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In July 1861, the Union and Confederacy met at Manassas (Bull Run) in the first great clash of armies in the Civil War. On August 28-30, 1862, the armies clashed in the Second Battle of Manassas. Exactly 150 years later, the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) is proposing a highway through the historic landscape of Manassas, with particularly harmful impact on the landscape of that second battle.

A Washington Post article this week characterized the controversial Tri-County Parkway as a “done deal,” citing a draft agreement between the National Park Service (NPS) and VDOT.

But the draft agreement and the Tri-County Parkway are a bad deal for the historic landscape at Manassas and for area commuters. VDOT and NPS failed to study a lower-impact alternative that would protect the battlefield and focus resources on the area’s most pressing transportation needs.

Slated to run through the Manassas Battlefield Historic District, the new Tri-County Parkway would open up rural land to development, multiplying the already-major traffic woes on major commuter routes like I-66 and Route 50.

More harm to a historic land

Controversy over unwanted development in the area is hardly new. Manassas has been the scene of some of the nation’s biggest preservation fights. Many longtime area residents will remember the 1994 fight to stop Disney’s theme park just west of the Battlefield, which drew national attention. Fewer may recall the fight in the late 1980s when local residents stopped developer John ‘Til’ Hazel from building a new shopping mall on then-unprotected battlefield land. Federal taxpayers paid an astounding $134 million to buy the Battlefield land and keep Hazel from building the mall.

VDOT now proposes to run a highway past that same land acquired at such financial cost in the 1980s and contested at such personal cost 150 years ago.

According to documents related to the 2006 expansion of the historic district surrounding the Battlefield, “The battlefield retains integrity of location, setting, feeling, and association with the historic events that occurred on the property during the Civil War. With reference to the man-made resources, such as the dwellings, military embattlements, and the Unfinished Railroad, Manassas Battlefield has integrity of design, workmanship, and material.”

Map of proposed Outer Beltway routes. The current Tri-County Parkway plan follows the western alignment.

The Tri-County Parkway would cut directly through that historic district, taking up 20-35 acres of land, running past the August 28, 1862 position of the right flank of Confederate troops led by Stonewall Jackson and the left flank of the Union General Pope’s troops. It would also cut off the August 29 approach path of General Longstreet, which led to the largest massed counterattack of the entire Civil War. Longstreet’s approach path across Pageland Lane would be replaced by a 4-6 lane highway and major intersection.

This battle at Manassas enabled General Lee to march into Maryland, led to the Battle of Antietam, and played an important role in the series of battles that led President Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. Perhaps the Post misquoted Manassas Battlefield Park Superintendent Ed Clark when he reportedly questioned the historical value of the western edge of the battlefield. From our reading of history and the 2006 expansion of the historic district, the historic district and its rural landscape are indeed important to the setting of the Second Battle of Manassas and the critical strategic positioning of the Confederate army that led to their victory in that clash. The land in the historic district merits permanent preservation.

VDOT’s own letter to reviewing agencies confirms the damage the new highway would likely bring. The letter states that the Parkway will “convert a portion of relatively intact rural landscape” into a highway, “introducing into this setting an increase in traffic-generated noise and visual elements that will alter and potentially obscure significant battlefield viewsheds. These direct and indirect effects will result in a diminishment of the integrity of setting, feeling and association of [Manassas National Battlefield Park] and the [Manassas Battlefield Historic District] [the adjacent land not formally in the park].”

The Coalition for Smarter Growth, National Trust for Historic Preservation, National Parks Conservation Association, Piedmont Environmental Council and Southern Environmental Law Center carefully reviewed the draft agreement between VDOT and the NPS, and submitted strongly critical joint comments.

In our view, VDOT and the Federal Highway Administration were obligated by law but failed to study prudent and feasible alternatives that could avoid harm to a historic resource like Manassas Battlefield. The composite low-impact alternative that we have repeatedly offered during both the Tri-County Parkway and Manassas Battlefield Bypass studies would not only preserve the historic landscapes of the battlefield, but also meet the National Park Service’s goal of closing the roads through the Battlefield.

