It took an act of the Virginia legislature and 11 years of red tape to build the Little River Turnpike across Fairfax County almost 200 years ago. Now the stone roadbed has been replaced with asphalt and the wooden bridges with concrete overpasses. But it seems one thing hasn't changed in Fairfax County: the politics of roadbuilding.
Political bickering and neighborhood squabbles have shaped most major roadways in the county, leaving Fairfax with a woefully outdated road system.
That's the conclusion of a study by a Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce group, which describes the road system as a "disaster." And many county officials agree.
"Growth has occurred at the pace everybody projected," said Shiva K. Pant, county transportation director. "But the transportation facilities are not there."
"We're basically using roads that are paved Indian paths and wagon trails," added Ed Risse, chairman of the transporation committee of the Chamber of Commerce that studied two centuries of maps before coming to its conclusions.
In the past 10 years, according to chamber officials, successive boards of supervisors have rejected carefully planned road proposals, as they bowed to pressure from local residents angered by plans to build roads through their neighborhoods.
As a result, chamber officials say, Fairfax has few quick or easy routes between the northern and southern ends of the county.
"I don't buy that criticism," countered Supervisor Joseph A. Alexander, who said the main reason for the scrapping some plans was to meet the changing development patterns in the county.
In the 1970s, the supervisors stripped the county's master plan for development of most proposed major thoroughfares, including an outer Beltway and major roads designed to connect the outer edges of the county.
One series of decisions, transportation planner Pant predicts, is likely to create traffic headaches for years to come. Over several years, the supervisors scrapped a project to speed commuters to and from the Vienna Metro station. The result, Pant says, may be some of the biggest traffic jams in the county when the station opens.
Despite the criticism for scrapping so many projects, Alexander says supervisors substituted several proposals for other projects. Among those are the Springfield Bypass and the Dulles Toll Road, both proposed in the late 1970s and both still in planning stages.
Transportation has emerged as one of the most pressing problems, county officials say. And Monday, the supervisors were put to another political test when they were asked to consider a proposal to extend Wiehle Avenue in the Herndon-Reston area.
The proposal called for extending Wiehle from Baron Cameron Avenue to Forest Edge Drive. The plan drew strong support from business leaders in the area and the county planning staff, who said the extension was needed to alleviate the traffic tie-ups created by commuters between Loudoun and Fairfax.
Residents of two Herndon communities, Kingston Chase and Hiddenbrook, oppose the plans because part of the extension would slice through their neighhborhoods.
Some business leaders said they considered Monday's decision a test case, one that would tell them whether the board would continue to bow to citizen pressure even when traffic needs outweigh homeowners' concerns.
On Monday, the supervisors agreed a compromise plan on the extension. The plan calls for completing the entire entension from Baron Cameron Avenue to Forest Edge Drive.
However, the supervisors said additional land will be purchased along the route from Baron Cameron to Dranesville Road to provide a buffer between the extension and surrounding neighborhoods. In addition, the supervisors said that initially a two-lane extension is planned from Dranesville Road to Forest Edge Drive, although additional land will be purchased if it is later decided four lanes are needed. The superivos also agreed to hire an outside transportation specialist to study if four lanes are needed from Dranesville Road to Forest Edge Drive.
County officials say commuters now are paying for the decisions made by the board in the 1970s with bottlenecks, congestion and traffic jams on virtually every major road and intersection in the county.
"We'll never be able to add enough capacity to the roads now because the inner areas of the county are totally developed," said Pant. "The issue now is to make provisions for intracounty movement."
In the past few years, the county has faced an additional problem. State funds for roads have all but dried up, and the county is being forced to find its own money for millions of dollars of road improvements.
"When there was lot of money from the state, the county wasn't sure what improvements it wanted, so it got little from the state," said Pant. "Now that the county is more sure that we do need more highways, the state has no money."