like the Tri-County Parkway in Virginia or the I-270 widening in Maryland. If they're turned down, like the Mid-County Highway extension, the DOT brings it back a decade later.
These projects float around for a long time with absolutely no money to build them. Then, at some point the economic outlook improves or a governor wants to borrow significant money from a few generations hence, and presto, the projects get funded.
Therefore, it's important to start studying and planning some big transit projects and get those plans closer to "shovel-ready." Maybe the conversation will settle on a more modest solution. Maybe the travel demand and federal funding climate will change and big projects will again become fiscally feasible. Maybe technology will make building subway tunnels cheaper. Or maybe just having the conversation will itself lead to a better vision for the future of this area.
The meeting is Monday, September 26, 6:30 pm at Harbour View, 13200 Marina Way, in Woodbridge.
Congressman Gerry Connolly and local officials are holding a public meeting September 26 in Prince William County to discuss extending Metro to Woodbridge.
It this a good idea? Like any proposal, it has pros and cons. The issue also depends greatly on whether you look at the problem from a transit planner lens or a public opinion lens.
Is actually bringing Metro to Woodbridge a good idea? If money were no object, probably. However, it would worsen capacity crunches in the core, and so really needs to be paired with a project like the separated Blue Line or separated Yellow Line in DC.
Is bringing Metro to Woodbridge worth the money? It depends what else you spend the money on, but if the same money went to other transit, expanding VRE and express bus options is probably better. However, the budgetary tradeoff is rarely between Metro and other transit of equivalent cost.
Is talking about bringing Metro to Woodbridge a good idea? Absolutely, because talking about how transit can best serve the people of Prince William County can only lead to better thinking about how to grow the Woodbridge area and general public support for transit. Besides, most likely if the state isn't planning a Metro extension, it would instead be planning some much more sprawl-inducing highway proposal.
First, let's talk about the actual tradeoffs in serving the area with transit.
Any Metro extension in this area absolutely has to serve Fort Belvoir. This is the largest focused job center in the area thanks to BRAC and will likely continue to grow. Putting any new transit here without going to Fort Belvoir would be foolish.
In particular, one factor that makes Metro much more cost-effective than other transit systems which serve suburbs, like BART, is the way Metro has significant reverse commuters. Instead of mostly empty trains out to the ends of lines in the morning, many people are riding those trains to federal facilities like those at Medical Center and Suitland.
There's already been talk about extending the Yellow Line down Route 1 instead of the Blue Line. This has the added benefit of helping the communities along the way, many of which are just the kind that could plan constructively around transit. Just like the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor 30 years ago, there are aging and often struggling commercial properties which could become mixed-used transit-oriented communities serving people who work to the south in Fort Belvoir or to the north in Alexandria, Arlington and DC.
Building any new rail line, however, is quite expensive. Most of the area is low density. Meanwhile, there's another rail line already here: VRE, which goes to Woodbridge (and has a station not far from Fort Belvoir).
Why not make VRE run far more frequently? It could even combine with MARC to create Metro "express lines." With fewer stops, these would provide a quicker route to the Pentagon and downtown than any Blue or Yellow line extension would.
The biggest obstacle is that VRE doesn't own the tracks, which also serve as the primary east coast freight line. CSX is planning to run even more freight here, which is why they're expanding the tunnels on Capitol Hill as part of the National Corridor plan.
The freight trains don't necessarily need to go through downtown DC. In fact, it's probably better if hazardous material weren't being transported a few hundred feet from the Capitol. NCPC looked years ago at adding a freight bypass, but it's expensive and encountered political opposition in Southern Maryland.
Without building the freight bypass, Virginia could still improve capacity on the VRE Fredericksburg Line by adding passing tracks and a third track as much as possible. Some of that is already happening to accommodate more Amtrak service. Plus, improving this line can enhance intercity rail to Richmond.
Any added Metro service would increase the numbers of passengers coming into the central sections of the Metro system (Arlington and DC). As that ridership grows Metro will need to run the maximum possible numbers of trains on the Blue-Yellow segment, but to do that, they'll need one of the core expansion projects to separate lines.
That's either a new M Street Blue Line subway from Rosslyn to Georgetown to downtown, so the Blue Line trains don't have to merge with Orange and Silver trains at Rosslyn, or a separate Yellow Line tunnel from Southwest to either downtown or Union Station, so Yellow Line trains don't have to merge with Green at L'Enfant Plaza.
The other option is more express buses. Virginia has looked at projects which add special bus exits on and off the freeways, so buses can run in HOV or HOT lanes, get off and stop at a station near the freeway, then hop back on. Light rail could also serve the corridor.
These options are far cheaper. If the tens of billions of dollars required for such a project were sitting in a special bank account marked "TO BE USED FOR TRANSIT IN SOUTHERN FAIRFAX AND EASTERN PRINCE WILLIAM," then a combination of buses and light rail is likely the most productive use of the money. However, that's never the way it works, and planning a big transit project may be the best option compared to the likely alternative, which is planning big and destructive highway projects.
In the next part, we'll talk about the political and public opinion ramifications of talking about such a project.
Detailed map data offers tremendous potential to expand our understanding of the world in which we live. Unfortunately, most localities in the immediate area charge for this data, which should be publicly available to everyone.
DC's GIS data availability in particular has been described as "a treasure trove of interesting information." There are numerous data layers available to the public for free at the city's GIS Data Catalog.
But DC is the only jurisdiction in the region that offers so much data for free. The City of Alexandria and every county in the immediate DC area charge for the same type of GIS data. Some charge exorbitant rates.
