Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole, bowing to complaints from Northern Virginia officials, agreed yesterday to review plans for a controversial computerized traffic control system being installed on Shirley Highway.
Her decision, revealed in a letter to Rep. Stan Parris (R-Va.), was hailed by local officials as the first public indication that the federal government could delay or block the $23 million project, which will also monitor traffic along I-66 inside the Capital Beltway.
Both Fairfax County and Alexandria have threatend to sue to block the state from implementing the system on Shirley Highway, arguing that it will cause massive traffic backups on the heavily used highway's on-ramps and create congestion on neighborhood streets in the inner suburbs.
"It sounds to me like it definitely postpones the operation and possibly bags the whole project," said Fairfax Board Chairman John F. Herrity. "This is a solid chink in the armor of this roadblock that is driving down the street."
Virginia Highway Commissioner Harold C. King, who recently told Northern Virginia officials that it was too late to block the project, said yesterday he was confident that the system would be activated this fall as scheduled despite the federal review.
"We've been studying this thing since 1979 and we know in our best judgment that we're going to improve highway safety and efficiency," said King. "There's too many politicians involved in this. That's the trouble."
A Dole spokesman in Washington said it is not inconceivable that the review could delay or cancel the project. "The review could make that result, but I don't want to prejudge what the result of the review might be," said spokesman Thomas R. Blank.
Some Northern Virginia officials complain that the meters were installed without their approval, and say that the traffic system would give preference to commuters from the outer suburbs at the expense of close-in commuters.
Dole's letter, which was sent in response to a request from Parris, promised a federal review of the project's impact on neighborhoods near the ramps. It also promised an investigation of the procedure that led to the construction of the system.
Dole stopped short of withholding $4.7 million in federal funds for the project as Parris had asked. Blank said the funds have been authorized and will be paid routinely as the review is conducted, but said they could be shut off if federal officials conclude that the project had been approved improperly.