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Road Projects Rekindled as Security Needs

Long-Sought Proposals Now Promoted as Critical for Mass Evacuation

By Steven Ginsberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 10, 2005; Page C01

From nearly the moment that the Arlington County portion of Interstate 66 opened in 1982, various planners and officials have fought to widen it based on the simple argument that more lanes are needed to alleviate daily traffic jams.

The latest effort to widen the road, launched last year on Capitol Hill and under consideration by Virginia officials, includes another justification: that a third westbound lane would help people flee Washington in the event of another terrorist attack.

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The I-66 widening is one of billions of dollars' worth of stalled or contentious road and transit projects -- some that were conceived of decades ago and others far from dense population centers -- that state officials and highway advocates across the region are reselling in part as evacuation routes.

The efforts to widen highways come despite a regional emergency plan that would urge people not in immediate danger to stay off roads, largely because experts fear widespread gridlock, as occurred Sept. 11, 2001.

They also add to an American tradition of using security issues to gain federal support for projects, which goes at least as far back as the creation of the interstate highway system.

"Anytime you can make a national argument as opposed to a parochial argument, you have an opportunity to get broader support," said U.S. Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.). "Clearly, Washington, D.C., is a major target. Therefore, I think there is a legitimate argument."

But Hoyer cautioned that some of the security arguments might be a stretch. Homeland security "is an added rational, which is applicable in some cases, but I don't think it's applicable to some roads further out," he said. "You can stretch homeland security purposes to the extent that it may be a rationalization rather than a reason."

Among the projects that officials say would add to the region's security is the Maryland intercounty connector, a proposed highway that would cross the suburbs north of the Capital Beltway. An environmental review of the project states that one of the reasons it is necessary is to "provide much needed system capacity for population evacuation." Maryland officials say some other projects, including improving Indian Head Highway and Branch Avenue as well as building a bypass around Hughesville, also would help in evacuations.

The Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance cites 11 regional projects that it says are critical to homeland security. They are projects the group has coveted for years, including two additional bridge crossings over the Potomac River as well as expansion of some outer suburban parkways. Together, many of those projects would form about two-thirds of an outer beltway around the region that has been sought by highway backers.

"A lot of the many long-planned transportation improvements that haven't been built, among other things, have a regional security benefit," said Bob Chase, president of the alliance. "Obviously, some of these facilities are more important on regional security than others."

Chase and other road supporters believe that in a region filled with federal facilities, there is no way to tell where an attack would be or how extensive, so all of the region's roads should be expanded.

"In general, the health of our entire transportation infrastructure is key to homeland security for both evacuation and delivery of first responders and follow-up resources," said Maryland Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan. "You need capacity. You need redundancy."

The intercounty connector, for instance, is "in an area where there are numerous federal agencies" and would offer an alternative to the Beltway in event of an incident, Flanagan said.

Nevertheless, officials across the region have concluded that the most likely type of threat would be limited in area. So they have adopted a strategy of dealing with the affected area first and instructing others to "shelter in place" until they are given the all-clear to head home.

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