A misallocation of resources

By focusing on north-south highway movement in this particular area, the Tri-County Parkway also represents a misallocation of scarce transportation dollars. Expert review of the Tri-County Parkway study and our review of the most recent traffic counts based on VDOT’s numbers show that the vast majority of traffic in the area of the new highway is moving east-west on I-66 and Route 50 to reach jobs. We also show that much less costly local road upgrades including roundabouts will address local trips, moving them efficiently around the Battlefield.

VDOT needs to husband every last dollar to invest in road and transit improvements in those corridors, including Virginia Railway Express, dedicated express bus and HOV lanes, parallel local roads, and fixing intersection bottlenecks. For those trying to reach Dulles Airport, the expanded I-66 and upgraded Route 28 offer the fastest route to the terminal and will continue to do so. The Tri-County Parkway and connecting routes west of the airport would be about three miles longer than these existing routes.

The development link

It’s not surprising that advocacy for new highways follows speculative acquisition of land for development. Til Hazel’s original purchase of battlefield land for a shopping mall strategically secured a site next to the future interchange with the 234 Bypass, the former name of the Tri-County Parkway corridor. VDOT constructed a section of the 234 Bypass from southwest of the City of Manassas up to I-66 based on a 1988 approval with the hope by proponents like Til Hazel that it would be extended northward past the Battlefield. Land records show that today others are hoping for a windfall, including an entity named “Route 234 LLC” farther north along Pageland Lane, reflecting an expectation of the extension of the Route 234 Bypass.

Loudoun County recently approved the southward extension and expansion of “Northstar Boulevard” and “Belmont Ridge Road,” denying that these were connected to the Tri-County Parkway even as they plotted these roads on the same exact route as the Tri-County Parkway. The highway also corresponds with the 1997 proposed route for the Western Transportation Corridor and forms part of an Outer Beltway. According to the Post, VDOT Secretary Connaughton says he might change the name of the highway to “234 Extension,” the name it had back in 1988. Intentional or not, the many names for the road corridor can get confusing, and make it difficult for the public to track and evaluate the proposals.

Just a week after the Loudoun Board’s decision on Northstar and Belmont Ridge roads, another Board matter proposed authorizing eminent domain proceedings to acquire land from two developers along the Northstar Boulevard/Tri-County Parkway corridor.

Secretary Connaughton told the Post that the Tri-County Parkway “could be financed in the future traditionally or through public-private partnership,” which could involve proffer trade-offs with developers or private builders who collect tolls. This certainly indicates the continued close tie between development and new highways. Simply put, the Parkway and connecting roads are about opening rural land in Prince William County’s Rural Crescent and Loudoun County’s lower density Transition Zone to much more development. This development would mean thousands more cars commuting on Route 50 and I-66.

In addition, Dulles Airport boosters have campaigned to create a freight warehousing and distribution center around Dulles Airport and want the highway in order to draw thousands of trucks into Loudoun County and western Prince William County. This proposed economic development strategy and related truck traffic would seem to undermine the quality of life for area residents, including those who were attracted to work in Virginia’s knowledge economy.

A better way

Preservation of the historic district around Manassas National Battlefield and the associated rural lands would ensure less traffic from this area in the future. Conserving our scarce transportation dollars to invest in commuting options for the Route 50 and I-66 corridors and funneling growth to the right places would better address the priority needs of commuters.

Adopting a lower impact alternative and winning legally-binding commitments to close the roads through the Battlefield would preserve the Battlefield for future generations. But conceding to VDOT’s highway and the draft agreement would destroy our history and waste our tax dollars.

If you’re interested in learning more about the Tri-County Parkway and the Outer Beltway, visit the Coalition for Smarter Growth’s Outer Beltway Resource Center. Convinced the new highway is a bad idea? Sign the Coalition’s petition to Governor Bob McDonnell asking for the real transportation choices northern Virginians deserve.