The Best Bypass to “Fix Route 28” Does Not Require Building A New Highway Through Bull Run Parkland

The traffic congestion on Route 28 is unacceptable, and the Route 28 Corridor Feasibility Study  is underway.

The Northern Virginia Transportation Authority (NVTA) and Commonwealth Transportation Board are poised to fund widening Route 28 in Fairfax, creating new interchanges to eliminate stoplights – and potentially a brand new highway extending Godwin Road over Bull Run.

The new four-lane highway is the obvious preference of the Department of Transportation in Prince William County.  The county’s transportation officials see more-bigger roads as the solution to every mobility problem, and endorse every highway that can be sketched on a map.

Their choice is Option 2B, extending Godwin Drive from Route 234 (Sudley Road) across Bull Run:

Option 2B

Option 2B, extending Godwin Road across Bull Run

County officials are not born with infinite wisdom and do not always have the right answer.  In this case, they do not even have the right question.  This is not a play written by Shakespeare, where “2B or not 2B, that is the question.”

Fortunately, the process to get Federal funding requires public involvement and the consideration of alternatives beyond the preferences of county staff.  More lanes and fewer traffic lights are obviously part of the solution, but building a new road across Bull Run is not.

Best place to start before spending hundreds of millions on a new road: define the problem.

Two streams of traffic get clogged on Route 28:
1) vehicles going north from Manassas to I-66
2) vehicles coming up Route 28 from Fauquier County line that go through Manassas, and then join the congestion from Manassas to I-66

There are two separate solutions to those two problems.

Manassas to I-66

Widening Route 28 north of Bull Run in Fairfax where the corridor has been planned for more lanes, and eliminating stoplights with revised interchanges and overpasses, will speed traffic between Manassas and I-66 significantly.

South of Bull Run, the potential to widen Route 28 between Manassas-Yorkshire is limited by the number of commercial operations on either side of the road.  Destroying businesses in Manassas/Manassas Park/Prince William, so commuters can drive to jobs in other jurisdictions, will not help the local tax base or local employment opportunities.

It may be feasible to re-engineer some of the frustrating interchanges in Manassas, Manassas Park, and Prince William to minimize the delay from stoplights.

From Fauquier County Headed North

The best way to get the traffic to bypass Manassas is… (drum roll, please) use the existing Route 234 Bypass to bypass Manassas.

Traffic coming north from Fauquier County can go 5 miles to reach I-66 via the Route 234 Bypass.  That road is planned to be a 6-lane highway with overpasses between Route 28 and I-66.

purple squares show planned overpasses from Route 28/234 Bypass (black circle) to I-66

purple squares show planned overpasses from Route 28/234 Bypass (black circle) to I-66

Even if Option 2B was built to German autobahn standards, the 5-mile drive via Route 234 Bypass will always be quicker than the 9-mile drive via Route 28 at Centreville.

The goal is to get vehicles to I-66, right?  Express Mobility Partners is spending $3 billion or so to upgrade that interstate to move traffic.  Route 234 Bypass is a straight shot from Route 28 to I-66.  In contrast, Option 2B would be a long, winding road.  It would be slower for drivers, and waaaay more expensive for taxpayers.

traffic from south of Manassas can get to I-66 (blue dots) without clogging Route 28 in Fairfax County (yellow dots)

traffic from south of Manassas can get to I-66 (blue dots) without clogging Route 28 in Fairfax County (yellow dots)

And why would we want to stick even more cars on Route 28 north of Bull Run?

With Option 2B, 8 lanes of traffic would have to squeeze into the 6-lane Route 28 corridor in Fairfax County.  That would just create a new bottleneck and create more congestion on the route to Centreville.

Eliminating stoplights on the Route 234 Bypass will help make Innovation more attractive for development.  The Innovation site is intended to be a place for businesses to bring jobs to Prince William, and to evolve into a live-work-play center – so let’s invest there.

We can divert traffic away from the chokepoint of downtown Manassas without building a new road across Bull Run.  No houses, no wetlands, and no historic Civil War battlefields need to be destroyed by constructing Option 2B.

