Tree Cutting Shocks HOT Lane Neighbors

By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Some elected officials and those who own property along the path of the Capital Beltway in Fairfax County are growing increasingly agitated that a huge highway-widening project will bring more noise and traffic -- and take away more trees and parkland -- than they had expected.

The $1.4 billion project, which will add two high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes in each direction of the Beltway between Springfield and just north of the Dulles Toll Road, has been in the planning stages for several years. But when work began this spring, the visual effect in such on-the-Beltway communities as McLean and Ravensworth Farm was swift and unpleasant, neighbors say.

The project is a joint venture of the Virginia Department of Transportation and the private road builder Fluor-Transurban. Several weeks ago, to neighbors' surprise, VDOT began clearing staging areas near Georgetown Pike in McLean and Braddock Road in southern Fairfax.

"People were surprised that it happened so fast," said Harry Pope, president of the Ravensworth Bristow Civic Association, along Braddock Road just inside the Beltway. "We got the letter saying the HOT lanes were coming, but as one of my board members said, the government never works that fast. We thought we had plenty of time."

The impact of the staging areas caused something of a panic among residents and their elected leaders. Officials said they worried that too little public input for the project's design had been sought. Residents complained that it was too late to ask for sound walls, planting of new trees or new entrance ramps.

"Our first concern was the flow of information," said Gerald E. Connolly (D), chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. The board met yesterday with a panel of VDOT officials, who assured supervisors that the project's design is far from final and that there is still ample time for public input.

"It is our intent to work through these issues," said Ronaldo T. "Nick" Nicholson of VDOT. "We're hearing the concerns. We need to study these concerns and come back with an informed response to them."

Supervisors heard first from residents stunned by the clear-cutting for the staging areas. That quickly brought more concern from residents who wanted to know what would happen to the noise walls in their communities and the buffer areas of forest between their homes and the highway.

"Once the project is truly underway, eventually pretty much all the trees in the VDOT right of way are going to be cleared," said Supervisor Sharon S. Bulova (D-Braddock), who represents a number of neighborhoods affected by the construction. "I know I didn't have an appreciation of the extent of the clearing that was going to be done."

One reason so much tree-clearing is required is that the project keeps the new lanes within VDOT's existing right of way. That spares untold numbers of private parcels, but it also means that wooded VDOT land must be cleared, eliminating buffers with neighborhoods.

Nicholson noted that the minimal amount of private property being taken also accounts for the breadth of residents who did not know that the project was so close to reality.

Neighbors are also concerned about the potential for cut-through traffic in their communities, and Bulova asked Nicholson if it was too late to add ramps to allow drivers to enter the HOT lanes from the regular lanes so that drivers aren't compelled to drive to the Braddock Road Beltway entrance for access to the HOT lanes. Nicholson said it was not.

Similarly, Nicholson said he would work with neighborhoods to replace sound walls. The project calls for using better, more sound-absorbent styles. But it is unclear how long some neighborhoods will go without noise barriers during the five-year construction period. Nicholson also said that VDOT will work with the county to ensure that trees are replanted wherever possible and to minimize clear-cutting at interchanges as new bridges are built over the Beltway.

"Do they really need to clear every teeny piece of vegetation in their right of way?" Bulova asked. "Eventually, the entire thing may need to be cleared, but do you really have to go whole hog right off the bat and leave the community with a completely denuded area for the length of the entire project?"

VDOT officials acknowledged in their meeting with board members yesterday that, despite several public hearings, communication with the local government has not been ideal. But they pledged to change that as the project gets underway, with plans to open a storefront where project information will be available and to meet with interested community groups. They also agreed to regularly meet with supervisors to hear their concerns.

"We are going to widen 14 miles of the Capital Beltway and introduce new access points and, in the next five years, change the way our citizenry commutes on the main thoroughfare of Fairfax County," Nicholson said. "For whatever reason, that had not gone through the scrutiny that it warranted, until now."

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