The plan to build a major north-south highway connecting Loudoun and Prince William counties, skirting the western edge of the Manassas Battlefield National Park, appears to be nearing fruition after 30 years of planning. In fact, it’s been on the boards for so long, the highway has changed names — it’s now the Tri-County Parkway — and it will only run through two counties.
But under the guidance of Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton, the former Prince William board chairman, new documents show the National Park Service is on board, the Virginia Department of Historic Resources is on board, and the Loudoun and Prince William supervisors are on board. If all goes according to plan, a second highway will be built as a “Battlefield Bypass” around the north side of the national park, and both Route 29 and Route 234 in Manassas will be permanently closed, 25 years from now.
There is a coalition of preservation and smart growth groups who are completely not on board. They believe the Tri-County Parkway runs smack through hallowed Civil War ground, will spark rampant development and make traffic much worse.
But they are going to have to fight fiercely, at this stage, to overcome the momentum that Connaughton and his group have built to construct a limited-access, 10-mile highway from I-66 in Prince William north to Route 50 in Loudoun County. Details are after the jump, as is an interactive map if you want to take a closer look at the proposed route.
Connaughton and others portray the highway as a way to better preserve the Manassas battlefield, which is now sliced into quarters by Route 29 and Route 234. They also see it as a way to improve the route between Dulles Airport and I-95, and between the two counties as their populations continue to grow.
“This is about creating one of the biggest and most valuable pieces of green space in all of Northern Virginia,” Connaughton said, by building roads around it rather than directly through it. Traffic on those existing two-lane roads is fairly miserable at rush hour, he noted.
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, one of five groups who issued an urgent plea to stop the highway last week, on the 150th anniversary of the Second Battle of Bull Run. “We think this is a really bad deal for the park service here, and for the park service nationwide,” Schwartz said. He added that building a major north-south road would only increase the east-west traffic on Route 29 coming through the battlefield.
Both Prince William Board Chair Corey Stewart and Loudoun Board Chair Scott York told me they are happy to have the Tri-County built, and Manassas battlefield Superintendent Ed Clark says it does not damage the historic site while laying the groundwork to eliminate traffic from it. The Virginia Department of Historic Resources filed its response to the plan recently without major objection.
An agreement in principle to build the road could be signed by the four major players — VDOT, the Federal Highway Administration, the state historic resources department and the National Park Service — by the end of this year, Connaughton said. He said $5 million is already available for part of the design costs. “Funding for construction has not yet been identified,” Connaughton said, “but it 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.
Schwartz said Connaughton has been adept at finding funding for other pet projects, such as the bypass around Charlottesville, and that he may divert funds from other roads such as I-66. He noted that Loudoun has already begun to plan for the road with its recent approval of Northstar Boulevard, and that Loudoun typically allows developers to build parts of roads in exchange for better zoning.
“This highway is Connaughton’s top priority,” Schwartz said. “I’m sure he has a plan.”
View Larger Map
Above is an interactive map of roughly where the Tri-County Parkway would go. Since the actual road does not exist, the purple line is approximate, but you can zoom in or out to inspect for yourself.
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Once upon a time in the early 1980s, when it appeared Northern Virginia’s growth would quickly expand past Dulles to the western borders of Loudoun and Prince William, plans were drawn up for two major north-south roads. One, to skirt the eastern side of the Manassas battlefield, was called the Tri-County Parkway. It traversed from Route 50 near what is now South Riding, down through Fairfax County and Bull Run Regional Park, then diagonally across Prince William to the intersection of the 234 bypass and Route 28.
A second north-south road was called the Bi-County Parkway. It is the current alignment: Starting at Route 50 in what is now the Stone Ridge neighborhood, and heading straight south into Prince William and tracking the western edge of the battlefield to I-66 at the 234 bypass exit. That alignment, though it only goes through two counties, is now called the Tri-County Parkway. Confusing enough for ya?
Connaughton said they would change the name to “the 234 extension” at some point.
“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.
“It also connects a number of Northern Virginia activity centers,” Chase said, “including those at Dulles and in Prince William and Loudoun, which are going to be where a lot of jobs in this region will be produced.”
Schwartz’s Coalition for Smarter Growth, along with the Piedmont Environmental Council, the National Parks Conservation Association, the Southern Environmental Law Center and the National Trust for Historic Preservation all disagree. They say traffic will continue to move east-west, not north-south, and that resources should be spent improving I-66 and Route 50, not building new roads to encourage new sprawl.
