What Would Patrick Henry Say About the BiCounty Sprawlway?

On May 18, this Wednesday, the Virginia Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB) will grease the skids for building a new 6-8 lane highway on the western edge of Manassas National Battlefield Park.  The CTB will designate a new North-South Corridor of Statewide Significance (CoSS) that – surprise! – aligns with the preferred route of the old Tri-County Parkway.  (A better name would be BiCounty Sprawlway.)

This North-South CoSS is more than just a line on paper; the fix is in to build this road.  The 2011 General Assembly approved a $4 billion pot of mostly-borrowed money to finance one final surge of roadbuilding.  VDOT has already warned that in a few years, the income from the gas tax will be inadequate and VDOT won’t have enough money for maintenance of existing roads – but hey, let’s build a few more before anyone pays attention. 

Our streams and natural areas are being blasted away by new development spawned by new roads.  Fortunately, people who understand the link between land use, transportation, and conservation are expressing concerns, especially the Loudoun Board of County Supervisors.  People who care about the size of government and rising taxes are starting to object to the long-term costs of the traditional roadbuilding game in NOVA’s suburbs.

The developers who will benefit from this project have tasked their lobbyists and political friends to sell this road to the citizens of Northern Virginia.  What’s wrong with their sales pitch? Several things stand out:
– all roads are not equally good for reducing congestion; a north-south road will not fix an east-west commuter problem. We need to fix the existing headache of getting from Gainesville to Fairfax/DC.  A road from I-66 to Route 50 (west of Pleasant Valley!) won’t help the problem.
– designation of the CoSS will be followed swiftly by commitment of funds from the $4 billion transportation fund authorized by the 2011 General Assembly, so the CoSS designation is a key decision in the go/no-go process
– maybe a new road will bring jobs to Gainesville, but it’s more likely to create more jobs near Dulles airport. Prince William will continue to export its workers daily, commercial development will grow in Loudoun instead of Prince William, and residential property taxes in Prince William will stay high
–   flinging unlimited funding to build every possible road is not realistic, so money spent on the BiCounty Sprawlway will cause some other worthy project to be left unbuilt.

Three questions to ask yourself, even if you don’t care one hoot about conserving streams:
1) do you think we should keep borrowing money to fund government stimulus programs, state or Federal?
2) do you think the government should interfere in the decision process of private sector investors? True, creating a new, “free” road in western Prince William may shape where some businesses locate… but do you prefer a capitalist economy based on free market decisions rather than government subsidies?
3) if you think the government should be deeply involved in subsidizing decisions on where businesses locate, then do you want to get the biggest bang for your buck? If so, transportation improvements near Quantico would grow more jobs in Prince William than the BiCounty Sprawlway.

Three claims from the BiCounty Sprawlway supporters should be examined closely:

#1 Questionable Claim: Most of Prince William County’s workers commute to jobs outside of the county, so we need to build the new road to fix the traffic congestion that drives us crazy every day 

That’s a false premise, comparable to “we need to cure cancer, so let’s build this new road.”  The proposed new road goes from Gainesville to Route 50.  How many people commute now from western Prince William to jobs west of Dulles Airport, compared to the number of commuters into Fairfax/DC?  What problem would the new route solve?

The proposed BiCounty Sprawlway does nothing to widen Route 50 east of the proposed intersection.  The traffic engineer’s origin-destination studies make clear that carving a new road on that proposed route will do nothing to help existing commuters get from Prince William County homes to work.  (Building on that CoSS route does just as much to cure cancer as it does to cure existing congestion.)

We need transportation improvements in Northern Virginia – and we need to get the biggest bang for our limited transportation bucks.  Commuters would benefit from widening I-66 to add HOV lanes, or increasing VRE trains from Manassas, or from lots of other possible projects… but building a north-south road to fix an east-west commute is not a solution to our commute-to-work problem. 

Instead, the new road is a government giveaway to developers in western Prince William/Loudoun, who want to convert existing fields/forests into Greater Northeast Gainesville.  The BiCounty Sprawlway is not designed to solve any commuter problems in NOVA.  It’s designed to enrich a few developers and their political allies.

#2 Questionable Claim: Designation of a Corridor of Statewide Significance (CoSS) is not a final decision, so no one should object

In the land use/transportation game in Northern Virginia, moving a few pieces forward on the chessboard determines winners and losers.  Landowners work with politicians to shape the future road network, knowing that property near new roads will dramatically increase in value.  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 history. 

Designation of the CoSS will realign the pieces on the local chessboard.  Designation will be followed quickly by state decisions  to spend a big chunk of the $4 billion in funding and build the BiCounty Sprawlway… over the objections of local officials in Loudoun County. 

The current developer-politician team in NOVA is engaged in an all-out effort to get construction money for the BiCounty Sprawlway committed quickly.  We are seeing the last surge of new roadbuilding in Virginia in our lifetime.  After this spending spree with borrowed money, Virginia has stretched its borrowing capacity to the limit.  After the $4 billion is committed, most future new roads will be financed by tolls… or never built.  

#3 Questionable Claim:  We need the government to build a new road to attract economic growth and create local jobs in western Prince William

Why should tax dollars be used to steer growth to Gainesville, rather than Woodbridge?  Additional improvements of Route 1 and VRE on the eastern side of the county would create jobs there – and with military jobs coming to Quantico, that’s the greatest opportunity for generating local jobs and commercial development in Prince William. 

If you support the state going deeper into debt to build the new road, then you support government interference in the free-market economy to tilt the balance.  Think government funding should determine if businesses will locate in one place, rather than another? 

If western Prince William was blighted and poor, it might need a government-funded stimulus package to spur new development.  If the Route 1 corridor was booming economically and needed no help, maybe the taxpayers should “invest” in subsidizing new development on the western side of the county.  However, if that’s not the case… why are we borrowing money to “invest” in spurring more growth in Gainesville?

To paraphrase Patrick Henry’s Liberty or Death speech, “Is Gainesville so poor, or developers so needy, that the BiCounty Sprawlway needs to be purchased at the price of higher taxes and expanded congestion?”

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