I-495 widening will require removal of cell tower in McLean, potentially affecting service

The cell tower by I-495 at the Old Dominion Drive bridge in McLean (via Google Maps)

A cell tower by the Capital Beltway in McLean must be removed before the end of this year to make way for the road’s widening, leaving Fairfax County and state transportation leaders scrambling to prevent future service disruptions.

The 135-foot-tall monopole stands right next to I-495 at the Old Dominion Drive bridge, which will be replaced by a new two-lane bridge with a shared-use path as part of the Virginia Department of Transportation’s I-495 Northern Extension (495 NEXT) project.

VDOT determined that the tower needs to be relocated “well over a year ago,” but no progress has been made to identify a temporary or permanent new site, Megaprojects Director Susan Shaw told the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors on Friday (Sept. 30).

“The providers to date have said that there is no temporary location that’s acceptable to them,” she said. “…We’re all working very hard to try to resolve it, and I think we’ve tried to provide a lot of ideas for where they might find acceptable locations on VDOT right of way, but again, we’re not experts. It’s very specific technically in terms of what would work for them and maintaining the kind of service that they have.”

Construction on 495 NEXT is underway, but work hasn’t started yet on the Old Dominion bridge.

American Cell Towers, which owns the monopole, initially faced a Sept. 30 deadline for the removal, but that has been extended to Dec. 31. The tower has to be decommissioned in November so that the utilities can be taken off and the structure dismantled, according to Shaw.

In conversations with AT&T and T-Mobile, the providers that use the pole, VDOT was told that service along the Beltway won’t be affected, but service for the surrounding communities “would be degraded,” particularly during periods of peak demand, Shaw said.

AT&T confirmed that some of its customers “may experience intermittent wireless service disruptions near Old Dominion Drive and the Capital Beltway.”

“We, like other carriers, are being forced to remove our antennas so that they can widen the Beltway,” an AT&T spokesperson said. “We apologize for the inconvenience, and we are working with state and Fairfax County officials to identify an alternative site for our equipment. In the meantime, we have optimized other nearby sites to try and extend coverage until this is resolved.”

The provider added that people who experience disruptions can utilize its Wi-Fi Calling service instead.

While the availability of other cell carriers in the area suggests 911 calls won’t be affected, Shaw said the providers told VDOT they “couldn’t guarantee” that there would be no impact. American Towers didn’t immediately respond to FFXnow’s requests for comment.

The lack of clarity around how the tower’s removal will affect service “has been particularly frustrating,” Dranesville District Supervisior John Foust told FFXnow.

Foust says American Tower representatives reported this spring that they were looking for an alternative site, but his office didn’t learn about the initial Sept. 30 deadline until August. The county convinced VDOT to extend the deadline, and since then, VDOT officials, county staff, American Towers and the carriers have been meeting every two weeks to try to find a solution.

“It seems obvious that with advanced planning, this issue could have been resolved without impact to cell service,” Foust said. “It is not clear at this time that impacts can be avoided. My position is that any loss of cell service to residents and travelers on I-495 is unacceptable, particularly any impact to 911 service.”

Hunter Mill District Supervisor Walter Alcorn likened the situation to the outages that residents of Reston’s Lake Anne neighborhood experienced this summer, where “frankly, the carriers are not necessarily exhibiting any sense of urgency.”

She noted that the zoning process that the county requires for all new cell towers can take a long time, so even if a temporary replacement site is found, a new pole won’t be built before the existing one has to be taken down.

Shaw also said the county’s zoning staff “doesn’t believe this is an emergency, and it wouldn’t require any relaxation of that zoning,” prompting Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay to question how staff came to that conclusion.

Promising to “do everything I can to expedite” the zoning process, Foust suggested the issue is not a lack of urgency from staff — “Everybody recognizes this is an emergency,” he said — but rather, limitations on their ability to approve a temporary measure.

“The carrier has not even suggested a temporary location to date, so there’s no pending application of any kind,” County Attorney Elizabeth Teare said. “We don’t know where they want to put it. Until we have that, it’s hard to even think about how do we move forward.”

Foust says he will introduce a board matter on Tuesday (Oct. 11) directing the county to send a letter to VDOT and the carriers “asking them to describe their plan for ensuring that cell service will not be adversely impacted, and to describe what they are doing to mitigate impacts if they cannot be avoided.”

Photo via Google Maps