Sacrificing History… For What?

This text is from an email alert sent out on September 19, 2013:


Often environmentalists are told that we just ‘say no’ to things. To which I would argue — saying ‘no’ to a bad idea is a very important part of what we do. But it’s not all we do. At The Piedmont Environmental Council we also strive to put forward constructive alternatives.

That’s why it’s so frustrating to see the Virginia Department of Transportation, led by Sean Connaughton, make mega-projects like the Outer Beltway and Charlottesville Bypass its highest priority. Despite great arguments against both projects — fiscal, environmental, common sense arguments — and plenty of alternatives, VDOT is charging ahead.

Meanwhile, the documentation of the negative impacts associated with the two projects keeps piling up. Most recently, the focus in the media has shifted to the impacts on historic resources. And there’s an important theme that’s coming across — VDOT’s apparent willingness to sacrifice historic sites, even though there are obvious alternatives, alternatives that are supported by local governments and Richmond.

The Charlottesville Western Bypass

When we last emailed you, we mentioned an issue that VDOT was hoping to put to rest by now. As it turns out, a historic African American site lies in the path of the Western Bypass route.

The site includes a cemetery where two important, late 19th century black leaders are buried: Jesse Sammons, an influential educator in Albemarle County, and Dr. George Ferguson, Charlottesville’s first black physician.

In an encouraging move in late August, federal officials declared the Sammons Farmstead — a 15 acre site that includes the family house and cemetery — eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, even though VDOT has spent months arguing against the historic significance of the site.

It’s too soon to know how this will affect the Bypass’s approval process, but it’s certainly another bump in the road’s path. To receive the necessary funding from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), VDOT must prove there are no viable alternatives to the Bypass or, if necessary, develop a plan that will mitigate any negative impacts on this historic site. “VDOT has not provided us the schedule for releasing the environmental assessment to the public,” FHWA spokesman Doug Hecox told Charlottesville Tomorrow, “and the [Sammon’s property] determination might change any that they were considering.”

There are clear and obvious alternatives that address local AND regional transportation objectives; alternatives that are actually cheaper, more effective, and that do not pave over historic sites and graves. Which asks the question, why won’t VDOT let go of the flawed Western Bypass?

Read our new report — “Rethinking the Bi-County Parkway: Making Sound Transportation Investments in Prince William County & Loudoun County While Preserving Manassas National Battlefield Park”

The DC Outer Beltway

The proposed Outer Beltway (which VDOT calls the Bi-County Parkway) would cut through the Manassas National Battlefield Park and Historic District — lands protected because they are important to the preservation and interpretation of the First and Second Battles of Manassas.

The scary thing is that the National Park Service (NPS) appears ready to hand over park land to VDOT — in return for what could be an unenforceable promise to close Rt. 234 through Manassas Battlefield.

VDOT traffic studies show the roadway designed for 60 mph traffic which will bring more than 49,000 additional cars and trucks through the Park and Historic District and nearby neighborhoods in Prince William and Loudoun. That’s not to mention the impacts that would come from induced development near the route.

What’s really disturbing is that there appears to be a gentleman’s agreement of some sort between VDOT, NPS and the Federal Highway Administration to sign off on the project this fall (through a “Programmatic Agreement”) — during the waning days of Sec. of Transportation Sean Connaughton’s term. Setting a precedent that 1) impacts don’t need to be evaluated until later and 2) the use of National Park land for a major highway is ‘OK’, even when there are alternatives that do not require such a taking.

The Alternatives Are Real, We’ve Done the Traffic Modeling
This summer, PEC and our friends at the Coalition for Smarter Growth, Southern Environmental Law Center, National Trust for Historic Preservation, and National Parks Conservation Association released a report, titled Rethinking the Bi-County Parkway. In that report, our transportation modeler showed that the Bi-County Parkway, does a very poor job of relieving congestion. In fact, building the road actually makes traffic worse.

But then we took it a step farther, and looked at what projects would actually help fix traffic in Northern Virginia, and outlined a list of composite alternatives that would work. So far VDOT is not interested, even though we proposed common sense priorities like improving the interchange at I-66 and Route 28 and bringing VRE to Gainesville that they themselves agree are good projects.

We’ve heard that VDOT is going to hold a public meeting on October 1st in Aldie and October 3rd in Manassas to brief the public on the proposed highway and impacts on the Battlefield and to accept public comments. We hope you can attend one of these meetings, more details are posted on our website:

Despite our frustrations with VDOT, there is something that gives me hope. There are more and more citizens who are taking an active role, doing research VDOT won’t do on its own and getting others involved. The list of local and state elected officials that are asking for better analyses of the impacts and alternatives also grows each week. At some point, the more reasonable solutions we have proposed can become the preferred alternatives.

If you haven’t sent letters to your elected officials yet (or in a while), send them today!


Chris Miller, President
The Piedmont Environmental Council

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