Deal in the works to move traffic around Manassas Battlefield

From the Washington Post:

Manassas battlefield deal is close to shift traffic out of Va. park

The National Park Service and Virginia authorities are close to signing a major Civil War battlefield preservation deal that eventually would close two congested roads that currently slice through the twice-hallowed ground at Manassas.

The agreement, which could be signed by the summer, would provide for routes 234 and 29 to be shut down inside Manassas National Battlefield Park. That would happen when new highways are built along the western and northern edges of the battlefield and serve as bypasses.

“We’re down to the wire here. It looks good,” said Ed Clark, the park superintendent, a key architect of the pact. “It puts the goal of removing all the traffic from the battlefield within sight.”

There are downsides, of course. It could be more than 20 years before both highways, sometimes called the Bi-County Parkway and the Battlefield Bypass, are completed. Local residents and environmental groups said they would destroy the rural character that drew them to western Prince William County. Some accuse the Park Service, which previously has resisted new roads and development, of selling them out.

On the bright side, however, shutting the roads inside the park would be one of the biggest achievements ever to restore the authenticity and improve the visitors’ experience at the premier Civil War battlefield closest to Washington.


The Park Service and preservationists have long been unhappy principally with the steadily rising traffic inside the battlefield. On a typical workday, more than 50,000 vehicles pass through the intersection of 234 and 29 in the center of the park.

Congestion is so bad that it’s often impossible to complete the driving tour that traces the highlights of Second Manassas.

“What we’ve been saying for more than a decade is the biggest threat to this park is the commuter and industrial traffic that goes through it every day,” said Jim Campi, spokesman for the Civil War Trust.

Campi’s group hasn’t yet formally endorsed the deal, known as a Section 106 programmatic agreement under federal historic preservation law. His group wants to be sure the final form guarantees that both roads, and not just one, will eventually be closed. That’s important because current plans provide for the closures to be in two phases.

In the first phase, when the north-south, Bi-County Parkway is completed west of the park, then 234 would be closed inside it. State and local authorities are keen to push that ahead quickly. Local residents who stand to lose property, and other groups, are agitating to block it.

The park would have to give up four acres of land for the Bi-County Parkway and allow a noisy, four-lane highway to be built nearby. Clark, the park superintendent, doesn’t like that but says it’s worth it to eliminate a road that’s also pretty noisy and cuts right through his battlefield.

“We’re giving some on the periphery to get an awful lot in the core, in the center of the park,” Clark said.

In the second phase, possibly as late as 2035, the so-called Battlefield Bypass would be built north of the park. Only then would 29 be closed within it.

Clark said that, as part of the deal, he insisted that the Virginia Department of Transportation pledge firmly to close both roads once the new highways are built. His nightmare would be that he agrees to new highways just outside his park, only to see the state renege on its promise to shut the roads within.

“They would have to double-cross us to do that,” Clark said. “We have to operate in good faith here that they’re going to stick to their word.”

(Full story here.)

I mentioned this deal in the works in a post last year. I’m still on the fence with this one. On the positive side, if the proposed by-pass is completed, this would re-route thousands of drivers who would rather not be on the battlefield while on their way to and from work.

On the other side, I’m just wary of VDOT projects of late. Particularly where “bundled” into larger plans to revive the impractical beltway around the beltway. What’s really bad here are the long time line projections. We won’t need the 2013 solution by 2035. That long running project timeline could well introduce the “double-cross” that Ed Clark mentions.

This will be interesting as the details are worked out.

The “other” Brandy Station preservation story: Stevensburg

With last week’s good news about Brandy Station’s Fleetwood Hill still making the rounds through the preservation community, let me mention another “front” at Brandy Station which deserves attention – Stevensburg and Hansborough Ridge. For some time I’ve been tracking proceedings regarding the widening of Virginia Highway 3, which passes on the south end of the ridge and through Stevensburg. Now’s a good time for an update.

The project dates back to the 1990s when the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) looked to widen the highway to four lanes through Culpeper County. The focus for this particular improvement is a five mile section between Stevensburg and Lignum. While multi-lane thoroughfares in rural areas are nice time-savers, they leave a wide footprint. This same highway cuts through the Chancellorsville battlefield and the northern edge of the Wilderness. In the past, VDOT prepared several options for the improvement. One option, designated Alternative A, would for the most part expand the existing right-of-way (in blue on the map below). Alternative B placed a by-pass north of Stevensburg (shown as a red line red).


Notice the red shaded sections on the map. The solid red shadings are portions of the Brandy Station battlefield. The hashed sections are part of the battlefield study area. In this case where Colonel Alfred Duffié’s division approached the 2nd South Carolina and 4th Virginia Cavalry on June 9, 1863. The forces clashed roughly where the two “alternatives” diverge. Also seen on the map is another Civil War site. A green outline designates one of the many Army of the Potomac campsites from the winter of 1863-4. And I would point out that remains of those encampments are up there today – in some places the very stones remain in the places the soldiers left them as they departed for the Overland Campaign.

