Updated 5/22/2019 — A new plan could widen the Beltway in McLean, but nearby residents say the plan won’t do anything to fix the bottleneck of traffic.
At a meeting in Cooper Middle School (977 Balls Hill Road) yesterday (May 20), the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) presented plans to add new toll lanes from the Dulles Toll Road to the American Legion Bridge to help alleviate a severe bottleneck in the region.
The plans for the toll roads have been in the works since last June, but the need for a solution to Beltway congestion was highlighted in March when a tanker crash paralyzed regional traffic.
VDOT’s plans call for the expansion of express lanes to the bridge and connections with the Dulles Toll Road. A connection to the George Washington Parkway is being considered, but options are included to not have the express lanes connect to the parkway.
VDOT officials said the three bridges in McLean that pass over the Beltway would be replaced and would include new pedestrian and bicycle facilities.
But for over an hour, McLean residents expressed outrage at the expansion of the Beltway and a perception that the decision had already been made behind closed doors. Residents who felt empowered by a recent rejection of a proposal to limit access to Georgetown Pike from McLean — a proposal that new state legislation means could come back — asked why this expansion was being treated as a done deal.
“[That] was a transportation solution for a neighborhood problem,” Susan Shaw, megaprojects director for VDOT, said at the meeting. “This project is a regional transportation project. We will consider input from communities, but we will also be considering transportation improvements for the region. If we only let direct impact communities decide — we would never provide any regional project.
One of the biggest criticisms — raised by State Senate candidate Nicole Merlene running against Barbara Favola — was that the success of the project seemed dependent on the expansion of the bridge and connection to toll roads on the Maryland side, projects that are still in early stages.
Shaw said that no traffic analysis was ready yet to show the impact of the toll lanes without improvements on the Maryland side, but she said that would be considered before final approval.
“We don’t have that traffic analysis yet, but I would expect there to be a bottleneck without increased capacity on the bridge,” said Shaw. “I think the question is, ‘Are there other improvements that we would see on this project? If there’s a period of time where Virginia is in on this project and Maryland is not, are there transportation benefits?’ That will be included in the assessment.”
One of the most common criticisms hurled at the project was the idea that corporations and politicians were going to be profiting at the neighborhood’s expense. Shaw estimated that the expansion, not including expanding the American Legion Bridge — would be somewhere around $500 million range if it were just being developed by VDOT.
But a development framework agreement means that Transurban would cover the costs of the project.
Shaw said how much Transurban would receive from the tolls was proprietary, which did little to assuage local concerns about transparency. Added to the fire is the fact that local state legislators Favola, Kathleen Murphy, and Rip Sullivan have all taken campaign donations from Transurban.
“This is a developmental framework agreement and is not subject to public disclosure,” said Shaw. “If we abort part way through, which we have that option if we cannot negotiate what the terms and conditions might be for a binding proposal, we could have the option to procure it in a different manner and they may compete with that.”
But Shaw did acknowledge that Transurban would be the likely partner if VDOT did move forward with the toll lanes.
“It’s a partway done deal,” said Shaw. “It represents the fact that there’s a lot of efficiencies in having the current operator extend their existing system. They already have an operations center and tolling people in place and maintenance people on express lanes.”
Other McLean residents asked about the impact on nearby parks. Officials said it will be considered in an environmental assessment currently underway. However, Shaw added VDOT will replace the park land lost through Beltway expansion, but tree loss is expected.
“We haven’t finished our study,” Shaw said. “We’re in the middle of a study and wanted you to see everything we have. We don’t have all the answers.”
The environmental and traffic studies are expected to be completed by the end of the year, after which Shaw said another public meeting will be held prior to the project being considered for final approval. If the project is approved, construction could begin by late 2020 with the new express lanes open to traffic in 2023.
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