Middleburg Seeks Help Improving Safety at Rt. 50/Zulla Road Intersection

There hasn’t been a wreck there yet, but Town of Middleburg leaders are certain that when it happens, it will be bad.

For decades, drivers have accidentally turned left off of Zulla Road into two lanes of oncoming traffic headed east on Rt. 50. One factor may be the two short stone walls in Rt. 50’s 100-foot-wide median about 350 feet west of the intersection that many drivers mistake for an entrance to a home on the other side of the highway. Another problem is that some drivers aren’t paying attention when their GPS systems tell them to turn left. Although the intersection sits about a half mile outside of Middleburg’s town limits, the Town Council is working to address the concern.

“We have a moral obligation to do something about it,” said Councilman Bridge Littleton, the town’s mayor-elect. “You really can’t tell on a map that there’s two sides to [Rt. 50].”

What makes this issue even more dangerous is that drivers headed eastbound on Rt. 50 are unable to see oncoming cars until they peak a hill just before the intersection. Somewhat fortunately, as drivers from Zulla Road make the left, they tend to immediately realize their mistake and pull into resident Dee Dee Hubbard’s driveway, just 200 feet west of the intersection. Hubbard said that she’s seen much worse, though.

In addition to seeing a school bus come nose-to-nose with a car headed the wrong way, she said that the Middleburg Police once had to close a portion of Rt. 50 when a truck pulling a 40-foot trailer made the mistake and couldn’t get turned around.

“I just think there’s going to be a horrible accident there one day,” Hubbard said. “Sooner or later there’s going to be a bad one.”

According to Sheriff’s Office Public Information Officer Kraig Troxell, only four crashes have been reported at the intersection since 2015, all of which were unrelated to drivers turning into oncoming traffic.

To find ways of making the intersection safer, Littleton, Councilman Kevin Daly and Middleburg Police Chief A.J. Panebianco recently solicited help from Sen. Jill Vogel (R-27). Daly said that it was most likely Vogel’s involvement that landed the town a meeting with VDOT three weeks agoto discuss the ongoing issue.

Daly said that although VDOT pointed out that it “cannot be responsible for distracted drivers” and that the intersection is properly marked, it would look at moving the stop line on Zulla Road four feet closer to Rt. 50 to give drivers a better view of the highway.

Sunil Taori, the assistant transportation and land use director for VDOT in Loudoun, said the agency’s traffic and engineering staff would be developing a sketch of the modification within six weeks. “We want to make every location safe,” he said.

Already, VDOT has painted two arrows on Rt. 50’s asphalt that point east and installed two “do not enter signs” that face the intersection and a “divided highway” sign on Zulla Road. “There’s not much room to put any more,” Taori said.

Although the intersection isn’t within the town police department’s jurisdiction, Panebianco said he occasionally places police officers there to further help wake drivers up. “Seeing a police officer makes you stop, think where you’re at,” he said.

Littleton said that he’s even tried to update the routing on Google and other GPS software to make it clear to drivers that the highway is divided. “It’s absolutely the hardest thing to do,” he said.

The town’s traffic calming group, which is made up of representatives from VDOT and several county residents, earlier proposed doing away with the short four-lane section by closing Rt. 50’s eastbound lanes and turning the westbound side into a two-lane road. Mayor Betsy Davis, who was living in town before the highway was divided, said that isn’t the greatest idea, though.

“I remember bad accidents,” she said. “I think it would be more of a nightmare.”

In place, Davis suggested something simpler—that drivers pay more attention. “In the daytime, if you’re paying attention, you should see [all the signs],” she said.

Daly said that the town will try to get the county involved to possibly have the stone walls torn down. Supervisor Tony Buffington (R-Blue Ridge) said the county would be working to determine who controls the median and if tearing the walls down is necessary. “I’m definitely open to looking into it,” he said.

Davis said she would be working to have the town’s traffic calming group convene to discuss matters further. Panebianco said the town would “remain the squeaky wheel.”

“We’re going to create as much noise as we can to keep this a hot topic,” he said. “We just have to think outside the box before we have to put somebody in a box.”

pszabo@loudounnow.com

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