Bi-County Parkway advocates don’t offer strong sales pitch for Va. commuters

Robert Thomson
Columnist June 12, 2013

Is the Bi-County Parkway going to become Virginia’s version of Maryland’s Intercounty Connector?

The limited-access highways, the former proposed and the latter built, both got the title of “Outer Beltway” from critics. The name is used to describe a route that arcs through a portion of the Washington region’s outer suburbs. Critics use it as shorthand for a highway project they think will increase suburban sprawl.

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. View Archive

But to be an Outer Beltway for real, the highway would need to duplicate the Capital Beltway’s Potomac River crossing — at least, one of the crossings. That’s no more likely to happen with the parkway than with the ICC.

On the Virginia side, Loudoun County Board of Supervisors Chairman Scott K. York (R-At Large), a supporter of the parkway, is among those saying there’s no way it’s going to push north and cross the river through areas the county considers off-limits for that sort of transportation project.

The Maryland government has shown no interest in a river crossing. Maryland, like Virginia, will have more money to spend on transportation because of tax increases taking effect next month. But when Maryland officials talk about big spending, they’re most enthusiastic about transitways rather than highways.


The proposed route of the proposed parkway from Interstate in Prince William County north to Route 50 in Loudoun County. (Virginia Dept. of Transportation/Virginia Dept. of Transportation)

And, given that Virginia is pushing the parkway’s role in developing Dulles International Airport, it’s difficult to see Maryland’s civic and business leaders wanting their traffic to go south.

To Virginians evaluating the parkway plan, don’t be turned off by support for it in the business community and by statements that it will encourage economic growth. For one thing, you want that. A key reason the Washington region does so poorly on those national studies of traffic congestion is that we send people on such long commutes.

If your transportation infrastructure can encourage employers to move in, putting jobs closer to housing, you win.

Also, there’s nothing inherently sinister in using a transportation project to focus development. In fact, it’s a rare transportation project that’s just about moving people.

Among the projects that wouldn’t go forward unless they were likely to enhance community development: the Silver Line, the Purple Line, the D.C. streetcars.

That said, you should expect these expensive projects are going to have some positive effect on people’s travels. And on that, the Virginia Department of Transportation is not making a very strong case for the parkway to outer-suburban commuters.

Charles Kilpatrick, the department’s chief deputy commissioner, faced “Mission: Impossible” when he spoke with hundreds of parkway opponents at the Hylton Performing Arts Center in Manassas on June 3. And if you want to sell a transportation project, don’t have an engineer such as Kilpatrick make a PowerPoint presentation featuring a.m. and p.m. no-build scenarios.

Under the circumstances, he did a fine job . 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 when talking about their travels, these people are clearly more concerned about picking up the pace east-west than they are about any relief that might come from a north-south parkway. Regarding their greatest traffic concerns, the best Kilpatrick could do was show them a bunch of other projects designed to easethe burden on Interstate 66, the Dulles Toll Road and Route 7.

There’s no plan in the Washington region that makes its highways uncrowded in any direction. Planners usually talk in terms of preventing the “failure” of highway ramps, interchanges and lane segments, or at least delaying the time when they are overwhelmed by demand at peak periods.

Planning scenarios that show very congested roadways through Haymarket, Gainesville and Manassas by 2040, even with the parkway built, are not going to convert this project’s skeptics into fans.

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