After four lives were lost in six weeks in car crashes along Evergreen Mills Road, residents and county leaders are calling for a rush on safety improvements there.
Residents who live in neighborhoods just off Evergreen Mills Road and frequently travel the 12-mile, two-lane byway between Leesburg and Arcola want the planned work to make the road safer expedited. They formed the Facebook group Make Evergreen Mills Road Safe after Erin Kaplan, Ashburn mother of three, was killed Sept. 8. The driver of a food truck ran a stop sign at the end of Watson Road, T-boning Kaplan’s car.
That tragedy along the heavily traveled roadway came just six weeks after a Suffolk woman, Courtney Ashe, apparently lost control of her vehicle in a heavy rainstorm while traveling along Evergreen Mills Road and drove into Sycolin Creek. The car was found upside down in the creek three days later, with Ashe’s body and the bodies of her 9-year-old cousin and 5-year-old son inside.
“We’ve been talking about the need for improvements along this road for years, and it’s unfortunate that it took the last couple of crashes to prompt us to say enough is enough,” said Stephanie Manning, who lives in the Courtland Rural Village neighborhood. She helped start the Make Evergreen Mills Road Safe Facebook page. “We’ve got to work on getting more resources to get this done. It really could have been any one of us.”
This isn’t a new problem for Supervisor Tony Buffington (Blue Ridge). He’s worked with the county staff and Virginia Department of Transportation to make improvements—some immediate and some long-term—near the Evergreen Mills and Watson intersection for the past year.
Last September, on his way to a Board of Supervisors meeting, he came upon a serious crash at that intersection. He immediately asked VDOT for crash statistics for the Evergreen Mills/Watson Road intersection and other intersections throughout his district, which stretches from the edge of Dulles Airport to Loudoun’s western border. VDOT reported 19 crashes at that spot from 2013 to October 2016, resulting in one serious injury and 10 minor injuries.
“This one was identified by my office as the most unsafe intersection in the district—it’s our top priority,” Buffington said.
A more recent VDOT report shows there were six lives lost in accidents along Evergreen Mills Road from 2010 through March of this year. That doesn’t include the four most recent fatalities. During that period, VDOT reported 524 incidents, resulting in 264 injuries.
In the past year, Buffington’s office has worked with VDOT and county staff members to add optical speed bar markings and install larger road signs along Evergreen Mills warning of a sharp turn ahead, as well as painting a thick stop bar on the pavement at the Watson Road stop sign. They also asked VDOT to regularly trim trees and brush along the two roads.
Buffington also won enough votes on the board to add a project that would straighten Evergreen Mills Road at the intersections of Reservoir and Watson roads to the county’s Capital Improvement Program. That document serves as a roadmap for the county’s next six years’ worth of construction projects.
The design for that project hasn’t been approved, but one option would realign Watson Road to connect with Evergreen Mills further south where Reservoir Road connects, to make that a four-way intersection, which VDOT considers safer than the current set up of two T intersections. More turn lanes and acceleration lanes would also likely be added, and possibly a traffic signal. Another option under consideration would widen easements to allow for 8-foot shoulders along Evergreen Mills in that area.
Right now, a bond to pay for the project is scheduled for voter approval in 2020, and funding would come through in fiscal year 2022.
“This year I’ll try to accelerate funding for this project and make as much progress as possible on preliminary design so we’re moving forward with the safest option,” Buffington said. “None of this will happen soon enough for anyone, to include me. It just takes time to fund, design, and actually build roads.”
Dee Clingan is one of many residents disappointed more hasn’t been done already. Her husband, Joe Ponceroff, was left permanently disabled after a crash along Evergreen Mills Road two years ago. A dump truck hit him head on, as he drove southbound from his home in Winchester to his job in Dulles. The dump truck’s driver crossed the center line when he came upon a traffic back-up caused by a vehicle waiting to turn onto Watson Road.
“We are not surprised that there continues to be traffic on that road but we are shocked that so little has been done about it,” Clingan said. Her husband previously worked for VDOT and now works for a construction company that specializes in road projects. “He knows this industry well,” she added. “This road, there’s no good line of sight, no turn lanes—everything about that intersection screams to be changed. It was never meant to support the traffic that is on there now.”
Clingan and dozens of others have shared their stories of harrowing experiences along Evergreen Mills Road on the Make Evergreen Mills Road Safe Facebook page, which already has more than 2,100 followers.
The page has provided an outlet for residents who want to organize efforts to improve not only the Watson Road intersection but the entire stretch of Evergreen Mills Road.
In 2016, the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office responded to 109 crashes in the section of Evergreen Mills Road south of the Leesburg town limits. So far this year, its responded to 59 crashes.
Under the county’s current plan, it will be another four years before funding is available to widen Evergreen Mills between Northstar Boulevard and Belmont Ridge Road to four lanes.
Creators of the Facebook page want to form a task force with two people from each of the neighborhoods along Evergreen Mills Road. The task force would hold public meetings to get feedback and work as a unified voice to advocate improvements, Manning said.
“We really want to work with the county and VDOT to make sure Evergreen Mills Road is redesigned, reengineered—redone—so that it is built like the major coordinator that it has become,” she said.
Buffington and Supervisor Geary Higgins (R-Catoctin) have scheduled meetings with Manning and other residents who frequently use Evergreen Mills Road. The northern end of Evergreen Mills sits in Higgins’ district, including the crash that claimed the lives of Ashe and the two young boys.
In the meantime, Buffington has asked VDOT to do more to trim back the brush along Evergreen Mills and Watson roads and consider reducing the speed limit in that area. He’s also asked law enforcement to increase their patrol efforts there. He’s encouraging concerned residents to sign up for his newsletter at loudoun.gov/blueridge to keep tabs on the work.