Bull Run, upstream of Mitchell's Ford

Bull Run, upstream of Mitchell’s Ford

When the environmental analysis of the “Fix Route 28” proposals gets serious, transportation planners will be confronted with Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act and Section 4f of the Department of Transportation Act of 1966.

Both require close examination of feasible alternatives before blasting new roads through parks.  The Civil War Trust and NOVAParks have already made clear their objections.

The question is “how do we minimize future – as well as current – congestion.”
Option 2B is not the answer.

There is a clear alternative: improve the existing Route 234 bypass to bypass Manassas, rather than build a new highway cutting through neighborhoods, sensitive riparian areas, and the 1861 battlefield.

(Yes, more Virginia Railway Express service from Broad Run station could reduce future congestion as population grows, but that’s another blog post.)  

Option 2B crosses through Bull Run Regional Park

Option 2B cuts through Bull Run Regional Park

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If “Transform I-66” Is Supposed to Create a Multi-Mobile Corridor – Ugh, What About Bikes and Pedestrians in Prince William?

dottedlineVDOT advertises the $3 billion Transform I-66 project as more than a road project:
Work is underway to transform Northern Virginia’s Interstate 66 into a multimodal corridor that moves more people, provides reliable trips and offers new travel options.

Good vision – except the non-motorized part in Prince William is all hat and no cattle.

The project’s contribution to a shared use path west of Fairfax County is just a few lines on a map.

Dotted lines for “duh, don’t know who might ever make this a real trail” cross Bull Run.  Unless you’re paddling a bike with a swim bladder, that dotted line means end-of-trail-and-start-of-platitudes-and-promises.

East of Bull Run, there’s real money being invested in building a trail suitable for pedestrians and bikers.  West of Bull Run… nada.

VDOT blames Prince William County.  The Comprehensive Plan failed to include a path for non-motorized travel in the I-66 corridor.  If the county did not plan it, then there must be no need and VDOT won’t recommend it.  (Think that logic would apply to the Bi-County Parkway?  Hey, it’s not in the Comprehensive Plan either…)

If you don’t play the game, you have no chance of winning.  So Prince William Conservation Alliance submitted the following comments to VDOT, in the idealistic hopes that citizen feedback might somehow affect the final decision:

The Prince William Conservation Alliance supports the planning and construction of bike/pedestrian paths in the I-66 corridor as part of the Transform I-66 project.  

We have two comments:

1) The proposal to end construction of multi-mobile paths at the Fairfax County border, excluding Prince William County, is short-sighted and inadequate.  
The I-66 project should provide a bridge over Bull Run to facilitate a connection from Fairfax County to Balls Ford Road and Vandor Lane.  
2) The Transform I-66 project should construct a bike/pedestrian path where I-66 crosses over Route 234 business.  
Building new infrastructure at that overpass, without creating a bike/pedestrian path linking the southern and northern sides of Route 234, would be transportation planning malpractice.
Currently, I-66 isolates the Northern Virginia Community College and Manassas National Battlefield Park from the development on Sudley Road.  Pedestrians and bikers going from the City of Manassas to the community college or park visitor center must go far out of their way to Groveton Road, in order to get across I-66..  
It would be flat wrong to build more bridges which would perpetuate rather than correct the problem at the Route 234 Business overpass.

Here’s the roundabout route that bikers and pedestrians must take to get to Northern Virginia Community College (NVCC) from Manassas to bypass the I-66/Business 234 interchange (yellow circle):
bike

Community: 1, Buckland Bypass: 0

buckThe room at Haymarket Elementary was packed with 150+ people.  A significant percentage wore T-shirts expressing opposition to the latest proposal for a Buckland Bypass,a  4-lane divided highway west of Haymarket. concerned that Prince William County was proposing (again) to build a Buckland Bypass.

Fauquier officials made clear that they did not support the Buckland Bypass (which would start in their county) now, and never have.

The residents of Cerro Gordo and nearby neighborhoods made their points clearly, politely, forcefully, and successfully last night.  All but perhaps one were clearly opposed.  The road would displace residents, transform the character of the neighborhoods, potentially dry up wells – and the costs would far exceed the benefits.

