McLean residents sue to stop I-495 widening over environmental impacts

Construction on the 495 NEXT project has cleared land by the GW Parkway for a stormwater pond, seen on March 15, 2023 (photo by Stephen Jasak)

(Updated at 11:55 a.m.) A group of McLean residents opposed to the extension of the I-495 toll lanes past their neighborhoods have turned to the courts in a bid to halt the project, now in its second year of construction.

The Northern Virginia (NOVA) Citizens Association filed a lawsuit with the U.S. District Court in Alexandria on Thursday (March 16) alleging that major revisions to the project design violated federal law, resulting in “significant on-going environmental harms” to residents.

The Virginia Department of Transportation, Secretary of Transportation W. Sheppard Miller, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), private toll lanes operator Transurban, and Transurban subsidiary Capital Beltway Express LLC are named as defendants.

“As a result of Defendants’ actions, NOVA and its members are experiencing significant adverse environmental impacts caused by the Project,” the complaint says, arguing that the road construction and loss of trees will contribute to noise, light, air pollution, water quality, erosion and health issues.

In the works since 2018, the I-495 Northern Extension project (495 NEXT) is adding 2.5 miles of express lanes from the Dulles Toll Road in Tysons past the George Washington Memorial Parkway in McLean, reconfiguring many of the bridges and interchanges within that span.

The GW Parkway interchange has been a particular point of concern for the NOVA Citizens Association, whose members fear that their neighborhood along Live Oak Drive will be destroyed to accommodate planned ramps and stormwater management ponds.

According to the complaint, VDOT unveiled significant changes to the project design in September 2021 and June 2022 — months after the FHWA approved its environmental assessment, an evaluation of the project’s potential impact required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

The changes — including a consolidation of stormwater facilities, a narrowing of Live Oak Drive to 22 feet wide, and the relocation of an I-495 Express Lanes exit ramp to the GW Parkway — were substantial enough that additional environmental review should’ve been conducted, the association contends.

“The major changes to the stormwater control plan, the expansion of impermeable surfaces, and the greatly expanded deforestation will result in a significant increase in the release of stormwater which is contaminated with pollutants onto the properties of members of the association,” the complaint says.

The complaint also raises concerns about the safety of narrowing Live Oak Drive, especially for kids traveling to Cooper Middle School and the nearby Langley Swim & Tennis Club, and a reported plan to place a 5G cell tower on one resident’s property.

In a Feb. 24 declaration supporting the complaint, Live Oak Drive residents Pritesh and Marisha Patel wrote that the noise and pollution from the 495 NEXT construction has caused “irreparable harm” to their family, particularly their 11-year-old son, who has asthma.

“An excessive amount of dirt, dust, pollution, and particulates covers our windows and cars. The construction dust has exacerbated the allergic symptoms from which all members of our family suffer,” the Patels said, noting that they can no longer take their son outside.

The NOVA Citizens Association is seeking a suspension of construction on 495 NEXT until the defendants “fully comply with NEPA,” along with an award covering fees related to the litigation.

VDOT said in a statement that it “places a priority on compliance with all environmental regulations and associated requirements and has proven protocols in place to ensure environmental impacts are reviewed and existing approvals affirmed throughout the lifecycle of a project.”

The department says it has worked with Capital Beltway Express, the private partner on 495 NEXT, to ensure that the project stayed in compliance with the federal approvals as the design evolved.

“VDOT is committed to providing travelers with solutions that reduce congestion, provide travel choices, improve travel reliability and enhance safety in the I-495 corridor,” VDOT said. “We remain committed to working with local communities and stakeholders, as we continue to advance those goals with the 495 NEXT project.”

Amanda Baxter, senior vice president of Transurban North America’s Virginia Market and Operations, acknowledged that construction has affected the local community but maintained that the project complied with federal requirements in a statement:

This lawsuit threatens to delay the congestion relief, environmental enhancements, and safety improvements that are vital components of Virginia’s economic resilience. We recognize the impacts that construction has on the communities within our corridors. Still we are confident that the requirements to obtain approvals have been met or exceeded and we remain focused on working with our partners and communities to deliver this critical project for the region.

The complaint was filed less than a week after Transurban dropped out of Maryland’s Capital Beltway toll lanes project, in part due to delayed environmental reviews and unresolved lawsuits, according to the announcement.

VDOT has said that setback won’t affect 495 NEXT, though Maryland will tie the two projects together if it moves forward with the long-awaited replacement and widening of the American Legion Bridge.