For North Arlington residents Emilia and Jim Govan, it all began in 1970. That's when they learned that state highway officials were considering catapulting I-66 over the top of the nearby intersection of Glebe Road and Washington Boulevard.
"You couldn't even see [the intersection] from our driveway," said Emilia Govan recently as she recalled the events that launched one of the best organized citizen fights ever against a government decision seemingly cast in concrete. "And it would not have done anything to our home. But we felt it would have an impact on our neighborhood and the community."
Their adversary was the formidable Virginia Department of Highways and Transportation (VDHT), which was not used to dealing with citizen opposition in a state where roads had long been equated with progress. So, right from the beginning, the Govans and others found themselves running a bureaucratic obstacle course in which everything from maps showing the proposed route to highway decision-makers were inaccessible to the average citizen during the average day.
"People got so angry because of the way highway officials were treating the citizens that we went to the County Board and asked them to get the highway department to reopen the hearings and to make the maps available at the public libraries," she said. "It was such a struggle to get information out to the public."
When the hearings were finally reopened in 1970, she said, "the decision-makers weren't present and those who came weren't prepared to answer questions because, I guess, they weren't used to answering citizens' questions . . . ."
Out of the Govans' frustration grew the Arlington Coalition on Transportation (ACT), an organization whose ranks grew within a year to nearly 1,300 members. And, as the highway department was about to learn, it was a formidable organization in its own right.
Most of ACT's members were residents of Arlington, a largely affluent and sophisticated community filled with middle- and upper-level employes of the federal government. That sophistication and inside-the-bureaucracy experience was to give ACT a decided advantage in fighting the highway department's plans to build a 14-lane highway with a simple chain-link fence separating it from neighborhood homes, school and parks.
ACT had volunteer lawyers and experts on such subjects as air and noise pollution, traffic engineering, environmental designs and water quality who proved invaluable when it filed suit against the VDHT in 1971.
"There was no way we could ask the court to block the road," said Govan, whose home until 1977 was at North Buchanan Street, five blocks from the Glebe Road intersection. They now live elsewhere in North Arlington. "What we were hoping for was that objective studies would be done, objective environmental impact statements . . . . We were asking that various officials comply with the laws" requiring these studies.
The case wound through the federal courts for years, with ACT losing in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, then winning on appeal. Eventually U.S. Transportation Secretary William T. Coleman Jr. settled the issue with his 1977 ruling that led to today's scaled-down, four-lane I-66.
Though the highway ended up a reality, Govan, who abandoned work on her a doctoral dissertation to fight the highway and is today a lawyer, sees some lasting benefits from the battle: "It enhanced Arlington's sense of community. It brought together many, many talented, concerned citizens and, through their efforts, showed them and government officials that it is possible to have meaningful citizen involvement in decisions which in the past were made behind closed doors."
In addition, she said, "it had a lasting effect on the process of decision-making in the metropolitan area. This was a transportation issue, but it increased citizen desire to participate in decisions which affect their lives."
"It didn't accomplish everything ACT wanted," she said. "But it was successful in terms of changing the governmental decision-making process."
The fact that Spout Run Park was saved from the bulldozers was a "significant accomplishment" in and of itself, she said. Without the citizen effort, Govan said, "we would have had a highway twice as big, much uglier and much more intrusive in the community."
Govan said she still views the road as a "concrete gash through a residential community . . . . It was never built for Arlington, but to get people through Arlington."
But "we pointed out some of the problems years ago," she said, "and now we'll just have to wait and see what happens."