Manassas meeting didn’t sell, or defeat, parkway project


Members of the media and public, at Hylton Performing Arts Center in Manassas, listen to VDOT officials explain bi-county parkway. (Robert Thomson/The Washington Post)

Well, that settles it: The north-south highway proposed to link Interstate 66 and Route 50 on the west side of the Manassas Battlefield Park is the “bi-county parkway,” not the “tri-county parkway.” That lingering mystery was resolved by Charles Kilpatrick, chief deputy commissioner for the Virginia Department of Transportation, as he spoke to about 650 people in Manassas on Monday night.

The name was about the only thing that appeared to be settled, though even here, it was pretty clear the audience would like to christen it “the highway that didn’t happen.” Hundreds of those in attendance at the Hylton Performing Arts Center live in communities that would be affected by construction of the 10.4 mile, four-lane highway.

The crowd in this opera hall seemed prepared for someone to die on stage, preferably someone with a title at VDOT. Kilpatrick could have been the evening’s Billy Budd.

VDOT map shows proposed route. VDOT map shows proposed route.

Instead, he handled himself and his audience about as well as I’ve ever seen that done at a session where project meets public, and I’ve been watching such meetings for more than three decades.

The audience matched his civility with civility. And this is a great credit to them, because the crowd contained many people who fear for their homes and their way of living.

But these meetings rarely produce light to match the heat. It’s a mismatch. Project meetings generally are held in the project area, and they draw people who are afraid it’s going to hurt them. People who think it’s a grand idea generally are content to spend a few hours with their families after a long commute home.

So the format usually is to put up a solo government official to serve as the human spittoon for a community’s anger. It’s great entertainment, but most times tells you little about whether the project is for or against the common good.

My one suggestion for the governments in this spot is that they not try to sell their projects by forcing an engineer to make a PowerPoint presentation on the a.m. and p.m. no-build scenarios.

Northern Virginia does need better north-south connections. It’s just unclear whether the particular set of projects that include the parkway is the best option. Even the parkway part of the program has evolved — see “tri” vs. “bi” — and my guess is that its features will continue to morph before it is either shelved or built.

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post’s “Dr. Gridlock.” He answers travelers’ questions, listens to their complaints and shares their pain on the roads, trains and buses in the Washington region.
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Mark Berman · June 3, 2013