Local Commentary

Guest Commentary: Interstate 66, Metro & the City of Falls Church

By Paul Barkley

Regarding the News-Press August 20 article about Falls Church’s “1980’s Anti-Development Bias,” allow me to dispel a common misconception about how the Metro Orange line bypassed the City of Falls Church. For the record, the city did not fight to keep Metro out of Falls Church. They did, however, fight to keep the four-lane divided Interstate 66 highway from cutting a huge swath through much of the city, obliterating a vital West Broad Street commercial area, and leaving the West End isolated from most of its neighbors. Just imagine what the I-66 – Rte. 7 interchange would like today if it were within the boundaries of the City of Falls Church.

I am quite familiar with what occurred during the development of I-66 and Metro as my family’s home in Arlington was purchased by the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) in 1963 to make way for the new road. The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority had not yet been established at that time, nor had any rapid transit system right-of-way been established.

Interstate I-66

I-66 was first proposed in 1956 as a link between the District of Columbia and the Capitol Beltway to the west. Early on, VDOT acquired two sections of the Washington & Old Dominion Railroad (W&OD) right-of-way. W&OD had operated local freight trains and a small passenger trolley between Leesburg and Rosslyn Circle in Arlington. With Falls Church rejecting a highway through town, VDOT acquired additional property around the City and westward toward its planned connection to the Capitol Beltway. The future Metro line was not a consideration in anyone’s planning at time.
It was during this period that VDOT purchased my family’s home as well as properties skirting the City of Falls Church. Of particular interest was the purchase of the Frank Lloyd Wright designed Pope-Leighey House which sat just outside the western border of the City. The house was moved in 1965 by the National Trust to Woodlawn Plantation near Alexandria. By then, VDOT had acquired most all the right-of-ways needed for the proposed route around Falls Church.

Metro Rapid Transit System

Congress passed the National Capital Planning Act authorizing studies of regional transportation in 1952 setting off the effort that would establish the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) in 1966. On March 1, 1968, the WMATA Board unanimously adopted a 97.7-mile Regional Rapid Rail Transit System that showed the future Orange line running outside the city boundaries. Bonds were authorized in 1969, and the City of Falls Church was the first jurisdiction to sign their capital contribution contract obligating $800,000 toward Metro construction costs.
On April 4, 1972, WMATA held a public hearing at George Mason High School to review the proposed Vienna route and a Storage and Inspection facility to be located on a large tract west of the planned West Falls Church Station. About 200 people attended. Most comments centered on noise abatement, traffic, and the storage facility. The City of Falls Church expressed concern over Haycock Road providing the only access to the station, suggesting that an entry from Leesburg Pike would help ease their concerns. In addition, speakers asked about the impact on Metro of a pending court action against the I-66 highway project.

Anti-highway forces led by the Arlington Coalition on Transportation (ACT) had filed the suit to stop the highway project earlier in 1972 citing concerns over air quality, noise and community cohesion changes. The Falls Church City Council gave support to this effort, possibly as friendly support to their Arlington neighbor. A successful court ruling upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court that same year blocked construction. Following years of negotiations addressing ACT’s concerns, the U.S. Secretary of Transportation gave final support to the highway project in 1977.

Where We Are Today

The path of I-66 around Falls Church and acquisition of the necessary right-of-way was completed well before Metro began their effort in the area. Despite its support for Metro, Falls Church never had a chance, or the political clout, to have the Orange line run through the City. The cost of undergrounding the rail line and erecting a major rail station were prohibitive by anyone’s measure, especially after a highway right-of-way had already bypassed the low density bedroom community that existed in the early 1960s. By the time Metro came into the picture, the City had lost any chance to exert influence in making significant changes.

The city’s saving grace for not securing a Metro station within the city limits may be offset by the 2014 transfer of the 34.6-acre property adjacent to the West Falls Church Metro Station through a boundary adjustment with Fairfax County. Constructing a new City high school to replace the aging George Mason facility on this property could yield as much as 10 acres for new high density commercial development. Properly planned, new income-producing projects could yield significant economic benefits for the City for years.

 


Paul Barkley is an Emeritus member of the American Institute of Architects.

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