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Fairfax officials honking mad at Va. leaders over non-responsiveness

State leaders haven't taken notice of September letter on 495 NEXT initiative

After having waited five months in vain for Virginia’s secretary of transportation to address concerns about the Interstate 495 Express Lanes Northern Extension (“495 NEXT”) project, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors now is sending a more urgent message.

Board members, at the suggestion of Supervisor Jimmy Bierman (D-Dranesville), on Jan. 23 directed county staff to compose another letter to Virginia Secretary of Transportation W. Sheppard Miller III addressing issues surrounding the project.

“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,” Bierman said. “It’s just absurd.”

Supervisors also tasked county staff with developing a plan for future coordination with the Virginia and Maryland departments of transportation, as well as involving appropriate county agencies when it came to reforesting affected areas.

Staff members on Feb. 13 presented the Board of Supervisors’ transportation committee with a draft of the new letter to Miller. The letter, which will be signed by Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay (D), requests a response to the missive the board sent Miller last September.

That letter requested that Fairfax County officials be allowed to review and comment on design and construction elements of the project within the county, prior to finalization of agreements between Maryland and Virginia, said Martha Elena Coello, chief of the Fairfax County Transportation Department’s Special Projects Division.

Recent changes in Maryland’s product-delivery method further could delay improvements on that state’s side of the Potomac – and cause traffic headaches in Virginia during the interim, she said.

The county’s new letter to Miller raises multiple points of contention with the project, which will extend two Express Lanes in each direction between the Dulles Toll Road and the George Washington Memorial Parkway.

The project’s future effectiveness would be diminished significantly if similar improvements were not built on the Maryland side of the Potomac River, including on the American Legion Memorial Bridge, the letter states.

Fairfax County officials are worried about what they said was a lack of coordination on 495 NEXT and expressed concerns about ramp construction, deforestation along the project’s route, and mitigation of traffic delays and neighborhood impacts.

Fairfax County transportation staff meet twice each month with VDOT regarding 495 NEXT, Coello said.

One meeting provides project updates on discussions with Maryland and potential design reviews that county officials could perform. This meeting also touches on public outreach and includes representatives from the Fairfax County Park Authority, because of the project’s impacts on nearby Scotts Run Nature Preserve, she said.

The county’s second monthly meeting with VDOT concentrates on communications, including what messages to the community should be amplified, Coello said.

County officials also periodically request technical meetings with VDOT to address problems observed in the field, including traffic and pedestrian issues, she said.

In addition, county transportation staffers attend VDOT’s meetings with the National Park Service about ongoing construction work at the George Washington Memorial Parkway, as well as the state transportation agency’s meetings with the public.

Fairfax County transportation staff could request to attend VDOT’s meetings with the Maryland Department of Transportation regarding 495 NEXT and then give supervisors the latest news, Coello said.

“We have to invite ourselves to those Maryland-VDOT meetings [and] impose ourselves on that,” said McKay, who recommended that the new letter to Miller include a request for a schedule of such meetings so county staff could attend.

The county also could request that VDOT regularly brief the Dranesville and Providence district supervisors’ offices, whose constituents are affected most by the project, Coello said.

McKay suggested tightening up the letter’s language to stress the situation’s timeliness and urgency.

“I do think we need to crank it up a little bit,” he said.