I contacted each jurisdiction's GIS office in order to determine the price charged for three common map layers: building footprints, zoning, and elevation contours. The prices are shown in this chart:
Alexandria and Loudoun charge a nominal price for CDs containing their full data set, which offers all of the GIS data they make available to the public. Arlington is similar but more expensive, as they separate their contour data from the rest and charge more for the contours. Prince William splits their land area up into several small geographic squares called "tiles," and then charges by tile instead of countywide. Fairfax provides countywide data, but charges a higher rate.
Even Fairfax is affordable compared to jurisdictions in Maryland, though. By comparison, both Montgomery and Prince George's charge excessive rates. They both charge "by tile," like Prince William, but with several hundred tiles within each county, the cost of full coverage skyrockets significantly.
There are some exceptions. Both Fairfax and Montgomery offer downloads of limited data for free. In Montgomery's case the free data comes as Google Earth "kml" files. However, the bulk of their GIS data, including the three layers mentioned above, comes at a price.
A number of free or low-cost GIS programs are available for the general public. As GIS becomes a more mainstream way to gather information, good data availability will become even more paramount. Making it available to the public at a nominal cost or free of charge is a good opportunity for jurisdictions to be more open with their residents, and to foster understanding and innovation.
It costs each jurisdiction virtually nothing to give the data to additional users. Some localities have argued in the past that they need to charge to recoup the cost of generating the data. However, that ignores the massive public good that comes from making it possible for people to create maps on their own, even if those maps will just get posted online somewhere and never earn anyone a dime.
Some area jurisdictions, DC in particular, have recognized this. It would behoove the other jurisdictions to follow suit.
Zombies are notoriously hard to get rid of. They keep coming back. The same is true of a 1950s concept for an outer beltway that has been revived by Virginia Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton.
In response, the Coalition for Smarter Growth has launched a petition campaign arguing that the outer beltway would waste scarce taxpayer resources, intrude upon Manassas National Battlefield, and induce more traffic congestion than it solves.
If we don't act now to call for different solutions, Secretary Connaughton will force the outer beltway through with minimal public involvement or analysis of alternatives, as he did recently for another questionable highway near Charlottesville.
A little history: The zombie outer beltway has had many names and a colorful past. In the late 1980s it was the Washington Bypass, a controversial and costly proposal for a complete outer loop highway through Maryland and Virginia. That proposal was eventually dropped.
In the late 1990s two individual segments of the original loop plan were pursued, the InterCounty Connector (ICC) in Maryland, and the Western Transportation Corridor (WTC) in Virginia. The proposed WTC would have run between I-95 in Stafford and Route 7 in Leesburg.
In 2001 highway proponents pushed for a new northern Potomac River bridge between Virginia and Montgomery County that would be part of a proposed road called the Techway. Congressman Frank Wolf (R-VA) halted that effort after concluding the new bridge would harm communities on both sides of the river.
In 2002 voters in Northern Virginia rejected a proposal for a dedicated transportation sales tax in a public referendum, in part because the tax would have funded multiple segments of the outer beltway.
Finally, in 2005 and again in 2011, VDOT has proposed what they call the Tri-County Parkway, a new highway to run between I-66 in Prince William and Route 50 in Loudoun. Their preferred alignment for the Tri-County Parkway runs along the western boundary of Manassas National Battlefield. It is the same alignment studied in 1997 as the Western Transportation Corridor.
It is this highway that Secretary Connaughton has made a top priority, by designating it as a new Corridor of Statewide Significance. It is this highway that the Coalition for Smarter Growth opposes today.
Instead of building yet another wasteful highway that induces more traffic and more sprawl, VDOT should focus our tax dollars on more important transportation needs. They should also avoid harming the historic Manassas Battlefield, which would be impacted by the Tri-County Parkway.
The Coalition has performed an exhaustive study of the parkway / outer beltway, and found that the major traffic problems in its vicinity are on radial east-west commuter routes, not on north-south roads. The parkway won't relieve any congestion because it doesn't serve travel paths that are congested.
This table, based on information from VDOT traffic counts, compares traffic volumes on roads in the vicinity of the Tri-County Parkway. It clearly demonstrates that radial corridors have dramatically higher volumes than any north-south routes.
Only Route 28, which connects to the strong job centers on the east side of Dulles Airport, carries significant north-south traffic. Among north-south roads west of the airport and in the vicinity of the proposed Tri-County Parkway, Route 659 carries just 9,100 vehicles per day (VPD) from Prince William to Loudoun, and Route 15 carries just 15,000. In contrast, I-66 carries up to 63,000 VPD in Prince William, and Route 50 carries up to 40,000 VPD between Loudoun and Route 28.
In 2005 the Coalition for Smarter Growth commissioned a national traffic modeling expert, Norm Marshall of Smart Mobility, Inc., to analyze VDOT's Tri-County Parkway study. He demonstrated significant flaws in that study, finding that the new highway would induce new development and traffic, but not reduce congestion. Marshall recommended a more efficient set of solutions focusing on land use, conservation, transit, and demand management.
A more recent review of the Loudoun County Transportation plan by Lucy Gibson of Smart Mobility found that transportation engineers were overestimating north-south traffic compared to east-west traffic volumes.
Overall it is clear that the push for the new outer beltway is driven at least in part by those seeking to spark more development in western Prince William and Loudoun Counties, rather than focusing our scarce transportation funds on existing congestion problems. The Tri-County Parkway is an unnecessary and costly diversion from more rational transportation planning. We urge you to sign the petition against it.
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