Fairfax County supervisors approved two letters to the state transportation secretary Dec. 1 urging the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) not to finalize decisions on its 495 Express Lanes Northern Extension (495 NEXT) project until Maryland officials make highway-capacity arrangements on their side of the Potomac River.
VDOT now is conducting an environmental assessment for the project, which would extend the I-495 Express Lanes about 3 miles between the Dulles Toll Road and the vicinity of the American Legion Bridge.
Supervisors approved the letters on a 9-1 vote, with Supervisor Patrick Herrity (R-Springfield) voting nay, but only after barely passing an amendment by Supervisor John Foust (D-Dranesville).
Foust’s amendment superseded identical sentences in both draft letters, which initially read that the project “provides significantly greater benefit if Maryland completes their system of managed lanes, particularly increasing the capacity of the American Legion Bridge.”
Instead, the board approved Foust’s new language stating that VDOT’s studies showed the project would provide significant benefits only if Maryland completed its system of managed lanes, especially involving increased capacity on the American Legion Bridge.
In the interim, the project would “cause inequitable and, therefore, unacceptable delays” for motorists using the non-Express Lanes, according to Foust’s amendment.
“Construction of the project will also cause massive disruption to neighborhoods in and around McLean and Tysons as well as permanent damage to parks, stormwater, streams, and private property with no equivalent benefits without Maryland’s managed lanes,” Foust’s amendment read. “Therefore, it is imperative that VDOT only consider final action on the I-495 NEXT project once Maryland has successfully executed a comprehensive agreement with a developer to complete their system of managed lanes.”
Supervisors passed Foust’s amendment on a 6-4 vote, with Chairman Jeffrey McKay (D) and Supervisors Dalia Palchik (D-Providence), Penelope Gross (D-Mason) and Herrity voting in the negative.
Debate was unusually spirited for the almost all-Democratic board. Herrity said the project would move 2,500 more people per hour, reduce cut-through traffic in local neighborhoods and provide additional transportation choices, including incentives to carpool and use transit.
“We should be moving forward with this project,” Herrity said. “It will allow Virginia to kind of influence what Maryland does, versus Maryland influencing what we’re going to be doing.”
McKay agreed that the project would do plenty of good and said Foust’s concerns already were addressed in the letters.
“I think we need to apply pressure, continued pressure, to make sure that coordination with Maryland occurs,” McKay said. “Clearly, the value of these lanes is dramatically increased with Maryland’s participation . . . I’m just leery of giving control of a project like this over to another state that I hear is in various states of disagreement about the future of those lanes.”
Supervisor Walter Alcorn (D-Hunter Mill) supported Foust’s amendment, saying going forward with the project without nailing down Maryland’s commitment would slow down motorists on Interstate 495’s general-purpose lanes.
“That’s not a win-win situation,” Alcorn said.
Foust said the existing 495 Express Lanes in McLean are a “road to nowhere” and have caused a “massive disaster” for traffic in his district.
“This project that is being proposed does not solve that problem, it moves it 2 miles down the road,” Foust said. “In the interim, we will have eliminated any options we have to work with Maryland, to cooperate and negotiate, and we will have a project that solves no problems. It creates problems.”
The letters, signed by Chairman Jeffrey McKay (D) and addressed to Virginia Secretary of Transportation Shannon Valentine, also provided the board’s comments concerning the project’s design and environmental impacts.
While supporting the project’s aims of reducing traffic congestion and providing additional travel choices, the supervisors’ letters highlighted several concerns with the 495 NEXT project’s design and environmental impacts.
County officials expressed concern about tree losses and stream erosion and stressed that the project should have adequate stormwater management.
“Increased imperviousness from the I-495 NEXT project has significant potential to exacerbate already prevalent stream degradation and flooding issues, particularly at Scotts Run,” the letters read.
Officials also wanted the project to include a regional trail for bicyclists and pedestrians along I-495 that could be continued into Maryland.
VDOT also should work with the Express Lanes’ concessionaire, Transurban, to secure capital and operating funds that would promote transit access along the corridor. “Dedicated transit funding associated with this project is essential towards reducing single-occupancy vehicle ridership, vehicle miles traveled in the area, and encouraging a sustainable transportation system,” the board’s environmental letter read.
Foust intimated he might break into a jig in the street if the Maryland-Virginia connections finally were made and reduced cut-through traffic in his district.
“Supervisor Foust, I’m not sure we want you dancing in the street,” Gross joked. “That would just bollix up the traffic.”
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