In addition to the Beltway, there are proposals for two north-south highways in Northern Virginia that could form an Outer Beltway. (Coalition for Smarter Growth)

Though prospects of a major north-south highway running between Loudoun and Prince William counties have been batted around for years, the recent explosion of growth in those two counties has given the idea new urgency. And the people opposed to such a highway have new urgency too, because they say that building huge roads doesn’t solve congestion, it creates it.

What opened everyone’s eyes was the move in May by Virginia’s Commonwealth Transportation Board, the state’s advisory and planning body for transportation, to designate a stretch between Interstate 95 in Prince William and Route 7 in Loudoun as a “Corridor of Statewide Significance.” There were already 11 of these corridors in Virginia, but they tracked existing roads. This time, the corridor is declared for a road that doesn’t exist.

The Coalition for Smarter Growth calls this “the Zombie Road,” the road that won’t die, the road we don’t need. They believe an inner version could be used to hook up with the new Intercounty Connector in Maryland to create a new Outer Beltway, or the new corridor could connect to form a second Outer Beltway. [Some folks remember when the current Beltway was considered “outer.” HA.] The coalition is now launching a petition drive to stop the Zombie Road before it ever starts.

Sean T. Connaughton, the Virginia secretary of transportation and a former Prince William County board chairman, says to calm down. It’s only being studied. Nothing is being built yet. But he feels the need is there, and Northern Virginia’s failure to plan for future needs is what got us in our current transportation miasma.

“We believe it’s essential,” Connaughton told me recently, “that we have to find some way to deal with the connectivity between Prince William and Loudoun. The two counties now have 800,000 people between them, and that’s supposed to go up to 2 million. We only have two roads between them, [Routes] 15 and 659.”

Connaughton said, “The future of Loudoun commercial development is to the west of Dulles Airport. We need to be able to get a way into that area.”

But he added, as he has before, “This is not an Outer Beltway...We’re basically just trying to look. This is just a study. This is no more. We’re going to look at transit, bikes, pedestrians, roads, everything. We just can’t ignore the obvious...Northern Virginia has attempted to control growth by not building transportation facilities, and it hasn’t worked.”

Smart growth folks like Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, are highly dubious of Connaughton’s claims that they’re merely studying the idea of a major north-south highway. “He appears to be making this one of his top priority projects,” Schwartz said. And he noted that an east-west bypass around Charlottesville quickly moved forward once Connaughton got behind it.

Schwartz notes that there isn’t nearly the traffic heading north-to-south in western NoVa that there is heading east-west. The proposed corridor also could run through the Manassas battlefield, Schwartz said.

“We’ve got a lot more priorities in Northern Virginia,” Schwartz said, ”than a new north-south component of an Outer Beltway. There’s fixing I-66, fixing Route 50, Tysons Corner. We certainly don’t have enough money identified for all these projects, and we’re very concerned the secretary would direct money to this Outer Beltway project.”