Some McLean residents have been horrified in recent weeks by tree cutting near Live Oak Drive in advance of building a new interchange for the 495 NEXT Project and say the result will resemble the jumble of flyovers at Springfield’s “Mixing Bowl.”
Opponents blasted what they said has been poor communication from transportation officials. And they question whether the massive collection of ramps is needed, since Maryland – which has yet to approve Express Lanes on its side of the American Legion Bridge – permits truck traffic on high-occupancy-toll lanes, while Virginia does not.
The new ramps will allow trucks entering from Maryland to exit the toll lanes immediately and enter general-use lanes on the Beltway, said critics, who would prefer Maryland build the on/off ramps on its side of the bridge.
“Why is VDOT clear-cutting acres of trees now to extend the toll lanes a half-mile to an already congested, over-capacity American Legion Bridge with no approved plan, funding or timeline in place to connect to future Maryland lanes?” a group of residents asked in a statement.
“Because Maryland can’t get approvals to build on their side of the bridge, the scope of the footprint in McLean was vastly expanded to accommodate Maryland’s lack of progress,” the group’s statement read.
VDOT officials said the tree clearing near Live Oak Drive, which occurred within the agency’s existing right-of-way, was needed to accommodate the widening of I-495 for the added Express Lanes, as well as building a new retaining wall and a planned new noise wall.
The project will introduce two new ramps at the I-495 and George Washington Memorial Parkway interchange area. Both will provide connections for Express Lanes traffic in Virginia.
One ramp connects the northbound 495 Express Lanes to eastbound George Washington Memorial Parkway, and the other ramp connects motorists going westbound on the parkway to the southbound 495 Express Lanes.
Those new ramps are being constructed in VDOT’s existing right-of-way, in the same area as the current interchange, said VDOT spokesman Michelle Holland.
VDOT has designed the interchange so when (right now it’s “if”) Maryland officials move forward with their managed-lane project, they will be able to construct the necessary ramp connections within the existing interchange footprint, she said.
VDOT presented the design for the ramps to McLean residents and the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors’ Transportation Committee, as well as to the public at meetings in September 2021. The agency since then has continued to hold meetings with the local community, Holland said.
The ramps will be about 30 feet higher than existing ones, VDOT officials said.
VDOT modified the original design presented in October 2020 and the version introduced in September 2021 reduced impacts to a neighborhood next to Live Oak Drive, slightly lessened the shift of that street and maintained the number of existing parking spaces Langley Swim Club, she said.
Since then, VDOT officials said the agency further has modified the design to reduce right-of-way, visual and construction impacts. The planned stormwater-management pond has been enclosed within a loop ramp. VDOT also removed the need for 1,500 linear feet of large-diameter pipe and reduced the number of stormwater facilities across the project corridor.
VDOT has an outreach team to keep the public informed about the project’s design-and-construction progress and works to inform affected communities before construction activities and related-traffic impacts occur, Holland said.
Virginia officials, including the governor, were upbeat in March when kicking off the 495 Express Lanes Northern Extension (495 NEXT) project, which will add two high-occupancy-toll lanes in each direction for 2.5 miles between the Dulles Toll Road and near the American Legion Bridge.
The $660 million, privately financed project is a public-private partnership between the commonwealth of Virginia and Transurban, which has built Express Lanes elsewhere in Northern Virginia.
Not everyone was in favor of moving ahead with the work, as Maryland officials had not finalized their plans to build similar lanes on the other side of the bridge. The project has been supported by the administration of outgoing Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, but his incoming successor, Wes Moore, seems less enthused.
Supervisor John Foust (D-Dranesville), who was among the few board members opposed to green-lighting work on Virginia’s side of the river until Maryland affirmed its commitment, expressed frustration with how the project has gone so far.
“I feel strongly that impacts to the neighborhood and the parks, congestion and traffic can’t be justified until we know that Maryland is going to go forward with widening the bridge,” he said. “We’re rushing ahead and they’re not – they seem to be going backward.”
Community-outreach efforts like those that marked VDOT’s project to widen Route 7 have been absent for the 495 NEXT initiative, Foust said.
“They’re just telling the residents what they’re going to do,” he said.
“Telling me that you’re going to drive a plow through my front yard is not the same thing as talking to me about what the alternatives might be and how we might mitigate that.”