Exiting onto Virginia Route 234 from I-66 westbound, one can immediately cross two traffic lanes without fear. Why? Because there’s no traffic.
Like a road from nowhere, the north-south highway (aka the Prince William County Parkway) abruptly starts—or terminates, depending on your direction—at I-66 because of disagreement over the route beyond that interchange, and whether the road should be extended at all.
Now, it seems Route 234 may finally have someplace to go.
The Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT), officials of Loudoun and Prince William Counties, and the National Park Service (NPS) have agreed on a plan to extend Route 234 10 miles to Route 50, providing Northern Virginia’s far western suburbs with a four-lane, limited north-south alternative to country roads that haven’t lent themselves well to the demands of rapid suburbanization.
Though the concept, known as the Tri-County Parkway because of a now-discarded section in Farifax County—has been talked about for decades, it got no further due to concerns about cost, and fears that the project would do no more than encourage development and worsen existing congestion.
There was also the obstacle of the Manassas National Battlefield Park, a 5,073-acre reserve where two key Civil War battles took place.
Though the Park has steadfastly fended off modern intrusions since being established in 1940, it gradually became an island in a suburban sea. Two intersecting two-lane roads—U.S. Route 29 and Business Route 234—have been absorbed into the region’s daily commuter motoring network, despite their limited capacity.
This most recent agreement, brokered by Virginia Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton, would allow the Parkway to cross the western edge of the preserve, with construction to coincide with a new 8-mile roadway located along the Park’s north perimeter.
With the battlefield fully bypassed, NPS would then be allowed to close the existing two-lane roads to through traffic by 2035. This would allow the agency to more accurately recreate an 1860s-like experience for visitors, something not easy to achieve with lines of 21st Century traffic grinding through every day.
Don’t start preparing those design and construction RFP responses just yet, however.
The estimated going rate to build a so-called “battlefield bypass” is $305 million, with no readily available source of funding. A P3, Virginia’s current go-to infrastructure financing strategy is a possibility, but having toll facilities as the linchpin for an existing free highway network might not go over well with commuters, even in this age of the ubiquitous EZ Pass.
Connaughton & Co. must also convince the public—particularly smart growth advocates—that the project is not simply an Outer Beltway in Civil War reenactor guise. Despite the region’s chronic traffic congestion, Northern Virginians have balked at the idea of a new perimeter highway through metropolitan Washington’s western suburbs. (It wouldn’t be a “true” Beltway anyway, as Maryland has shown no interest in having anything span the Potomac into western Montgomery County.)
What makes the agreement interesting is that it represents compromise—a word not often associated with transportation these days—achieved by groups that up to now have not shared much in the way of common ground. And appropriately, it involves a site that twice played a key role in what really was the nation’s most divisive conflict (despite the rancor of some political rhetoric this year).
Whether this proves to be the ideal and most feasible solution remains to be seen. But it’s a start, maybe enough of one to make motorists start looking twice as they merge onto Route 234.