Western Transportation Corridor: It’s B-a-a-a-a-a-ck!

Some dreams never die, and some nightmares never go away.

The Western Transportation Corridor is a developer’s dream, a road designed to expand subdivision development further away from the job center in DC/Tysons/Arlington.  It would ignite another surge of sprawl, facilitating plans to convert forests and fields in  Loudoun, Prince William, Fauquier, and Stafford counties into more places like Centreville/Gainesville.

This road proposal has been rejected many times by different Virginia jurisdictions, from the Fredericksburg area to Loudoun County.  The Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) finally dropped planning for this road in 2005.  Now, two members of the House of Delegates are trying to resurrect it again in House Bill 277.

The latest proposal: bypass the standard planning process and mandate that the Commonwealth Transportation Board define the project as a state priority.  HR277 suggests the road be constructed under the Public-Private Transportation Act (PPTA) as a toll road, and that only “a few” interchanges be approved.  In theory, that limitation would minimize how the new road could increase sprawl.

Don’t hold your breath.  HR277 still smells like a camel’s nose, no matter how much perfume might be applied to it.

The Western Transportation Corridor is harder to kill than Rasputin, in part because traffic congestion is a real issue.  New roads obviously provide short-term relief – but we can’t build our way out of congestion by expanding the road network forever.  Everyone should know this in Northern Virginia by now; we’ve tried this strategy since World War II.  We’ve been on a 50-year treadmill of build roads, build houses, create congestion, build new roads, build new houses, create new congestion

If you just moved here and have not experienced the cycle yet… just wait a few years.  Traffic congestion reappears in 5-10 years after Northern Virginia highways are expanded, because local politicians approve new subdivisions as soon as the state promises to provide new transportation capacity.  Start the betting pool now: how long after the new Route 29-Interstate 66 interchange at Gainesville is completed, before we hear that we need to build more-more-more using more taxes (or bonds to be funded by taxes and tolls)?

Building the Western Transportation Corridor as a PPTA project has its risks.  VDOT asked for PPTA proposals for the Western Transportation Corridor in 2005, but no companies expressed interest.

The argument-du-jour for the Western Transportation Corridor is that we need to improve road access to Dulles airport.  A massive new road would increase the air freight business at Dulles for UPS and FedEx, by helping a few dozen more trucks get out of the airport each day. The fact that the proposed new road would go to the west side of the airport, when the freight and passenger terminals are on the east side of the runways, gets lost in the noise about needing to “do something.”

The airport argument is specious.  How many airport delivery trucks will be paying how much $$$ in tolls each day?   Think new airport traffic alone would pay for the new road?

It’s just as hard to imagine enough traffic traveling between Leesburg, Gainesville, and Fredericksburg  to cover the road’s costs.  The toll road proposal makes fiscal sense only if you think it will include another bridge over the Potomac River and a new highway through the western part of Montgomery County, Maryland – or if you see House Bill 277 as a stalking horse for another proposal, perhaps to finance the Route 234 extension between I-66 and Loudoun Parkway through tolls.  As the plans to use Dulles Toll Road revenues to expand Loudoun Parkway have demonstrated, toll roads can be used to subsidize other local roads that facilitate sprawl.

The good news: VDOT has gotten wiser about the need to link land use planning with transportation planning.  Proposals to expand transportation but ignore land use are as unbalanced as buying a dozen side dishes of potatoes for your meal, and eating nothing but potatoes.  We need to invest in more options than just transportation capacity increases (which also come in fried, mashed, and half-baked varieties).

In addition to transportation improvements, we need to consider where we invest in housing and where we encourage jobs.  We need to focus growth in selected areas, and focus investments in transportation projects in the same areas.  We can focus growth through tax incentives for locating jobs/housing where the infrastructure is already in place, and through disincentives for building in undeveloped areas.

If we use our scarce tax dollars to finance the Western Transportation Corridor to increase sprawl in Northern Virginia, if we ignore lessons learned over the last 50 years, then we deserve the financial indigestion that comes with an unbalanced diet of development… and that’s not a small-potato issue.


4 comments so far

  1. […] The chess games takes 20-30 years to go from the move of the first pawn to conclusion, but the Western Transportation Corridor (now proposed as the North-South Corridor of Statewide Significance) has an exceptionally long […]

  2. http://google.com on

    “Western Transportation Corridor: Its B-a-a-a-a-a-ck!
    Your Piece of the Planet” was in fact a relatively wonderful blog post, .
    Keep composing and I will keep following! Thanks for the post -Brock

  3. Suren on

    Freight forwarding (air freight and road freight) and environmental issues! The development of the trade fair centre connected directly to the Stuttgart airport (STR, Germany) saw the destruction of a large area of arable land. Industrial development, obviously, got a boost. conflicts without solutions? If the corridor connection is coupled with environmental betterment, it would be something really worth.

  4. […] the 1990’s, the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) pushed for a “Western Transportation Corridor” linking I-95 to I-66, then extending north through Loudoun County to connect to […]

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