Jeanine Lawson, Brentsville District Supervisor, commented that they “killed it.”  She predicted with confidence that there will be no Comprehensive Plan Amendment to initiate a Buckland Bypass.

Earlier in 2017, the county floated a proposal for a new highway linking Route 29 and I-66, so commuters driving north from Stafford, Culpeper, and Fauquier would be able to cut through Prince William’s Rural Area in order to get to work.
buck3

The county’s project was an echo of previous proposals for a Western Bypass or Outer Beltway.  Various versions of new roads have been justified by the supposed need to get heavy trucks from I-95 to I-81 quicker, or to move commuters to the west before they drive eastward towards DC, or… well, pick a rationalization, they’re all equally valid.

The fundamental push has been from developers who want to by land cheap, get it rezoned to “bust” the Rural Area protections, and then build more subdivisions.  If only the government would build new roads, then traffic congestion would simply evaporate.  Then everyone would support  more residential development on the periphery of the urban core, right?

Reality suggests otherwise.  I-66 has been widened to Haymarket, and a new interchange completed.  A new Route 29 interchange at Linton Hall has been built.  That did not cause traffic to evaporate – and the “just build more roads; that will fix it this time” argument failed last night.

The Buckland Bypass was only a skirmish.  It can be compared to the Buckland Races in 1863 – important for those directly affected, but not a conclusive engagement in the war.  The real challenge, protecting the Rural Area, still lies ahead.

buck2proposed “short routes” discussed at the October 10 Stakeholder’s Meeting

Manassas Starts to Give City Parks the “Green Light”

manassaswoodsThe City of Manassas mothballed its parks management operation during the 2008 recession, but it’s coming back to life.

In 2016 it completed a Parks, Recreation and Cultural Needs Assessment and Facilities Plan and a Master Plan for Dean Park.  In 2017, the city started a plan for Stonewall Park.

The planning has defined “Levels of Service” for active recreation.  The city has identified how many more ballfields, basketball courts, etc. are needed as the population grows.  The challenge is not a small one.

boxturtleWhat’s missing, so far, is the recognition that the city also has natural resources to protect in its parks. The initial proposal for Stonewall Park would clear some of the mature forest there, with trees perhaps 75 years old, to add a rectangular ballfield.

Stonewall Park is not a wilderness area, but it’s special. Not many places in Manassas offer a chance to walk underneath a canopy of old oak trees. The forest at Liberia is much younger, for example. Cannon Branch Fort also offers a rare experience to walk in the woods in a city park  There are still some trees left along Winters Branch, despite the recent city project to armor the streambank with stones.

At Stonewall Park, he city has the potential to consider how to replace the non-native Bradford pear trees with species that support wildlife, especially birds. Manassas has many back yards that offer a specific type of habitat and attract specific types of birds, but the city has few places that support critters that rely upon forest habitat. The plants the city installed around the parking lots, when the park was first developed, are only slightly better for native birds and butterflies than the cell tower disguised as a tree.

Manassas could also look into options for improving stormwater management at Stonewall Park. Currently, runoff from the park carries pollution downstream with no controls. It’s one reason Bull Run is on the state’s dirty water list of impaired streams.

Runoff from the urban area also puts the Occoquan River, Potomac River, and the Chesapeake Bay on that dirty water list.  Ugh.

It’s still early in the planning process for Manassas parks.  City staff and elected officials seem receptive to comments.

If you want the city to inventory its natural assets and manage the trees as much as the ballfields, now is a good time to say what you want – submit your comments regarding Stonewall Park.

mayapple

 

VDOT Tries Sneak Attack – Again – for New Roads West of Haymarket

The Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) is engaged in another hide-and-seek exercise to facilitate sprawl west of Haymarket. They’re back, trying to build new roads west of Haymarket that are not in the county’s Comprehensive Plan.

The game plan is to use the massive “Transform I-66” project as an excuse to extend Heathcote Boulevard west, and build a bridge over I-66 connecting Heathcote to Route 55 near the Amazon data center.

haymarket.png

new roads are in red, and the new bridge with HOT ramps is in yellow

As they say on TV – but wait, there’s more.  Prince William County has already restarted a study of another road, the developers’ dream known as the Buckland Bypass.  It would run from Fauquier County north along the edge of the Bull Run Mountains.

