June 7, 2013

The highway being planned to connect two of Virginia’s most populous counties (Prince William, population 430,000, and Loudoun, population 340,000) is hardly a “road to nowhere” or a “dumb road,” as opponents like to name-call it. Yes, glib quips bloated by hyperbole make for attention-getting sound bites, but they should not be allowed to unravel the three-plus decades of methodical planning that has brought the road this far.

This road (by whatever name, but “Bi-County Parkway” is self-describing) has been on maps since the late 1970s, put there by long-range planners and elected bodies based on a significant forecasted increase in regional north-south travel. That traffic increase is clearly evident today, and these travelers are stuck using portions of the east-west Interstate 66 and Route 29 to cobble together inefficient north-south routes.

Even now, however, the road is only a concept corridor, still awaiting final alignment and engineering. It is not intended to be and, in fact, cannot be an “outer beltway,” as opponents tell the world in an effort to frighten more people into joining their camp. There simply is no path remaining for the highway to extend north through Loudoun County east of Leesburg and across the Potomac River into Maryland.

During this long period of planning, the process has been very public and transparent, as the record shows, despite the protests of opponents who have awakened to the fact that the process is entering the stage where “the rubber meets the road.” Nonetheless, numerous additional opportunities for comment will be scheduled as the planning advances from a corridor to an actual alignment and, finally, to engineering and final design.

Some seeking to stop the Bi-County Parkway proclaim that its unstated purpose is, as former Commonwealth Transportation Board member James Rich put it in a May 19 commentary on this page, to “open up undeveloped sections . . . to more poorly planned residential development.” This time-worn battle cry of road opponents throughout metropolitan Washington ignores the fact that local, elected officials control their comprehensive land-use plans and the zoning designed to implement them.

In the case of Prince William, the Board of County Supervisors has supported this road in concept, just as it has supported the “rural crescent,” a large, western portion of the county planned for low-density development. Both are shown on the county’s comprehensive plan, which went through great public scrutiny and discussion before it was adopted. This elected body appears to have no intention of violating the rural crescent by changing the land-use plan in favor of any “poorly planned residential development.”

The board does, however, have economic development and the jobs it leads to as a very high priority, and the parkway supports this goal. Businesses that locate and grow in Prince William County, in part because of the relative ease of a Dulles International Airport connection, would provide jobs for residents who must endure painful commutes east and north today. In turn, this will ease the burden on I-66 and Route 29.

In 1988, Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) introduced a bill that, among other things, called for a bypass around the hallowed ground of the Manassas National Battlefield Park and earmarked $25 million toward it. At the time, many people enthusiastically saluted the legislation, which also added new acreage to the park. So it is ironic that the proposed road, which would become the western portion of that bypass, is now opposed by some of those same people.

In his commentary, Rich included a broadside against those who want to move the road forward, including leaders of his own party, specifically Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) and state Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton. He wrote: “It is time for some leadership.”

Leadership? Absolutely. I ask for the continued bold leadership necessary to make decisions that are in the long-term interests of Virginia. A decision to move the Bi-County Parkway planning forward will show the business world and Prince William residents alike that Virginia intends to retain its widely recognized and envied position as one of the top states in which to locate and grow a business.

The writer has served as Prince William County director of planning, chief executive of the Northern Virginia Building Industry Association and the City of Manassas director of community development. He is retired.