Tempers ran high during the Virginia Department of Transportation’s virtual public meeting on its Interstate 495 Express Lanes Northern Extension (495 NEXT) project on Wednesday (Nov. 18).
With a Dec. 4 deadline for public comment on the project’s environmental assessment and initial design plans approaching fast, some community members criticized VDOT for a perceived lack of transparency and asked why the project is being pursued now instead of waiting for Maryland to undertake its long-gestating plan to improve the American Legion Bridge.
“More has to be done now to look at the basics, because the studies that VDOT has presented are inadequate,” McLean resident April Georgelas argued. “It’s inappropriate to pursue this any further and put citizens through the stress that we don’t need right now for a project that will only do harm for our area.”
Initiated in the spring of 2018, the 495 NEXT project proposes extending the existing 495 Express Lanes roughly three miles from the Dulles Toll Road and I-495 interchange to the George Washington Memorial Parkway near the American Legion Bridge.
VDOT would replace bridges to accommodate the express lanes, add a bicycle and pedestrian trail, construct new noise walls where necessary, and provide stormwater management facilities.
Virginia transportation officials say extending the 495 Express Lanes will help reduce congestion in one of the most congested corridors in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan region, while also improving travel reliability and reducing the amount of cut-through traffic that currently goes through neighborhood streets in McLean and Great Falls.
According to VDOT’s analysis, the 495 NEXT project would move approximately 2,500 more people per hour in both directions through the corridor starting in 2025. It would move 5,400 more people an hour if Maryland completes its American Legion Bridge project, though that is not likely to be finished until 2027.
By 2045, I-495 would be able to carry an additional 7,600 people an hour in both directions combined with the express lanes extended, VDOT says.
“This facility will provide a running way for carpools, vanpools, and transit vehicles to be able to provide reliable and faster trips than what could be accomplished under the current congested conditions,” VDOT Special Project Development Associate Manager Abraham Lerner said.
While the McLean Citizens Association has expressed support for 495 NEXT, many community members have raised concerns about the planned bike trail location, the ramps that have been proposed as modifications to the Dulles Toll Road interchange, and potential environmental and neighborhood impacts.
According to VDOT Megaprojects Director Susan Shaw, the project is anticipated to affect 35 acres of trees with its first phase of construction and about 3,000 feet of stream in Scotts Run, 70% of which is already significantly degraded.
Shaw says VDOT has committed to doing a tree survey prior to any removals to determine what trees should be replanted where possible and working with Fairfax County on stream restoration.
Dranesville District Supervisor John Foust urged VDOT to look for alternatives for the Dulles Toll Road interchange. The current plan involves three phases of new ramps being constructed.
“The impact of those ramps on that area of the county, which includes residential neighborhoods and Tysons – which we’re trying to create as a transit-oriented community – is going to be overwhelming,” Foust said. “Clearly, there’s a lot of traffic there, but right now…what you’re ending up [with] there is a spaghetti network of ramps that’s going to be very destructive to that entire area of Fairfax County.”
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