Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell’s administration has only itself to blame for arousing a major political and popular backlash against its effort to ram a new north-south highway through Prince William County along the western edge of the Manassas Civil War battlefield.
The Richmond authorities have seriously harmed one of their own pet projects — the Bi-County Parkway, which would link Prince William and Loudoun County southwest of Dulles Airport. They haven’t talked straight to the public about why they think the road is needed and what the full consequences would be.
They’ve gone back and forth on whether the road is necessary mainly to help Dulles Airport increase its cargo capacity. Back and forth on whether parts of it could be tolled. Back and forth on whether the plan is to open the road in seven years or 20.
“The rationale for this road changes week to week depending on who’s telling the story. I think that’s incredibly problematic,” said Del. Tim Hugo (R-Centreville), who’s helping to lead the opposition, which has mushroomed this spring.
Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), who represents part of the affected area in Congress, also cited “a lack of transparency” as the first of several reasons for his “serious reservations” about the undertaking.
Wolf and Hugo are influential leaders in the Virginia Republican Party. That creates a problem for McDonnell, also a Republican, and Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton, the road’s principal backer.
Now, there are valid arguments for and against this highway. In its favor, these two counties are among the fastest growing in the country. People need to get around.
On the other hand, it’s hard to justify spending precious transportation funds to improve travel north and south in that part of the region, given that commuters face worse jams traveling east and west.
Also, the highway could trigger a wave of outer suburban development that would spoil the mostly rural atmosphere that attracted residents in the first place. It’s hard to see how that would respect guidelines in the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments’ Region Forward plan, which aims to concentrate new development near Metro stations.
No matter how you view it, the Richmond authorities have been clumsy in making their case. Consider how the story changed between a March 4 public meeting in Gainesville and one on Monday in Manassas.
In March, state officials told a crowd of 300 at Bull Run Middle School that the main reason for building the road was to increase access to Dulles Airport, including to help it increase its cargo shipping business. Deputy Transportation Secretary David Tyeryar said that “it could very well be another 20 years” before the Bi-County Parkway is built and that some roads in the corridor could be tolled.
But Dulles was not the emphasis Monday, when Virginia Department of Transportation Chief Deputy Commissioner Charles Kilpatrick addressed an even larger crowd at the Hylton Performing Arts Center. Now the road was needed primarily to reduce congestion on north-south routes as the population grows.
Kilpatrick’s charts assumed the road could open in seven years, not 20. He guaranteed that no part of the Bi-County Parkway would have tolls.
Under relentless questioning, Kilpatrick acknowledged that VDOT could have explained its plans better, saying, “We can always do a much better job of getting that information out.”
Richmond’s biggest error might have been its failure to adequately alert the public that the current plan provides for eventually closing two congested roads inside the Manassas National Battlefield Park. Routes 234 and 29 would close as the Bi-County Parkway and another highway, the Battlefield Bypass, are constructed.
That’s a plus for anyone wishing to preserve the hallowed ground where Yankees and Confederates fought twice in the premier battlefield closest to Washington.
But much of the new opposition springs from worry that closing the battlefield roads would worsen the area’s already severe traffic jams.
A crucial next step toward building the Bi-County Parkway would be signing a programmatic agreement between the National Park Service and Virginia authorities. It would set conditions for what the Bi-County Parkway would be like, and how and when the roads inside the battlefield would close.
That signing should be postponed until the public gets complete, credible answers about why the project is necessary, and how it would affect residents’ quality of life.
I discuss local issues Friday at 8:50 a.m. on WAMU (88.5 FM). For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.