That in mind, you can see where any widening of Highway 3 would impact heretofore undeveloped sites of significance. According to VDOT’s documentation, Alternative A would require purchase of 9.7 acres of battlefield while Alternative B would require 26.3 acres of the battlefield (and over fifty within the study area). When the project funding converted from state to federal, Alternative B came off the table due to that factor and environmental impacts.

Late last year, another option floated to place roundabouts in an effort to ease traffic through Stevensburg. But the Commonwealth Transportation Board turned that down. What is left is “Alternative A” with a loss of acres of the battlefield and encroachment on nearby Salubria (which a colonial era house). Now county officials are saying, “The design is basically done, and the right-of-way is done and we would hope that you take advantage of this and get some construction done.”

VDOT indicates about 8,000 vehicles a day pass through Stevensburg on average. That is expected to increase upwards of 14,000 by 2035. But compare that to another VDOT project also aimed to widen a state highway –  Virginia 7 at Reston. This plan would open a road from four to six lanes. Today that section carries a daily average of 60,000 vehicles, and will increase to 87,000 by 2034. Do the math, Virginia 7 will carry over four times the amount of traffic by 2035.

Furthermore, if we are discussing safety, the number of reported accidents on that section of Virginia 7 likewise is many times greater than that reported in Stevensburg. The main thing keeping the fatal accident count down is the slow speeds due to traffic congestion. If safety is the main objective for the Stevensburg widening, then would a wider highway achieve that? Or would a safer alternative be to slow traffic down – as has been successful through the US Highway 50 corridor from Aldie to Upperville?

Both projects – Virginia 3 and Virginia 7 widening – carry roughly the same price tag, which begs the next logical question: where would the tax dollars be better spent?

Now sharp readers will point out that both highway projects I mention pass through battlefields. Yes! Dranesville. But as I’ve blogged before, Dranesville is a lost battlefield with less than “take what you can get” preservation. Hansborough Ridge is a case where encroachment and development can be stopped before the resource is lost. Putting a half-dozen or more wayside markers along Virginia 3 to discuss Hansborough Ridge is hardly an “offset” and isn’t all that can be done.

So where are the preservationists on this issue at Hansborough Ridge? Sadly, the organization that should be stepping up to say something is instead sitting by quietly. This is, after all, part of the Brandy Station battlefield which the Brandy Station Foundation (BSF) was created to protect. Shortly after taking over as President, Joseph McKinney put a lid on any actions by BSF in regards to the Virginia 3 widening. Rather bluntly, he called for all members of BSF (not just board members) to “let the residents decide the matter” and to live with that outcome. Since then BSF has submitted nothing for review in the pubic hearings, said very little during the hearings, and completely avoided the subject on their web site (and newsletter). [UPDATE: And BSF failed to provide any input for the Section 106 process, which was required of VDOT by the 1966 National Historic Preservation Act.  That process was designed to allow preservation organizations to “get a word in” and champion for the historical resources.]  Sadly, BSF seems more concerned with preservation of one particular structure in Brandy Station (where I’m told ghost hunters frequently pursue otherworldly cats) than actually advocating for the preservation of the battlefield itself.

At least BSF should step forward to advocate an option that does not damage the integrity of the battlefield. In other localities, by simply raising the discussion (even if losing round) and highlighting the historical treasure, preservationists have scored long term wins. In 2035, we shouldn’t be looking back at Hansborough Ridge as a “take what you can get” slice of preserved battlefield.

40 Years of Preservation in Staunton, Virginia

An article about preservation in Staunton, Virginia caught my eye earlier this week.  Historic preservation is much more than just battlefields:

40 Years: Preserving Staunton’s History

STAUNTON — Downtown Staunton is rich in history, unique and charming, the kind of place that makes long-time residents proud to stay and also attracts new investment and residents.

But it wasn’t destined to be that way; it took a group of dedicated and relentless citizens.

That was the theme of the Historic Staunton Foundation’s annual meeting Sunday night at Blackfriars Playhouse, where members celebrated 40 years of preserving Staunton’s architectural history.

“Staunton, Virginia, 40 years ago had a downtown that was really shuttered up,” said Frank Strassler, executive director of the foundation. “Business was leaving quickly.”

It was then, 40 years ago, that the foundation formed to oppose the Virginia Department of Transportation’s plan to build a four-lane highway where the Wharf District is, displacing property that now supports more than a dozen businesses and destroying the train station designed by T.J. Collins, Staunton’s most renowned architect.

Today, not only is the Wharf District thriving, but the foundation has worked with the city and property owners to preserve more than 1,000 historic buildings in and around Staunton, establish five registered historic districts and bring in $50 million in downtown and neighborhood investment directly related to historic preservation…. (Read more)

The article goes on to mention an exhibit, at the R.R. Smith Center for History and Art, entitled “1971 to 2011: Forty Years of Preservation Success.”  Using paintings and blueprints the exhibit provides a timeline of preservation in Staunton.

These are the stories I like to hear. Had the original VDOT plan been executed, it may have attracted a few new businesses to the town.  But it sounds like Staunton kept a little of its heritage and charm, yet still attracted a few businesses!