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County board urges VDOT to address I-495 NEXT concerns after being left on ‘read’

Construction crews build the footing for a bridge abutment for the future Georgetown Pike bridge over I-495 (via VDOT)

The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors wants answers now to its lingering questions about the Virginia Department of Transportation’s northern extension of the Capital Beltway (I-495) toll lanes.

County staff got the green light yesterday (Tuesday) to send a letter seeking clarity on VDOT’s coordination efforts with Maryland and plans to mitigate the environmental and traffic impacts of a construction project that has now been in progress for nearly two full years.

Dranesville District Supervisor Jimmy Bierman, who represents the McLean area most directly affected by the project, requested the letter for Virginia Transportation Secretary W. Sheppard Miller after a message that the board sent in September “inexplicably” went unanswered.

“I just think it’s absolutely ridiculous that we would send a letter to the Secretary of Transportation in September, and we’re sitting here in February and never got a response. It’s just absurd,” Bierman said at the transportation committee meeting, which he chaired.

Under construction since March 2022, the project known as 495 NEXT is adding 2.5 miles of express lanes on the Beltway from the Dulles Toll Road in Tysons past the George Washington Memorial Parkway in McLean.

VDOT has touted the widening as necessary to relieve congestion and add pedestrian, bicycle and transit connections in the corridor. Though they endorsed the project in April 2021, Fairfax County leaders — particularly Bierman’s predecessor as Dranesville District supervisor, John Foust — have warned that traffic relief will be limited without toll lanes on Maryland’s side of the Beltway.

VDOT estimates that the project would move more than twice as many additional people when coupled with Maryland toll lanes than it would as a standalone project.

After that analysis came out, however, Maryland downsized its plans to widen the Beltway and replace the aging American Legion Bridge in response to local opposition. The project stalled altogether last March when contracted toll lanes operator Transurban backed out.

Maryland officials began reviving the project last summer, proposing to widen the bridge and 6.5 miles of I-495 from the GW Parkway to I-270, Maryland Matters reported. A new design hasn’t been released, and construction isn’t expected to break ground until 2026 — a year after Virginia’s express lanes are scheduled to open.

In its September letter, the Fairfax County board urged VDOT to craft a written agreement with its Maryland counterpart to guide any work that may spill over into Virginia. Since Miller didn’t respond, there’s “prevailing uncertainty” over the local implications of Maryland’s project, according to the new draft letter.

“The Board requests the Commonwealth promptly respond to our previous letter and strongly recommends that the Commonwealth take a more proactive approach to coordinate with Maryland’s plan to improve the [American Legion Bridge], ensuring thorough engagement with stakeholders in Fairfax County,” the draft says.

Board emphasizes “urgency” of requests

In addition to requesting a new traffic evaluation once 495 NEXT finishes construction and plans to reduce interim delays, the board is seeking a “detailed plan” from VDOT showing how it will re-vegetate areas along the interstate that have seen “substantial deforestation.”

The board recommended a landscaping and tree replanting plan, among other measures, in 2020 to mitigate the project’s environmental impacts, including on Scott’s Run Nature Preserve. Some McLean residents sued last year over design changes they argued will cause further damage, but they dropped the lawsuit after a judge declined to halt construction, per court records.

While the draft letter asks VDOT to “explore” the requests with county staff, Chairman Jeff McKay and Bierman suggested stronger language may be needed.

“I just want to put a sense of urgency in terms of the timeliness [of the requests],” McKay said. “Maybe the instrument is to ask them to set up a meeting immediately with our staff to go over the details of this, or come give the Board of Supervisors a briefing. Sometimes, that is what’s necessary to get attention.”

In a statement to FFXnow, VDOT said it will “closely coordinate with Fairfax County staff and officials and will work to facilitate coordination with Maryland’s team” as work on 495 NEXT continues and Maryland’s Beltway project progresses.

A revegetation plan is also in the works.

“Efforts to develop a revegetation plan for the project corridor are underway, with the goal of presenting the plan to the public this spring,” VDOT said.

Martha Coello, the Fairfax County Department of Transportation’s special projects division chief, said her team currently meets with VDOT twice a month to discuss project updates and issues, adding that they can ask to be included in meetings with the Maryland Department of Transportation.

County staff will also request regular briefings for Bierman’s office and Providence District Supervisor Dalia Palchik’s office. Bierman said he last heard that VDOT will hold its next community meetings in April, though he’s asked if they could be scheduled sooner.

“Frankly in [Palchik’s and] my district as well, they want [construction] to be completed as fast as possible so we can get back to replanting trees, to having a pedestrian walkway that gets you from Scott’s Run park…to near Georgetown Pike, to having all those promised improvements that we haven’t seen yet,” Bierman said. “It’s a very challenging situation with Maryland. They are not playing ball, and the fact that they’re not playing ball has reduced the effectiveness of this program considerably.”

VDOT confirmed that meetings to update the public on 495 NEXT are scheduled for April 8 and April 11. The first meeting will be virtual, and the second one will be held at Langley High School (6520 Georgetown Pike) in McLean.

“Consistent with our efforts on other projects and initiatives, VDOT is committed to collaboration and an ongoing partnership with Fairfax County as we enter the second half of construction on the 495 NEXT project,” the department said. “Coordination will be critical as we balance our work to successfully deliver travel improvements with the needs of residents and the community.”

Meanwhile, Franconia District Supervisor Rodney Lusk is bracing for similar challenges to arise from VDOT’s plan to also extend the I-495 Express Lanes from Springfield to Prince George’s County.

“I’m worried about some of the concerns that have been raised by the community already,” he said. “We’re going to need some answers and responses. The anticipated schedule is that they’ll be coming back to the community in the spring, but just putting the board here on notice that we might have to take a similar approach.”

VDOT’s full statement to FFXnow is below:

VDOT appreciates the support and ongoing partnership we have with Fairfax County, as we work toward advancing improvements in relation to congestion and traffic challenges facing the Capital Beltway Corridor.

VDOT has and continues to coordinate with our partners at Maryland Department of Transportation’s State Highway Administration (SHA) on Virginia’s 495 NEXT project and Maryland’s proposed American Legion Bridge and I-270 Corridor Improvement project. Our collective team is focused on ensuring that both projects provide relief and a seamless experience for Beltway travelers and the region as a whole. As we continue work on our 495 NEXT project, and Maryland continues their project development process, VDOT will closely coordinate with Fairfax County staff and officials and will work to facilitate coordination with Maryland’s team.

Efforts to develop a revegetation plan for the project corridor are underway, with the goal of presenting the plan to the public this spring.

Consistent with our efforts on other projects and initiatives, VDOT is committed to collaboration and an ongoing partnership with Fairfax County as we enter the second half of construction on the 495 NEXT project. Coordination will be critical as we balance our work to successfully deliver travel improvements with the needs of residents and the community.

Our VDOT team will be hosting project update meetings for the public on April 8 (virtual) and April 11 at Langley High School. We look forward to continuing to engage with and inform the local community about the 495 NEXT project.

Photo via VDOT

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