If a 4-lane divided highway replaced Thoroughfare Road south of I-66, how long before there’s a proposal to widen Antioch Road and build a 4-lane road parallel to Route 15 at the base of Bull Run Mountain north to Loudoun County?  It’s another flavor of the Bi-County Parkway nightmare.

Once again, VDOT is not being transparent or straight-up irabbitn its Transform I-66 planning. The next round of I-66 public discussion, the Concept Plan meetings scheduled in June, has no discussion of any new construction west of Route 29.

The VDOT public involvement process is “Hey folks, look this way, to the east… no no no, don’t look at what we’re planning west of Route 29 until it’s too late to change anything.

VDOT’s Concept Plan public meetings in June resemble the way magicians do something flashy to draw the audience’s attention to one side of the stage, while stuffing a rabbit into the hat.

This is not VDOT’s first magician show on expanding roads west of Route 15. In 2015, after finishing all the public events to discuss how to improve I-66, the state transportation agency tried to sneak into the plan a new parking lot on Antioch Road, replacing an operating local farm with pavement.

The public response, including a resolution by the Board of County Supervisors to save the Heflin Farm, was quick and loud. The parking lot was dropped before the I-66 project was approved by the Virginia Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB).

Now it’s back, though hidden quite well.  You have until midnight, April 8 to submit your comments on this latest attempt.  Yup, the deadline is that tight.
Read more »

Prince William Freezes VRE Expansion In Its Tracks

mapIn December, the Virginia Railway Express (VRE) completed Phase 1 of the Gainesville-Haymarket Extension study.

Despite the clear preference of VRE at the start of the study to extend the commuter ail system 11 miles west to beyond Haymarket, the analysis in Phase 1 demonstrated that a different alternative was far better.

The staff recommended the VRE Operations Board adopt the”Relocated Broad Run Terminus” option. It would add three new commuter runs in the morning and evening, expand the existing railyard  at Broad Run to handle additional trains, and move the displaced Broad Run platform to a new site closer to Manassas.

brr1

Prince William officials asked for delay.  The high costs of building to Haymarket and subsidizing service from that location had created sticker-shock.  The Board of County Supervisors declined to endorse the planned 11-mile extension, and was at risk of allowing the project to simply die.

“No action” would block VRE expansion of the Broad Run railyard, and block the addition of new trains.  Existing trains, already crowded with commuters, could be expanded by adding extra cars, but more trains are required to handle the increasing demand for transit.

The VRE Operations Board took a straw vote in December, and support for the Relocated Broad Run Terminus option was overwhelming.  However, since Prince William County had failed to identify a locally-preferred alternative, the VRE Operations Board took no official action to advance a preferred alternative to a Phase II study.

Earlier in 2016, VRE had submitted the project to expand service on the Manassas Line to the Commonwealth Transportation Board for the SmartScale ranking process.  That review is required obtain state funding in 2017 – but VRE withdrew its submission in January 2017.
brr6

Since the next cycle for SmartScale ranking will not occur until 2019, the delay means that new state funding for expanding service on the Manassas Line will be postponed for at least two years.

In the 2019 SmartScale process, funding maintenance to keep existing infrastructure in a State of Good Repair will e the #1 priority.  For new projects, any expansion on the VRE Manassas Line will be competing against plans to build a new tunnel and widen I-64 at Hampton Roads.  That will dramatically reduce congestion, and could rank so high in SmartScale review that it sucks up all the available funding for new construction.

At the January 2017 meeting of the VRE Operations Board, Prince William officials again explained that they had not reached a decision on their preferred alternative.

Representatives from other jurisdictions expressed their frustration at the delay, noting that Prince William’s failure to expand transit capacity would result in more cars clogging the highways of Fairfax County and other jurisdictions.  One member commented with tension in his voice “You’re not just holding up yourself, you’re holding up the rest of us too.

