Correction to This Article
This article, about the Fairfax County Parkway being completed after decades of planning and construction, incorrectly described the parkway's northernmost point. It is in the northwestern quadrant of Fairfax, not in the northeastern quadrant

After 50 years, Fairfax County Parkway finally heads toward the finish line

By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Fairfax County Parkway is about to open, long, long, long after the notion that it was needed first came to light.

Cliché demands that just how long it has been be underscored with the mention of a distant president (Ronald Reagan?), an all-but-forgotten pop song ("Funkytown"?) and a historical footnote (the Shah of Iran dies?). But as with the construction itself, the birthing of the concept took forever, and some would point to its genesis as part of a long-dead idea to build an Outer Beltway around Washington (Eisenhower, "Lonely Boy," Castro overthrows Batista).

Indeed, a route very close to the parkway that will open this month was sketched out more than 50 years ago, part of a row of dots that stretched south across the Potomac from Montgomery County and then crossed the river once more into Charles County just above Indian Head.

"It's one thing to pave over a wheat field in Kansas and quite another thing to plunk it down here in Northern Virginia," said Rep. Gerry E. Connolly, who served as a Fairfax County commissioner for 14 years before being elected to Congress in 2008.

With the project moving in fits and starts because of erratic funding and several other challenges, Connolly recalls going to more ribbon-cuttings than he can count as each new segment opened.

"The funding has been so uneven over the years, and as a result it got built in pieces," Connolly said. "The state wasn't a reliable funding partner, and an unusual percentage of the project got funded by local dollars."

Finally, with a ribbon-cutting scheduled for Sept. 13, the entire four-lane highway will be open from Route 7 in the northeastern quadrant of the county to Route 1 in the southeastern. There is quite a bit left to be done on tributary roads, including linking the parkway to Interstate 95, and Connolly helped secure $61 million in federal stimulus money to speed completion of those projects.

The final key sections of the parkway will open in the midst of a massive shift of personnel into Fort Belvoir under the Pentagon's 2005 Base Realignment and Closure plan.

Fort Belvoir, near the southern end of the parkway, will have the fifth-largest military population of any installation in the country, according to the Army. The engineer proving ground, next to the main post, is becoming home to the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, which will consolidate 8,500 employees from six locations into a 2.4-million-square-foot headquarters.

"The problem with BRAC is that it came to us with no transportation funding," Connolly said. "That was unconscionable, and I told them, 'You won't be able to get your employees to work without this parkway.' "

The extraordinarily long time between concept and completion caused politicians and planners to reflect on future transportation planning for Northern Virginia and the rest of the Washington region, one of the most congested in the nation.

"It has taken seven Virginia governors and the better part of four decades to complete a 35-mile roadway in the most prosperous county in one of the most prosperous states in the country," said Bob Chase, executive director of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance. "That's relevant in terms of how complicated and difficult it is to advance critically needed transportation projects in Northern Virginia."

Chase, whose group has been a strong advocate of highway construction, said the completion of "lateral connectors" between north-south highways has given Northern Virginia a competitive advantage over Maryland in attracting jobs. With the lateral Intercounty Connector, another long-debated project, underway in Montgomery, Chase sees a need for additional regional bypasses and new bridges across the Potomac.

Despite tight times for transportation funding, and the failure of Congress to pass a new long-term transportation funding bill that would allow states to plan, Connolly says visionaries need to look over the horizon.

"Metro has got to be a part of our future," Connolly said. "It's got to come down I-66 to Gainesville, it's got to come down I-95 to Potomac Mills and we've got to have light rail down the Richmond highway corridor.

"These things are critical projects for the future," he added. "But these things take time. You can't just do them overnight."

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