The project to extend the I-495 Express Lanes north toward the American Legion Bridge has been under construction for half a year now, but some McLean residents remain as determined as ever to fight the Beltway’s encroachment into their neighborhoods.
Residents along Live Oak Drive in particular have consistently argued that they will face the most disruptions from the I-495 Northern Extension (495 NEXT) without getting the congestion relief benefits touted by the Virginia Department of Transportation.
The latest blow came at the sight of workers cutting down trees that serve as a buffer between Live Oak and two existing I-495 (Capital Beltway) and George Washington Memorial Parkway ramps.
VDOT says the tree clearings were necessary to make room for the Beltway widening, a new retaining wall adjacent to I-495, and a planned noise wall adjacent to Live Oak Drive. But residents fear the redesigned interchange will be a new “Mixing Bowl,” the tangle of ramps and overpasses where I-495, I-395 and I-95 meet in Springfield.
“VDOT/Transurban are trying to shove through a new ‘Springfield Mixing Bowl’ right here in McLean,” Northern Virginia Citizens Association President Debra Butler said in a recent email to members. “Future demolition and construction will impact both sides of 495 at Georgetown Pike, Live Oak Drive, Langley Swim Club, Scotts Run Nature Preserve with a new ‘McLean Mixing Bowl’ with ramps as high as 271 feet [above sea level].”
Discussions of potential legislation underway
Organized in opposition to 495 NEXT, the association held a meeting at the Langley Swim & Tennis Club on Friday (Dec. 16) to discuss the tree removals and their issues with the project’s size.
Attendees at the meeting included Del. Kathleen Murphy (D-34) and state Sen. Barbara Favola (D-31), who have started talking to Virginia Secretary of Transportation W. Sheppard Miller III about options for addressing resident concerns.
The association has suggested allowing commercial trucks in the I-495 Express Lanes, where they’re currently prohibited, and having them get on and off in Tysons instead of McLean, eliminating the need for some flyover ramps.
VDOT says a planned exchange ramp allowing vehicles to exit the toll lanes at the GW Parkway is intended for all vehicles, though one purpose is to give trucks from Maryland access to the general purpose lanes.
Legislators could also introduce a bill with new controls on public-private partnerships like the one between VDOT and express lanes operator Transurban, improving transparency and limiting their ability to substantially change a project’s design after a public hearing, Butler says.
Murphy confirmed she and Favola are having discussions about potential legislation, but no concrete proposals have formed yet, even with a Jan. 1 deadline to submit bills for the 2023 General Assembly session looming.
“Those are certainly things we are going to bring to the attention of the secretary of transportation to see what possibilities are available, and as soon as we finish those conversations, we’ll have a better idea,” she told FFXnow.
GW Parkway design questioned
In the works since 2018, 495 NEXT will extend the Beltway’s toll lanes about 2.5 miles from the Dulles Toll Road in Tysons to the GW Parkway. Around the parkway, the project will add a Live Oak Drive bridge further to the south, two more ramps for the express lanes, and three stormwater ponds.
The interchange’s design has noticeably evolved since VDOT held a virtual public hearing on the project in October 2020, with a ramp from the northbound I-495 toll lanes to the GW Parkway moving from the east side of the Beltway to the west side by Live Oak Drive.
VDOT said at a virtual meeting on June 6 that it tweaked the design to reduce the impact of the ramps on the adjacent neighborhood, but a portion of Live Oak Drive will still be shifted to the west and narrowed to 22 feet wide with no sidewalks.
“[If] two cars come down for a Langley swim meet, if there’s an emergency, they’re not going to be able to get emergency vehicles” through, Butler told FFXnow.
According to VDOT, the two new ramps will be built within its existing right of way and “in the same area as the current interchange.” The design assumes that Maryland will eventually build toll lanes on its side of the Beltway as part of a joint agreement to replace the aging American Legion Bridge.
“The design of the interchange is such that when Maryland’s project moves forward, Maryland will be able to construct necessary ramp connections within the existing interchange footprint,” VDOT said.
Fears that Maryland won’t follow through on its half of the accord were further cemented last month when an approval vote got delayed. In addition to improving congestion more than 495 NEXT will on its own, the Maryland project is supposed to provide parts of the future GW Parkway interchange — including the noise wall for Live Oak Drive.
Though the interchange was presented as a two-phase endeavor at the 2020 public hearing, the Northern Virginia Citizens Association and even some elected officials have accused VDOT of being unclear about the extent of Maryland’s anticipated work in Virginia and its potential impact residents.
Dranesville District Supervisor John Foust, who represents McLean, says VDOT has shown on past projects that it’s willing to address issues raised by the community, but that hasn’t been the case with 495 NEXT.
“Unfortunately, on the current I-495 NEXT project, the VDOT team has demonstrated almost no sensitivity to community concerns,” Foust said in a statement to FFXnow. “The lack of good faith effort by VDOT and its partner, Transurban, to address and mitigate impacts of the current project on long established residential neighborhoods, recreational facilities, and parks is unacceptable, surprising and very disappointing.”
A VDOT spokesperson says the project team has worked to minimize its impact on local neighborhoods. The design presented in June slightly reduced Live Oak Drive’s shift and preserved parking for the Langley Swim Club.
She also said VDOT provided notice of the planned tree clearings online and through flyers distributed to residences on Live Oak Drive. Additional clearings are expected in early 2023.
Though her house isn’t right on Live Oak, Butler says she can hear traffic on the Beltway, and the noise has worsened since the trees were removed. Quipping that she’s petitioning to have the road renamed “Dead Oak Drive,” she noted that VDOT hasn’t committed to replacing the trees or adding a sound wall if Maryland backs out.
“Our neighborhood is lost. It’s done, it’s dead,” Butler said. “…We’re too late, but we have an opportunity to maybe save other parts of Virginia, because this is driven by builders and lobbyists…It’s a big plan to get in the end what they want, which is projects that cost a lot of money and that go on forever.”
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