West End residents rise up in protest of ‘toxic’ project

West End residents rise up in protest of ‘toxic’ project
The Seminary Road exit on I-395. (File Photo)

By Melissa Quinn

As the Virginia Department of Transportation continues work on a new ramp to Interstate 395, West End residents have risen up in protest, worried the lanes pose significant risks to public health.

Concerned Residents for Landmark, a grassroots group, commissioned a study investigating the effects that pollutants emitted from motorists using the ramp would have on more than 70,000 people living nearby.

The group found that idling vehicles — waiting to enter and exit the interstate — would give off toxic levels of pollutants, hurting residents in the area and local wetlands. Traffic on the highway already is a hassle, and the study indicated the ramp would cause even more congestion.

“We are absolutely shocked that this project is going to create a toxic corridor that is going to affect more than 70,000 people,” said Mary Hasty, spokeswoman for Concerned Residents of Landmark. “It is just this huge spread.”

Under the department’s original plan, 29 miles of new high-occupancy/toll lanes would stretch from Stafford County to Crystal City. But Arlington officials strongly opposed the exit, prompting state transit personnel to find a new endpoint — another planned ramp called Turkeycock Run, located just south of the Duke Street interchange on the north side of I-395.

Residents knew about the previous plans for the ramp but expected an auxiliary exit with light usage. Instead, under Richmond’s revamped design, motorists traveling on HOT lanes will exit at Turkeycock Run. The department expects the ramp to be completed by the end of next year.

Under federal law, department staff must analyze the ramp’s impact on the surrounding area before construction. Hasty claims VDOT failed to do the necessary legwork.

“VDOT is in the business of building roads,” she said. “They’re decent people, but they need to build this road. … They said, ‘We’re going to put the ramp right here, and we’re not going to do the studies because we have to get moving.’”

But VDOT officials say otherwise, arguing they adhered to all guidelines set forth by the state and Environmental Protection Agency.

“We have our science and they have theirs,” said Steve Titunik, a VDOT spokesman. “The work does continue. That doesn’t mean [the community] is in love with this, but it’s something the state feels it’s well within its right to do.”

Titunik also said the state held meetings several years ago and before construction began, though few neighbors actually attended.

Still, residents decided to conduct an independent study. Though they shared their findings with department officials, Richmond seemed uninterested, said Andre Newman, president of the Jefferson Green Homeowner’s Association.

“It’s clear they didn’t intend for the study to give them a real picture of what the impact was going to be on our location,” he said.

When the department failed to act on Concerned Residents for Landmark’s results, the group reached out to its state delegates and city leaders, including Mayor Bill Euille, state Sen. Dick Saslaw (D-35) and U.S Rep. Jim Moran (D-8). The organization also landed a meeting with state Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton.

“VDOT has been extremely negligent,” Hasty said. “This is a public health issue, and I don’t care how far along this project has gone. This is going to affect the public health of [thousands of] people.”

And the group plans to keep the pressure on Richmond. More than 1,500 residents signed a petition asking that VDOT halt construction until it can perform another study. The group also has staged protests — with more in the works.

“We’re not crazy people,” Hasty said. “We’re not saying you have to stop the entire HOT lanes. No, we’re simply saying you must stop this project until a broader study is done.”

With the future ramp located a mere 75 feet from some homes, West End residents are scared and angry of what could happen if plans for Turkeycock Run move forward. And for young families with small children and older residents with lung problems, the potential for pollutants raises serious concerns.

“There’s anger that a public agency could go rogue,” Hasty said. “Now, they’re building even faster. They want to build the ramp and be done with the opposition.

“The main thing is the rule of government is to protect its citizens. I don’t think that just because VDOT is trying to meet an arbitrary deadline, the public health should be thrown under the bus.”