By Roger Vance
Water naturally flows along a path of least impedance. Even a mighty river begins as a small trickle that builds volume fed by many tributaries. As gravity compels the water to move, a river’s bed is cut, its banks containing and determining its course—that is until they no longer can. To skirt obstacles or bottlenecks, the water seeps or spills over its banks to form new rivulets to follow until it can rejoin the main flow in a deeper, or wider, smooth flowing stream.
While our roads are not rivers and our gravity-defying cars are not water, certain principles of the natural order are applicable to the man-made environment. People want to move, not stand still, and, like the water backing up in an obstructed stream, motorists will seek a route around an obstacle until they can rejoin the smooth-flowing stream. Likewise, just as a damn or new channel cut within a network of rivers and streams will affect the flow in all streams, a new road, improvement, or bottleneck within a road network will inevitably impact the traffic flow on all roads in the network.
Seems obvious, but the impulse (largely because of funding constraints) is to see particular road projects in isolation and not look beyond a narrow scope of work to see the unintended consequences, positive and negative, that may result. The downside of not recognizing these interrelationships can be manifold, ranging from simple ineffectiveness in achieving the desired aim to the creation of a new set of problems to be fixed. An awareness of connectedness, on the other hand, can have an extraordinary upside that translates into better long-term solutions, predictably positive outcomes and, not least important, significant time and cost savings.
Classic examples are “separate” projects slated for the three primary northwest Loudoun corridors, Rt. 7, Charles Town Pike (Rt. 9) and Berlin Turnpike (Rt. 287). The funded “in-town” phase of Hillsboro’s Rt. 9 Traffic Calming project is slated to begin its construction next year (remaining to be funded are roundabouts at each end of town). A roundabout at the Rt. 9/Rt. 287 intersection and an interchange at Rt. 7/Rt. 690 (Hillsboro Road) in Purcellville are priority projects recommended in this year’s Commonwealth Transportation Board funding cycle.
All of these projects will profoundly impact the historic Charles Town Pike corridor, as well as the heavy “spillover” traffic, which now seeps to and from Rt. 7 on narrow secondary roads to avoid Rt. 9 congestion and that inundates Waterford to beat back ups on Rt. 9. While Hillsboro’s traffic calming project will slow traffic and create a safe pedestrian environment within the town, without the tandem roundabouts the system is incomplete, leaving a big bottleneck unchanged at the Rt. 9/Rt. 690 intersection.
Without coordinated planning and sequencing of these projects, the negative unintended consequences are plentiful. With proper coordination and timing, these negative results can be avoided, disruption can be lessened and much money can be saved.
First and foremost, it should be a priority to ensure the Rt. 9 corridor projects are constructed concurrently to reduce the length of disruption to daily commuter traffic and the flood of agricultural and recreational tourists that have no alternate route to an economically important concentration of vineyards, farm breweries and accommodations. Millions in duplicative, redundant and unnecessary costs are undeniably at stake if the entire Hillsboro project is not funded and built as one—not to mention the likely doubling of the duration of major disruption to this gateway from two years to four. And, without the Rt. 9/Rt. 287 roundabout in place, the effectiveness of the Hillsboro roundabouts to keep traffic moving is greatly diminished, as this bottleneck remains, exasperating the spillover traffic into Waterford and beyond.
Without the smoothing effect of the Rt. 9 corridor projects complete, a Rt. 7/690 interchange will encourage a massive shift of Rt. 9 traffic to choose Rt. 690 and other smaller roads (Cider Mill, Woodgrove, Stoneypoint) as a quicker route to and from Rt. 7. In addition, a quicker route to and from Rt. 7 via Rt. 690 to bypass much of congested Rt. 9 will likely induce more regional commuter and commercial traffic (including more large trucks) into this network. It is imperative to have Hillsboro’s roundabouts and traffic calming in place to discourage this effect.
The opportunity is ripe for Loudoun’s leaders to choose a holistic approach to address the inevitable improvements needed to ensure our interconnected network of critical highways flow smoothly. The choices made will have short- and long-term impacts that will to a large extent shape the region’s future. Careful coordination, logical sequencing and timely implementation is not an option, it is an imperative.
[Roger L. Vance is the mayor of Hillsboro. A View from the Gap appears monthly in Loudoun Now.]