The first steps have been taken towards what is likely to be the most expensive interchange ever built in the Town of Leesburg.
This week, the Town Council picked its preferred choice of design for the future intersection of Fort Evans Road and the Leesburg Bypass, a project that also includes changes at the Edwards Ferry Road intersection.
The chosen option, Alternative C, is the one most preferred by the public and by engineers at VDOT. It also happens to be the most expensive, causing concern among council members about the feasibility of finding funding to get construction going.
The two bypass intersections are some of the most highly trafficked for pedestrians in the area. Many residents cross Rt. 15—in areas without pedestrian crosswalks—to access nearby shopping centers for work or personal needs. And despite the town’s investment in the free to use Safe-T-Ride transit bus service that carries residents across the highway, it is not uncommon to see pedestrians climbing over concrete barriers and running across four lanes of traffic.
It’s a problem that both council members and the public would like to see fixed. During a recent public input meeting, pedestrian and bicycle access were cited as the most important features of the interchange plans.
The chosen alternative accomplishes that, VDOT engineers said. Alternative C elevates the bypass over both Edwards Ferry Road and Fort Evans Road and allows pedestrian movements to pass under the bypass without the need for ramps or bridges.
But the projected cost of the chosen alternative, at $101 million, leaves it up in the air as to when dirt can actually begin moving. Councilman Ken Reid had urged the council to change some of the language in its resolution that could allow pedestrian features, such as a pedestrian bridge, to be built ahead of the full interchange.
“I think it behooves us to keep our options open,” Reid said. Not doing so, he said, means the council is “supporting a platinum option that costs over $100 million.”
Reid also said that the interchange could end up being the most expensive ever built in the county. He’s not far off. Renee LaFollette, director of the town’s Public Works and Capital Projects Department, said the project as currently proposed will be the most expensive ever built in the Town of Leesburg, owing greatly to the fact that it involves two intersections. She also noted that a little more than 3 percent in escalation costs can be assumed for each year that the project is fighting for funding until it reaches the mid-point of construction, meaning the price tag will likely only increase.
As to whether the project is the most expensive interchange project to be built in the entire county, VDOT Engineer Jim Zeller said he thinks it may certainly be close. He pointed to the under construction Rt. 7/Belmont Ridge Road interchange as a good cost comparison. That project also involves widening a portion of Belmont Ridge Road. Another that may come close in today’s dollars would the interchange built on Rt. 28 to the Dulles Greenway and Dulles Airport Access Road, he said. That was built in the early 1990s.
In addition to involving two intersections, Zeller said another reason for the high construction costs is the tight space VDOT has to work within. He compared it to building a ship within a glass bottle.
“We want to have little to no impact on surrounding businesses,” he said. “By working in such a confined space and building such relatively complex structures it takes a much more complex sequence of construction.”
In the council’s vote Tuesday, all but Councilman Tom Dunn supported Alternative C. In his dissenting vote, Dunn said he preferred Alternative B, which would have Fort Evans Road pass over the bypass. Dunn said he believed that was just as good and would cost less, with an estimated budget of $96.3 million.
The council’s endorsement of the proposed design will allow VDOT to move forward with the draft Interchange Justification Report (IJR), expected to be completed in July. Following completion of the IJR, VDOT will hold a public hearing on the final design concept in January. VDOT is expected to approve the project’s major design elements in June 2018, after endorsement from both the Town Council and the Board of Supervisors.
Currently, the funding is available only to take the project through the IJR with minimal other funding identified. Town leaders will be working with VDOT and the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority on future funding allocations. Once the project is funded, completion of the interchange is expected to take three to five years.