State officials are forging ahead with plans to widen Great Falls Street in McLean despite the objections of many area residents and the Fairfax County Planning Commission.
The Virginia Department of Highways and Transportation plans to widen Great Falls Street from its present two lanes to four lanes spanning 48 feet (including road shoulders). Residents have complained that such a move would convert a residential, treelined suburban road into a dangerous highway. The street will be widened for three miles from Balls HIll Road to the Falls Church city border.
Last week, State Del. Vincent F. Callahan Jr. (R-18th District) arranged a meeting between Gov. John Dalton and some of the residents, but the session was canceled because of the death of Republican senatorial nominee Richard D. Obenshain. Callahan said he hopes to reschedule the meeting for sometime next week.
"In all the years I've been in office, I've never seen a road project that created so much controversy," Callahan said: "Everyone seems to be against it.
"I think some compromise should be reached here," he added. "These people feel frustrated by the Highway Department. Everybody agrees that the road shoul be improved, but that doesn't mean it has to be changed to this great a width."
Lilla Richards of the McLean Citizens' Association said her group wants to see the two-lane road widened somewhat with turning lanes added where necessary and with modifications made for sudden rises and blind curves. That course of action, recommended in the Fairfax County Master Plan, would cost $300,000 to $500,000, Richards said. The cost for widening Great Falls Street to four lanes will be more than $3 million.
"It just doesn't make good sense for us in terms of costs versus benefits to the taxpayer," Richards said. "The Highway Department is trying to blackmail the people of this area. They've given us an all or nothing proposition. Either take four lanes, or let the road rot.That's a pretty closeminded approach."
She added, "I think as a last resort the people of this area would have to take their case to court, but we all hope that won't be necessary. We feel this case is so clear that we ought to be able to get reasonable people to agree with us."#TBut William Wrench, the Culpeper district's new commissioner at the Virginia Department of Highways and Transportation and one of the chief proponents of the four-lane plan, argued that the change was a necessity because of the amount of traffic that now travels along that roadway-an estimated 6,600 to 11,000 vehicles a day. He said future projections show that Great Falls Street will have to handle 15,000 cars a day by 1985.
"It was clear something had to-be done. The question was what.In my best judgement, the commonwealth's money will be best spent making this change," Wrench said. "I just don't think I would have been doing my job properly had I made any other decision.
"I realized there's opposition to it," he added. "But I didn't know I was in a position where I had to take polls. That's the problem today. You can't find people willing to make decisions. Well, I made a decision, and I think it's the right decision."
The road-widenting controversy began in 1967 when the state Highway Department held a public hearing to present the four-lane plan for Great Falls Street. More than 100 local residents attended that hearing and, in a straw poll, voted overwhelmingly against the proposal.
Since then, the Highway Department has continued to push the plan, despite the objections of local boards. The Fairfax County Planning Commission voted 10-to-1 against the four-lane proposal. The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors turned it down giving tacit approval to four lanes at a recent session. One board member explained, "A Highway Department representative basically told us our objections were meaningless. The plan was going to be carried out anyway, so we went along."
The Falls Church City Council recently endorsed a resolution condemning the four-lane proposal. Falls Church, which is one of the few areas in the state that maintains its own roads, will not be affected by the project, but the City Council wanted to make its opposition known anyway.
Some local residents say they fear for the safety of the area if the roadway is changed to four lanes. In a letter to Gov. Dalton, Edgar K. Lofton, of 1805 Great Falls St., wrote, "This would make the street much more dangerous for our children to cross when going to school or recreation clubs. It would make entering and leaving driveways more hazardous.And it would certainly have an adverse effect on our property values."
Residents acknowledge that the roadway is heavily traveled, but they note that of the eight county thoroughfares listed in the regional Master Plan, Great Falls Street shows the lowest number of accidents per vehicle mile.
Opponents of the four-lane proposal claim that the planned extension of the Dulles Airport access road, which will run parallel to Great Falls Street, will alleviate the area's traffic burden. But Highway Department officials counter that only buses and car pools of four or more people will be allowed to use the access road, leaving traffic heavy on Great Falls Street.
The road-widening controversy has raised questions about the powers of the state Highway Department, which is an autonomous body but is still required to seek the cooperation of local authorities in making road changes. Callahan said he is not convinced the Highway Department has done that in this instance.
"These things should be done in cooperation and agreement with the local governing bodies," Callahan said. "But in the final analysis, the Highway Department does what it wants to anyway."
Callahan said if this case is not resolved satisfactorily, he is prepared to introduce legislation in the Virginia General Assembly forcing the Highway Department to acquire local approval before proceeding with any road projects.