Opponents: VDOT’s PR effort is to push Bi-County Parkway, not seek alternatives

October 11, 2013

The recent disclosure of a nearly $300,000 contract for a public relations firm to tout a controversial road that would connect Prince William and Loudoun counties has galvanized the parkway’s opponents.

Opponents of the Bi-County Parkway, a 10-mile road to link the fast-growing counties, say the Virginia Department of Transportation’s contract with Stratacomm, a District PR firm, shows that the agency is not seriously considering other alternatives.

Although the contract mentions “education” efforts, Del. Robert G. Marshall (R-Prince William), an opponent of the road, said that VDOT has been presenting only one side of the story. Marshall obtained and released the contract.

“They’re running a political operation,” Marshall said. “They say nothing bad about this road. This is a political campaign, nothing else.”

Stratacomm was hired in recent months to work on issues related to the Bi-County Parkway, according to the August contract.

The document shows that VDOT wanted Stratacomm to build relationships with local media, as well as engage elected officials, businesses and environmental interest groups on the parkway. The bills tallied reach $299,725, according to the contract. Much of that was Stratacomm’s staff time, including a senior vice president who billed 500 hours at $250 per hour.

Stratacomm Vice President John Undeland has been a fixture on the project for months. The firm’s Web site said the company seeks “to create and run winning communications campaigns.”

Undeland did not return calls seeking comment.

Elected officials and others have criticized VDOT, saying the agency has not been transparent about its plans for the parkway. Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton said in an e-mail that VDOT was trying to respond to such criticism by hiring Stratacomm. Many have faulted the agency for failing to explain why the controversial north-south road, which would pass near protected Civil War parkland and would be adjacent to long-established neighborhoods, is necessary.

In the past, Stratacomm has been hired to work on communications efforts for other government projects, including the Woodrow Wilson Bridge Project, the Interstate 66 study and the Route 1 study, Connaughton said.

“It is disappointing that we are being criticized for doing too much public outreach in response to complaints that we were not doing enough,” Connaughton said. “Our intent is to inform and educate the public about the Bi-County Parkway — to get the facts out so the public can ask questions, provide comment and come to their own conclusions about the project and its potential impacts.”

Marshall said that it is too soon for VDOT to stop considering alternatives to the project. Preliminary designs for the parkway have not been completed. And VDOT and other state and federal agencies haven’t issued the necessary approvals.

Stewart Schwartz, president of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, which opposes the project, said VDOT has refused to study alternatives to the road.

“It’s one thing to provide information to the public,” he said. “It’s another to try to basically sell the project.”

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