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Will Roads Close Through Manassas Battlefield Park?

Board Chairman Kate Hanley Seeks Answers to Questions

With the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) on a federally mandated mission to remove commuter traffic from the Manassas National Battlefield Park, several Centreville neighborhoods are in potential jeopardy.

The FHWA is considering various alternatives sending Battlefield motorists through communities including Fairfax National Estates, Virginia Run and Bull Run Estates. The prospect not only worries the residents, but Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Katherine K. "Kate" Hanley, as well.

At the Feb. 24 Board meeting, she noted the FHWA's need for accurate maps showing the location of existing streets and neighborhoods in newer communities such as the Ridings of Virginia Run.

In addition, she directed staff to answer three questions: 1. "Can the federal government build the bypass even if it's not on [Fairfax County's] Comprehensive Plan?" 2. "Is the project on the region's Constrained Long-Range Plan?" and 3. "What interaction does our staff currently have with FHWA on this proposal?"

On Monday, Jack Van Dop, FHWA project director, answered these and other questions for Centre View. He also stressed that no particular alignment has yet emerged as being the solution and, indeed, what's finally chosen may be an amalgamation of more than one route or method of moving traffic.

"There's a whole, wide range of things out there, including VRE [trains], bus service, mass transit, etc.," he said. "Or we could improve existing intersections so that they could [better] handle the capacity."

The whole thing came about because of the Manassas National Battlefield Park Amendments Act of 1988, ordering a study be done to "specifically consider and develop plans for the closing of ... Routes 29 and 234 that transect the park." It also called for an analysis of "means to provide alternative routes" to carry the traffic on those two roads.

Then later, after a plucky group of Prince William residents prevented a developer from building a mall beside Battlefield property, said Rep. Frank Wolf's (R-10th) press secretary Dan Scandling, "The thought process was to look at potentially closing Route 29 because of the volume of traffic and to keep the park whole." Also a factor, said Van Dop, was the high percentage of truck traffic on Route 29 through the park.

BUT NOTHING HAPPENED for quite awhile because — although Congress authorized as much as $30 million to be spent on the project — it didn't actually appropriate any money for it until 2000. And then, it only authorized $2.3 million to fund the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).

This money came from the National Park Services' budget, but the rest of the funds have not yet been appropriated. And according to the 1988 legislation, the federal government is to foot 75 percent of the construction bill, with state or local government picking up the rest of the tab.

Meanwhile, in trying to find a bypass route, the FHWA and the National Park Service have identified five major alternatives, along with some variations. However, (see map) alternatives 4A and 4B would wipe out portions of the Bull Run Estates community, alternatives 2 and 5 would cut smack through Fairfax National Estates and alternative 5 would also zip along the edge of Virginia Run.

So far, all these proposals are only conceptual corridors — but the FHWA is busily gathering information about each of them so a draft EIS may be developed by summer. And the possibility, alone, that their homes and land could be plowed under by a Battlefield bypass has many local residents feeling uneasy — to say the least.

Jeff Flading lives on Sudley Road in Fairfax National Estates, and one of the potential routes goes right down his street. "The road is part of my 5-acre lot," he said. "They'd take my front yard."

The Battlefield bypass is not on Fairfax County's Comprehensive Plan and — in response to Hanley's question regarding it — Van Dop said the 1988 federal legislation requires the FHWA to "coordinate and cooperate with VDOT and with Prince William County" on the location of the chosen alternate.

"The assumption at that time was that it would be in Prince William," he said. "But we'd cooperate [that way] with any local government."

As for Hanley's inquiry about whether the project is on the region's Constrained Long-Range Plan, Van Dop said the study is but, of course, not the actual alignment, since one's not yet been selected. "In August 2001, we submitted a letter to COG's (Council of Governments) Transportation Planning Board, asking for the $2.3 million and the study to be added to the plan," he said. "And on Oct. 17, 2001, the Planning Board approved it."

Regarding Hanley's question about Fairfax County's involvement in the bypass project, Van Dop said his office has been coordinating things with the county's transportation department. And he noted that Supervisor Michael R. Frey (R-Sully) appointed two local residents — Dick Frank of Gate Post Estates and Judy Heisinger of Bull Run Estates — to the projects' Citizens Advisory Committee.

Involving the affected counties, explained Van Dop, allows them to object to anything potentially detrimental to their areas. And he said possible negative impacts to neighborhoods or to the environment could cause a particular route to be jettisoned.

TO DETERMINE THE BEST ALIGNMENT, he said the FHWA will look at what works best, has the least impact, is most useful and ties in best with future area transportation plans — including things such as the Tri-County Parkway, the upgrading of I-66 and the Western Bypass.

Said Van Dop: "We want to make the most efficient use of the money, and we're working with VDOT to make sure our decisions support what it wants to do." He said the FHWA is compiling information received in response to December's public hearing on the bypass project and will post them on the Web site, www.battlefieldbypass.com, in the next few weeks.

Van Dop said the number of people and homes displaced by an alignment is definitely a consideration, and homes in existing communities on a bypass alternative topped the list of comments from December's meeting. Comments may still be e-mailed to jack.van.dop@fhwa.dot.gov or battlefieldbypass@parsons.com, or placed on the Web site.

"We're starting with 15-18 proposals and piecing them together in different ways," he said. "Then we'll try to eliminate some of them." The finished product, said Van Dop, could well be a combination of, for example, both two- and four-lane roads, mass transit and a tie-in to Route 234 Extended. "We may only need to build a two-lane road, so the corridor could be only a quarter-mile wide," he added. "That's part of the study that we're trying to figure out."

At the same time, he said, "We're doing transportation modeling to see how well these alignments would actually work — not just on paper. We hope to have another meeting, in Manassas, in spring, with alternatives narrowed down to a smaller number." He said the routes would be "more realistic" as to their land requirements and the alignments would either show the actual road or be next to it.

MEANWHILE, CONCERNED ABOUT the possible loss of their homes, Flading said many residents of his community are writing their state and federal representatives to try to stop the project. The problem, he explained, is that I-66 lacks the capacity to handle rush-hour traffic, so Route 29 then becomes a bypass.

But after the evening rush, he said, Route 29 flows just fine. Therefore, he wonders, "Rather than building a bypass and taking people's land, why don't they do improvements on I-66, lower the speed limit on Route 29 — making it less attractive as a commuter cut-through — and ban the trucks from it?"

However, Park Superintendent Robert Sutton says closing that road has been "a high priority" of the National Park Service "forever." He said morning and evening rush-hour traffic leaves the park "essentially, gridlocked — and weekends can be a mess, too."

Furthermore, he added, "Doing a Second Battle of Manassas tour, you can't follow the route without crossing the Route 29-234 intersection, several times." Sutton said the Park Service, VDOT and the local jurisdictions are working closely to find a solution and, "If we can come up with something that will solve a lot of problems, I think a lot of people will be happy."