The massive expansion of high occupancy toll lanes on Interstate 66 is set to run from Tysons Corner to Gainesville, but the bike trail attached to the project will only reach Centreville — and that has people in Prince William a bit peeved.
The $2.3-billion construction effort is designed to widen the highway to include two toll lanes and three general purpose lanes in each direction through University Boulevard in Gainesville. Work is set to kick off in earnest over the next few months.
But first, county lawmakers and cycling advocates are leading one last push to extend plans for the associated 16.5-mile bike and pedestrian trail into Prince William.
The county is still set to fund some limited trails beside the highway in coordination with the project, but lawmakers see no reason the state should not handle it instead.
“We just don’t have many safe cycling, running or walking facilities in Prince William,” said Sen. Scott Surovell, D-36th District. “Anything we can do to reduce traffic between Gainesville and the Beltway, we should do....And I can assure you, thousands of people would use this on a weekly basis. You could go easily from Gainesville to the Vienna Metro station, or Tyson’s.”
Surovell teamed up with 18 other lawmakers from across the state — including Prince William-area representatives Sen. Jeremy McPike, D-29 District, and Del. Tim Hugo, R-40th District — to send an Aug. 11 letter to state Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne laying out these concerns. Specifically, they argue that building a trail only to Centreville would be “shortsighted” and runs afoul of the project’s “intent to address congestion caused by cars.”
Layne responded Aug. 29, stressing that “no trail is planned within the I-66 right of way” and noted that Prince William has “a planned trail network on parallel roads such as Balls Ford Road, Pageland Lane and U.S. 29.” While he pledged to keep soliciting feedback as the project is finalized, he didn’t make any commitment to include any trail in the I-66 construction.
Nevertheless, county officials are pressing ahead with efforts to make it perfectly clear that they want to see a bike trail alongside the highway in Gainesville. Yet a heated dispute over a five-mile section of the trail in Fairfax could hamper those efforts, as Layne issues stern warnings that any changes to its design could scuttle the entire project.
A path in Prince William?
For his part, Surovell wonders why Prince William was not included on the bike trail in the first place.
“I can understand that the state wouldn’t design it into the project if Prince William had not requested it, but it’s not clear if Prince William was even consulted,” Surovell said.
Virginia Department of Transportation project managers and spokespeople did not respond to InsideNoVa’s repeated requests for comment on the project. But Supervisor Pete Candland, R-Gainesville, said the county has been “talking with VDOT for years” about such a possibility, so he saw no reason state officials would be unaware of Prince William’s stance on the issue.
“I honestly don’t know why it was never added to the project,” Candland said. “But there are a lot of complications to work through, so we’d much rather have it as part of the I-66 project, when we have state officials also backing it instead of trying to do it on our own.”
But Candland does concede that the trail was not previously included on the county’s comprehensive plan, which is the only possible reason he can think of that the state would not have included it in the I-66 project off the bat. He directed county staff to study the project for inclusion on the planning document on Sept. 5, and he fully expects to see it added in the coming weeks.
“To me, it’s something that would make a lot of sense and provide some great connectivity,” Candland said. “Having worked in the Reston area for years, I’ve seen the benefit of the W&OD Trail. It allows people from Loudoun to ride their bike to work, and we could even promote people hopping on their bike and riding out to Prince William County to visit our battlefields. It’s the type of connectivity people are looking for.”
The biggest stumbling block Candland foresees in the process is securing the necessary permission to build the trail near the Manassas National Battlefield Park, since he has found that “it’s not easy to work out those agreements to use federally protected lands.” He suggested that the county may still be able to find funding for a trail adjacent to I-66 without the state’s help, but VDOT could be most helpful in interfacing with the various federal agencies governing that park land.
Cycling advocates like Allen Muchnick, a board member with Active Prince William, certainly hope the county is successful in somehow making the I-66 trail happen. While he would be glad to see more trails along Balls Ford Road in particular, his group supported Surovell’s letter because he worried the trail as currently designed could be too winding to effectively lure many cyclists.
“The reality is that they are eventually going to build a continuous bike trail all the way to Haymarket, but how pleasant it will be, that’s another question,” Muchnick said.
A fight in Fairfax
Candland and Surovell both said they are holding out hope that it is not too late to sort through these various issues, but questions over the Fairfax section of the trail could complicate matters a bit in Prince William.
Surovell and his fellow state lawmakers expressed concern over a five-mile section of the trail from Fair Lakes to Centreville, where the path would run inside the sound wall separating the highway from nearby homes.
On that stretch, bikers would only have a concrete barrier and mesh fence separating them from traffic, “exposing them to concentrated quantities of car exhaust, noise pollution and road debris,” the lawmakers wrote. They also worry that the trail narrows to eight feet in some patches, and represents an “insufficient design” overall.
In his response, Layne took a measured tone, merely reiterating his commitment to local landowners to reduce the right of way necessary for the project and his desire to use “elevation and other means” to better separate the trail from the highway.
But in a Sept. 3 interview with a Washington Post reporter, Layne struck a much more forceful tone. He suggested it’s “not fair” and “not necessary” to take more land to build the trail behind the highway sound barrier, and he is staunchly opposed to any effort to reexamine the design to do so.
“This will jeopardize the entire deal if we go back to the homeowners now and tell them we are going to take more of their property,” Layne told the Post.
Surovell was taken aback by that assertion, suggesting it was “inconsistent with every piece of information” he has received on the subject. While it is unclear how much of an impact the Fairfax spat could have on efforts to build out the trail in Prince William, Surovell hopes that he can work together with VDOT to find some sort of middle ground on all his concerns.
“The difficulty is the state made these commitments to landowners outside of the presence of the cycling community or the broader stakeholders,” Surovell said. “And it’s hard to negotiate with ‘Chicken Little.’”