These groups have suggested alternative, low-impact ways to improve traffic and reduce flow through the battlefield. Last month they filed detailed objections to the proposed agreement. But VDOT appears to be going a different way.
In July, VDOT Commissioner Gregory A. Whirley sent a letter to the state Department of Historic Resources, asking for their input on a “draft programmatic agreement...regarding the Tri-County Parkway.” Whirley’s letter notes that public hearings on the highway were held in May 2005, which seems like a while ago.
In assessing the effects of a four-lane highway on the very boundary of the battlefield park, Whirley’s letter writes that the Tri County-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 MNBP [the park] and MBHD [the adjacent land not formally in the park].”
In addition, VDOT estimated how much land near the parkway would be developed in the coming years. By 2030, Whirley wrote, “30,660 acres [are] projected to be converted from undeveloped to developed land.”
To obtain the National Park Service’s approval, VDOT devised “stipulations” that it will use streetscape design, noise minimization and visual minimization techniques to reduce the impact on the battlefield. It would also use “traffic calming” devices to discourage use of Route 29 across the park, and severely restrict the use of Route 234 through the park, with an eye toward closing both eventually.
But VDOT acknowledges that until a bypass is built around the park, ”construction of the Tri-County Parkway may result in an increase in through traffic on Route 29” in the park. And “land development in areas served by the Tri-County Parkway may also be induced by the new highway.”
Chris Miller, president of the Piedmont Environmental Council, said, ”Not since the threat of the Disney theme park in 1994 has Manassas National Battlefield been at such risk.” He said the 200-foot-wide proposed alignment would run through ground where actual battles were fought.
Ed Clark, the superintendent of the park, said the opponents are “not really historically accurate. That’s not where the fighting took place. The fighting took place to the east.”
Clark said the two Civil War battles, particularly the second in 1862, took place over a wide area, and “It’s beyond our ability to preserve all that. We’ve preserved what really is that core battlefield where the fighting took place.”
Clark and the park service are most interested in eliminating the heavy-duty traffic through the battlefield, and the Tri-County Parkway would form the western end of a battlefield bypass. He said if VDOT stands by its stipulations to reduce the visual and aural impact of the parkway, “and we do it in a way to manage sprawl, I think it can be done and be a real benefit to the park.”
Schwartz said there haven’t been adequate studies or commitments made to construct this major road. “VDOT has forced the National Park Service into an untenable negotiating position,” he said. “The public and decision makers lack all of the necessary information to make a sound decision.”
Joy Oakes of the National Parks Conservation Association said that ”diverting commuter traffic out of the national park is a top priority, however VDOT’s plan shows that the Tri-County Parkway would make traffic in the park even worse.”
Local officials want this road.
Corey Stewart [R], the Prince William board chair, said in an e-mail that ”because of the importance of the road to future economic growth, Prince William County considers [the Tri-County Parkway] a top priority. Although some issues remain to be worked through before the project is finalized, there is increasing consensus and momentum favoring its construction, and I believe that it will be built.”
Loudoun Chair Scott York [R] told me the same thing. “There’s a lot of growth, from an economic standpoint, that will happen around the airport and down in Prince William. We need the connection back and forth,” and he said it will help both freight and commuters needing to get from the two counties to I-95.
Peter Candland [R-Gainesville], the Prince William supervisor whose district the road would run through, said that “employers are bypassing Prince William County due to our over-burdened infrastructure” as well as overreliance on taxes on residents and lack of an efficient corridor to Dulles.
“If done properly, “ Candland said, “the Tri-County Parkway will open the door for new corporate relocation and business start-ups...It truly is an economic development game changer for our county.”
Connaughton says it’s the best way to get traffic out of the park, improve the congestion at rush hour and preserve the battlefield. He says the battlefield has lower visitor numbers than it should because the current parking and walking situations are poor, but the parkway and bypass will fix that.
The preservation groups are stunned. They say VDOT’s stipulations to limit the impact of the proposed parkway are “inadequate to protect the Manassas National Battlefield Park, one of the Commonwealth’s most sacred Civil War landscapes,” and that a 200-foot wide highway is “grossly excessive.” Schwartz reiterated the belief that this is another key step in an Outer Beltway that would reach to Maryland, spreading more sprawl and traffic.
The next key moment could come this fall, when all the relevant government agencies sign on to the program agreement. Battles over money and design will come next. But signing the agreement to build the Tri-County Parkway would be a historic step, one way or another, for fans of the Civil War, and Northern Virginia.
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