To make matters worse, Prince William officials announced that the planned B-1 site for a relocated Broad Run station was no longer available.  The parcel where the rail line crosses Godwin Road has just been purchased by a private company for an economic development project.  Site B-2 was still available, but City of Manassas officials were not endorsing it yet.
brr

The county representative also suggested that Prince William may not endorse the Relocated Broad Run Terminus alternative, the one with the highest benefit/cost ratio.

Instead, the county may propose building new track west to a new station at Gainesville, even though that choice would not be eligible for Federal funding and operations would require a greater annual subsidy by local taxpayers.

Perhaps not coincidentally, developers have been looking for government-subsidized transportation projects that might stimulate new use at the old Atlantic Research site.The Northern Virginia Transportation Authority (NVTA) could help fund both extension of VRE to Gainesville and construction of the Bi-County Parkway there.
brr2

At the end of the January 27, 2017 meeting, the VRE Operations Board members had made clear that Prince William County had to “get its act together,” but county officials had made no commitments regarding when they might adopt a locally preferred alternative.

Buckland/Haymarket Bypass: Just Moving a Pawn in the Bi-County Parkway Chess Game

buckPrince William County is considering constructing a new road between Route 29 and I-66, cutting through the Rural Area west of Haymarket.

The latest Buckland/Haymarket Bypass proposal is not a new idea.  It’s a vampire that just won’t die, and continues to suck planning  resources.

The latest (2016) proposal is to build a 4-lane divided highway with a 40-wide median in the center.  The road would be designed for cars to go 55-60mph between the county border and a new I-66 interchange.

There would be no intersections for any connections to local roads, not even Route 55 (John Marshall Highway).  Drivers would bypass every business in Prince William County, so the local economic development score is… zero, zip, nada.

Three lines have been drawn on the map as alternative routes for the county’s planning process.  On January 26 the county’s Department of Transportation hosted a “stakeholder’s” meeting to discuss which route might be preferred.

The answer was a clear “none of the above.”

three

The only options proposed by Prince William County were
three routes for a new road and “do nothing.”

Fauquier County supervisor Holder Trumbo made clear at the start of the meeting that his county’s officials were strongly opposed to constructing a new bypass, and he did not expect the Prince William planning process to alter that perspective.

Members of the public also did not buy what Prince William staff were selling.

During the discussion, staff suggested that there were concerns:
(1) cumulative impacts on the Buckland Historic District,
(2) a need to accommodate traffic coming up Route 29 from North Carolina, and
(3) growing commuter traffic coming from south of the Prince William-Fauquier boundary.

Stakeholders questioned how the county had already decided that a new road was the best solution to those problems.

The public challenged county staff to consider more alternatives, such as improving Route 29 sight lines and removing stoplights – particularly at the Vint Hill Road/Route 29 interchange. Speakers also noted that the recent investment of $1 billion in new highway construction, to improve the Route 29/Linton Hall interchange and widen I-66, had reduced traffic congestion significantly.

So why was the Buckland/Haymarket Bypass being discussed at all?  Ah, that’s the interesting part of the story.
Read more »

When Will State Officials Authorize Rooftop Solar Options?

solarinstall2The “fix is in” for dealing with solar energy during the 2017 session of the General Assembly.  It’s not a good deal for homeowners or small businesses.

The 2017 General Assembly game plan is to endorse a deal cut by investor-owned utilities (Dominion, Appalachian Power) and the rich farmers:
– the utilities will get to control efforts to build community solar systems.  No options will be provided for community-owned solar systems, in addition to utility-owned systems.
– electricity delivered from new utility-owned systems could be priced at current rates charged by the big utilities, or even at pay-a-premium costs
– no Power Purchase Agreements (PPA’s) will be authorized.  Homeowners who can afford $10-25,000 to install their own rooftop system can continue to do so, but the state will continue to block business deals that involve third-party financing of the costs to install rooftop solar. Virginia will remain closed to businesses willing to invest in solar installations on individual homes.

Bills to make it easier to install solar panels on rooftops of typical homeowners were blocked by the 2016 General Assembly. Proposed legislation involving solar energy must be passed by the Commerce and Labor Committee in the House of Delegates and the State Senate. The committee chairs blocked those bills, claiming the issue required more discussion.

Later in 2016, that discussion was held – in private.

