Tension between Leesburg council, county officials over highway plan

Members of the Leesburg Town Council have recently expressed concern over how Virginia’s Bi-County Parkway, a controversial project to build a north-south highway that would connect Loudoun and Prince William counties, might affect Leesburg traffic.

Last week, their skepticism prompted warnings from county and state officials who support the proposed highway and expect the town to do the same.

Although Leesburg officials have no authority over the road’s development, the council was nonetheless cautioned that even a symbolic opposition would have consequences.

At a Town Council meeting Tuesday, Leesburg Mayor Kristen C. Umstattd introduced a resolution to formally oppose the Bi-County Parkway. The council ultimately voted to defer adopting the resolution, to allow the council to gather more information.

But before members discussed the resolution, a pointed message from Loudoun County Board of Supervisors Chairman Scott K. York (R-At Large) was delivered by his aide, Robin Bartok, who addressed the council early in the meeting.

The north-south corridor, a long-planned project by both Loudoun and Prince William counties, has repeatedly been supported by the Board of Supervisors, Bartok reminded the council. She emphasized that the road is not the dreaded “Outer Beltway,” despite what some have claimed, and noted that continued growth in the area will require a more efficient thoroughfare to avoid overburdening local roads.

“The chairman asked me to ask you: Do you support roads? And that’s a really important question,” she said to the council members. “Because if you oppose this road, it appears that you don’t support roads.”

And if the council opposed the road, she warned, the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority would “keep that in mind” when determining how to allocate funds from the landmark transportation funding bill passed by the General Assembly this year.

York sits on the board of the NVTA, which will oversee the allocation of much of the funds for projects in Northern Virginia.

The chairman wasn’t the only official to issue a warning. The council also discussed an e-mail written by Robert Chase, president of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance, a coalition of regional developers and builders who have supported a number of road projects.

The e-mail, which Chase sent Sunday to Del. Randy Minchew (R) and Loudoun County Chamber of Commerce President Tony Howard, had been forwarded to all members of the Leesburg council. Member Dave Butler read it aloud at the Tuesday meeting.

“ ‘Why would Leesburg want to bite the hands that feed them transportation funds?’ ” Butler read from the e-mail. “ ‘I would suggest that the most important thing for the mayor to consider is the likelihood of [road projects in Leesburg] ever being funded if the Town Council comes out in opposition’ ” to the Bi-County Parkway.

Butler was clearly displeased with the message.

“There’s a lot of adjectives you can use for that,” he said of the e-mail. “ ‘Threatening’ is probably the least inflammatory.”

Umstattd and Kelly Burk were the only two council members to oppose deferring the resolution to oppose the road. They were prepared to adopt it Tuesday.

The council “should not buy into the argument that we’re going to be blackmailed — that if we stand up for our citizens, other entities will take away all our transportation dollars,” Umstattd said. “I don’t view that as an argument that I can abide by or really put up with. I think our duty is to our residents.”

Although several council members said they wanted time to learn more about the project before making a decision, they also made it clear that they didn’t appreciate the perceived threats.

“I feel like if we’re getting threatened from multiple directions, that’s a big warning sign that the facts are not on the threatening people’s side, and so they’re resorting to threats,” Butler said. “And to even imply for one minute that Leesburg is anti-road is completely disingenuous.”

Council member Tom Dunn said he would not be intimidated.

“I don’t normally go looking for trouble, but when it comes my way, I just love it,” Dunn said. “I’m not going to back down from a fight. If you’re going to show up in here or anywhere else to try to buttonhole me to go another direction, it might be a tougher fight than you thought.”

The council will wait to take action on the resolution until after a briefing about the project by the Virginia Department of Transportation late next month.

Caitlin Gibson covers Loudoun County for The Washington Post.
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