Our elected representatives keep saying it’s true, so we’ll believe them: This is not an Outer Beltway. But the momentum is clearly ramping up to build a major north-south thoroughfare from Route 7 in Loudoun County down to I-95 in Prince William County, which officials say will better connect Dulles International Airport with I-66 and I-95 to increase its role as a cargo hub.
Smart growth groups say spending billions on a north-south road is a bad idea when the vast majority of traffic goes east-west. A north-south
Loudoun-Prince William Highway would simply enrich the developers who’ve been waiting for that corridor to unfold, some longtime observers say, adding more sprawl and more cars which would mostly be heading to D.C. or Fairfax County, not to Manassas or Ashburn.
It has all the makings of Stage 1 of an Outer Beltway, say officials with the Piedmont Environmental Council and the Coalition for Smarter Growth, with the possibility of connecting to Maryland and spreading traffic far and wide. No way, say Loudoun officials, who note that the current alignment of the road can’t plow through existing and planned development in Lansdowne to reach the river and then Maryland. Last year, the Commonwealth Transportation Board designated the Loudoun-Prince William route a “Corridor of Significance.”
So last month, the Loudoun Board of Supervisors approved the potential widening of Belmont Ridge Road to four lanes, and the construction of six lanes for Northstar Boulevard near Braddock Road. And then last week Gov. Robert F. McDonnell included the “NOVA North-South Corridor” on a list of “public-private partnership” projects now in the development pipeline. And Prince William County is already well along in planning its connection to the corridor at the Loudoun line.
After the jump are the details of the route, why some people do or don’t want it, and an interactive map to examine the route more closely, based on roads that currently exist.
The proposed road would start at the intersection of Route 7 and Belmont Ridge Road, and head south to Northstar Boulevard, which breaks off from Belmont Ridge in Brambleton. Northstar ends soon after, and would have to be extended south to where it begins again near Arcola Elementary School and the new John Champe High School just north of Braddock Road.
South of Braddock Road, Northstar Boulevard would head to the county line and hook up with Prince William’s planned northward extension of the Route 234 bypass, perhaps deftly sliding along the edge of the Manassas battlefield. That road would connect with I-66 and the rest of the Route 234 bypass, which becomes the Prince William County Parkway and then Dumfries Road as it heads all the way to I-95.
Since Prince William’s chunk of the corridor is already built from I-95 to I-66, it need only connect from I-66 to the Loudoun line. An alignment that would do just that has been approved by the state Department of Transportation, Prince William officials said. Other studies and approvals still await, including approval of the route near the battlefield.
For a closer look, click on this map. Much of Northstar Boulevard isn’t built yet, so the route in southern Loudoun veers back on to Belmont Ridge.
View Larger Map
“The purpose of this is to have a good connection for the airport headed southward,” said Scott York, chairman of the Loudoun Board of Supervisors. “We are working with the airport to expand their cargo capacity. They are underutilized, and they’ve got to have a route for freight to easily come in and out.”
To make this happen, there would also have to be a big improvement to the two-lane Route 606 on the west side of Dulles, to connect with both the new highway and the airport. “That’s the missing link,” York said.
Loudoun supervisors said declaring Northstar Boulevard as a possible six-lane road before much of it is ever built will put the county’s marker down before residential development gets too close, as it has on Belmont Ridge Road. The Loudoun board did reserve the right to expand Belmont Ridge to 150 feet wide, which would accommodate six lanes from Route 7 down to Croson Lane, but they said they would only use four lanes. Either way, this has the potential to be a major north-south highway in Loudoun.
“This is not an Outer Beltway, it is simply north/south access,” said Supervisor Ralph Buona (R-Ashburn). “It can’t be an Outer Beltway,” said Supervisor Ken Reid (R-Leesburg), pointing out there are residences and a planned high school in its path north of Route 7.
Still, “The rest of Northern Virginia should be very nervous about this,” said Chris Miller, president of the Piedmont Environmental Council. He said developers are waiting to build along the north-south highway, bringing many more residents who will largely be going east-west in their daily commutes, adding to the congestion in Fairfax and Arlington counties.
“The only people who really benefit are the guys who sell the scheme,” Miller said, meaning those who own land along Belmont Ridge and Northstar. “They’re already doing condemnation and earth moving along this corridor.”
County records show that on May 11, Loudoun began the process of seizing about 5.6 acres of private property through eminent domain proceedings against two landowners just south of Braddock Road, at the intersection with the southern end of Northstar Boulevard. The county’s filings note that both landowners had been turning down offers from the developer, Kirkpatrick West, since March of last year. The developer must build the road in exchange for, well, whatever they want to build.
Ed Gorski, a former Loudoun County planner now with the Piedmont group, said the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments had studied where the region’s jobs will be in 2025, and about 58 percent will be within 10 miles of the District. He said another 29 percent will be in the 10 to 20 mile radius of the city. That leaves about 13 percent of the estimated job market in the area of Loudoun and Prince William counties.
In addition, Gorski noted that a north-south highway “creates competition for a market that might be created along the Silver Line. And that’s going to compete with the available resources for transportation.”
York said, “We have a plan for development. The problem is, historically, roads have been removed because of that concern [about sprawl]. But it certainly hasn’t stopped growth from happening. I can’t control what a future Board of Supervisors does. But I’m not planning to add additional housing.”
Asked about the need for east-west traffic help, York said, “That’s why I support [Metro] rail. To help relieve all that pressure, because that will help our economy in Loudoun County so people don’t have to drive that far. Metro is the key to helping us relieve our traffic.”
But the county does want to add freight traffic to Dulles, and airport officials said that increasing cargo shipping at the airport is a top priority. Joseph Maly, head of air cargo development for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, said the Northern Virginia market is ripe to expand shipping in biopharmaceutical products and high tech items.
“We want to do everything we can do,” Maly said, “to ensure easier access to the west side of the airport” for businesses shipping and receiving cargo.
Creating freight access is “just a diversion of attention,” said Stewart Schwartz of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. He said air cargo makes up a tiny percentage of business at Dulles, and that this had never before been mentioned as a priority for Loudoun, which had positioned itself as a high-tech center, not a shipping port.
“The goal isn’t Dulles,” Miller said.”The goal is a central interstate. The amount of freight that can be moved by trucks doesn’t justify a six-lane corridor. The amount of freight moving from Dumfries to the airport isn’t worth a multibillion-dollar investment.”
Schwartz also reminded that the highway must run along the western edge of Manassas National Battlefield Park in Prince William, on non-parkland that was the actual location of the two Battles of Bull Run and where last summer’s reenactment was held. The National Park Service must approve any highways abutting the property, and Schwartz noted that Virginia has rated historic tourism as one of its top assets.
“Creating a bypass is one thing,” Schwartz said. “Signing off on a thruway to Dulles seems completely incompatible with preservation of the Manassas battlefield.”
The smart growth folks believe that Virginia has stored the money for such a road in various funds and bonds, and that Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton, a former Prince William county executive, can make things happen quickly. Connaughton told me last fall he felt it was “essential...to deal with the connectivity between Prince William and Loudoun.”
This is going to be an interesting battle. It will almost certainly last longer than the Civil War.