A lawyer, Mark Rubin led negotiations between the two major for-profit utilities in Virginia (Dominion Virginia Power and Appalachian Power) and one group of farmers (Powered by Facts). The Virginia Solar Energy Industry Association also got to participate.

The “Rubin Group” brokered a deal that satisfies the few large farmers involved on one side, and the large utilities on the other side. Small farmers, small businesses, and every homeowner in Virginia was left out of the deal.

The Rubin Group deal would continue to block installation of solar panels on rooftops of typical homeowners. Read more »

Will VRE Capacity Grow – or Be Frozen?

gambleThe Virginia Railway Express (VRE), Northern Virginia’s commuter rail system, just lost its gamble.

The proposed construction of 11 miles of new track and three new stations at Innovation, Gainesville, and Haymarket is not cost effective. This week, local officials are expected to reject the expansion plans because they require too much money for too few benefits.

Local officials could go one step further and freeze any plans for adding capacity to VRE.

The study assumed three new trains would be added in the morning and evening rush hours to carry more commuters.

If the Board of County Supervisors in Prince William approves on December 13 the resolution proposed by staff, VRE’s ability to add those three new trains could be killed along with the proposed construction to Haymarket.

Ugh. VRE bet the house on the Gainesville-Haymarket Extension Study, but now could lose the entire farm.

Phase I of the study has revealed that constructing new track/stations would cost up to $660 million, and would not be competitive for Federal grants. The state, Northern Virginia Transportation Authority (NVTA), and local governments would have to dig deep, really deep into their pockets for one-time capital costs exceeding half-a-billion dollars.

Not likely.

Even worse, the study revealed that if the extension were built, annual operating costs would skyrocket and require more local subsidies every year. Local jurisdictions pay for 50% of the costs for each train trip; fares purchased by passengers covers only half the cost of each ride.

Finding more money for VRE operations, every year, would require local officials to cut funding for something else, every year.

Not likely, especially as Metrorail’s funding crisis squeezes NVTA jurisdictions such as Fairfax County..

If the benefits were worth the cost, then increased VRE subsidies make sense. After all, commuter rail reduces traffic congestion at rush hour. As I-66 tolls go into place, more commuters will consider VRE as an alternative route to work.

However, building new track to Haymarket would add only 555 new round-trip passengers each day. Compared to just adding three new trains on the existing track, the Haymarket extension would cost $9 million more in operating costs.

That’s over $16,000 per person, each year. Double ugh.

The surprise result in the Gainesville-Haymarket Extension Study was that one option was feasible. Moving the current Broad Run station north to Godwin Road, and expanding the railyard and maintenance facilities now at Broad Run, would allow VRE to run three additional trains at morning and evening rush hour. The “Broad Run Relocated” option, with additional trains and railyard expansion, was far more cost-effective than any option involving construction of new track and new stations west of Route 28.

However, the high costs of the extension proposal led to county staff proposing a “none of the above” alternative. Staff’s resolution for the December 13 meeting of the Board of County Supervisors is to do nothing, and simply terminate any study.

The staff’s resolution could block future VRE growth. Without expansion of the Broad Run railyard, there would not be space to park and service additional trains. VRE might add cars to current trains to mitigate current crowding, but capacity would be capped.

Not coincidentally, killing VRE expansion would provide the county’s transportation department with more funds for new road construction. The “build more roads, forget about transit” mentality is always a factor in Prince William.

The Board of County Supervisors could recommend that the Gainesville-Haymarket Extension Study proceed to Phase II, and scope Phase II to consider only the Broad Run Relocated option. Or it could terminate VRE expansion plans with extreme prejudice…

broadrun
proposed expansion of Broad Run railyard

Letter to PRTC and NVTC On How VRE Should Grow

Teachers in high school civics classes make clear that democracy depends upon people speaking up, and on elected officials responding to the priorities of the citizens.

We get the government that we ask for…

So we spoke up, and shared the perspective of the Prince William Conservation Alliance on how VRE should expand service and focus on more trains, not more track.

The following letter was sent to all the members and alternates on the boards of the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission (NVCT), as well as the Potomac and Rappahannock Transportation Commission (PRTC).

prtc