VDOT Says Project Would Jam Roads

By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 14, 2006

The Virginia Department of Transportation has warned local officials that a proposal to allow as many as 28,000 new houses near Dulles International Airport in Loudoun County would create gridlock not only in southeastern Loudoun but in neighboring Fairfax and Prince William counties as well.

The new houses would paralyze a broad swath of Northern Virginia, stretching north to Herndon, east to Fairfax City and south to Haymarket in Prince William, according to the VDOT analysis. The proposal also would generate up to 300,000 car trips a day and by 2025 would cause stop-and-go driving conditions on a dozen regional roads, including Route 50, Interstate 66, the Dulles Toll Road, the Dulles Greenway, Braddock Road and Route 29.

In some cases, those conditions could span six hours each day, Dennis C. Morrison, VDOT's Northern Virginia district chief, wrote in a letter to county officials.

Meanwhile, the investment needed to prevent such gridlock could "easily" reach hundreds of millions of dollars, VDOT spokeswoman Joan Morris said. That's on top of the billions of dollars already planned to extend Metrorail to Dulles and widen three of the highways in question.

"Adding 28,000 homes would place a significant burden on the transportation network even with all of the improvements that are scheduled to be completed in the area," Morris said.

The Dulles South transition area is a largely undeveloped, 9,200-acre area west of the airport, so named for its role as a buffer between Loudoun's suburban east and rural west. Under pressure from developers, the Board of Supervisors is considering opening up the area to higher-density housing and will begin discussing the issue Tuesday.

Under consideration is whether to allow 28,000 houses in a swath of farmhouses served largely by two-lane highways and dirt roads. Existing zoning law allows fewer than 5,000 homes. The board's decision is being watched closely by six developers who have plans to build thousands of homes and nearby homeowners who oppose the changes.

"Citizens here are really frightened about this out-of-control rate of development that is being pushed by developers in our area," said Sandra Chaloux, who recently formed the Gum Spring Regional Citizens Network to oppose the Dulles South proposal.

But VDOT's strong statement this week broadens the implications. Chairman Sean T. Connaughton (R) of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors said it underscores the need for state lawmakers to give local governments the authority to demand regional road improvements from developers. Currently, governments may demand only that developers offset their impact on close-by roads.

"Everything we ask for has to have an impact on the immediate vicinity of the project," Connaughton said. "If the state is not going to put the money into transportation, then I think we have to look at how does development start to pay for road improvements beyond that."

The VDOT analysis also is well-timed for Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D), who plans to continue his quest for new financing for transportation improvements at a special legislative session this year. The governor also wants to resume discussions on how to give local governments more power to tie land-use decisions to transportation -- a need the Dulles South case illustrates perfectly, Kaine spokesman Kevin Hall said.

"The legislature has been loath to empower localities," Hall said. "That's just the culture in Richmond."

VDOT performed the Dulles South analysis as a test case to prepare for a law that goes into effect next year requiring local governments to allow the state to measure the traffic impact of new development. Most Northern Virginia localities already seek such input from VDOT. But the agency plans to look more broadly at regional impact than it has in the past -- and that's what it did with Dulles South.

"This is another excellent example of why we're going to have to coordinate land use with transportation," said Del. Joe T. May (R-Loudoun), who believes the Dulles South plan would overwhelm the region. "The plan reminds me of those words on so many toy boxes, 'Batteries Not Included.' Only in this case, the words should be: 'Roads Not Included.' "

Loudoun Supervisor Stephen J. Snow (R-Dulles), a supporter of the Dulles South proposal, disagreed. He noted that VDOT's analysis does not include about $200 million of road improvements proposed by the Vienna-based developer Greenvest in exchange for permission to build 15,000 homes in the area.

"It's a partial assessment like we always get in trouble with," Snow said. "We're not taking into consideration the totality of the road network being offered."

Local officials in neighboring jurisdictions, meanwhile, wondered aloud what they can do with the new information. VDOT's Morrison recommended in his letter that Loudoun discuss the agency's findings with its neighbors. But several officials noted that Northern Virginia jurisdictions already talk about regional road planning through such entities as the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority and the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board.

Ultimately, though, local governments act independently when it comes to decisions on land use.

"We don't like Arlington and Alexandria telling us what to do any more than Loudoun wants us telling them what to do," said Fairfax Supervisor Michael R. Frey (R-Sully). "All we can do, sitting in a different jurisdiction, is hope that ultimately the folks in Loudoun will either figure out some way to mitigate the impact or scale back the proposal."

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