Editor: On July 18 the Board of Supervisors will vote to execute a $300 million project to transform another 3 miles of Rt. 15 into a four-lane controlled access expressway up to Lucketts, with sharply curtailed access for all the property owners for another two miles north. The county’s skillful public manipulation in this process—convincing citizens that a four-lane road to a two-lane bridge will solve congestion and safety issues—sets a new bar for public deception.
It’s a fiscally imprudent and environmentally unsound boondoggle that will not solve the congestion problems. There are much cheaper and better improvements that can be made sooner, but the county has rejected them. What do citizens get for this stupendous amount of money? Loudoun County’s applications for federal and state funding (none of which are posted on the county’s website) claim that the expressway will:
1. Relieve congestion and eliminate bottlenecks. But the county’s own studies conclude that the bottleneck just gets pushed further north. Any congestion relief will be short-lived as new traffic is drawn from other routes onto this highway.
2. Increase safety. Yet VDOT’s own internal memorandum found that the kind of “improvements” the county is determined to push ahead with—wide paved shoulders and limited access—will encourage speeding and increase rear-ending accidents. The one improvement that actually could reduce crashes at intersections without reducing access is roundabouts, which have citizens’ strong support. But with each new iteration of the draft plan comes fewer roundabouts and more signals and stop signs.
3. Preserve the scenic and historic character of the National Scenic Byway. But the $93 million the county has budgeted for acquiring land from 220 parcels indicates the massive destruction this project will entail: leveling houses, fences, and historic properties to create massive clear zones and construction easements. Sample sections of the design show suburban-style streetscapes and plans describe a ditch-type median between north- and southbound lanes. Loudoun County Parkway-style street lights and large berms to shield housing developments from traffic noise are in the works too.
4. Protect the environment. None of the county’s funding applications even mention the fragile limestone karst geology of the region, and the risks of new sinkholes and groundwater contamination that this massive disturbance will create. In fact, to sidestep doing what’s needed to protect the drinking water supplies for thousands of local residents, the county states it will seek an exemption from environmental evaluations.
5. Relieve cut-through traffic on Loudoun’s rural roads. But the county’s grant applications say just the opposite, acknowledging that the project will add more cut-through traffic to and from points west of Rt. 15.
6. Bring “high-paying agritourism jobs to Loudoun.” But business analyses show that fewer, not more, commuters stop at local businesses on higher speed expressway-type roads. And a number of rural businesses along this corridor—Loudounberry, Roots 657 and the antiques store cluster, and Brossman’s Farm Market—will lose substantial land. The county’s plans will also dramatically reduce access for residents and businesses by limiting most drives and entrances to right-in right-out turns only.
7. Accommodate future development. At last the county is being honest. Its April 2019 Safety and Operations Study states that the purpose of the project is to “accommodate future development and travel demand.” Not in Maryland, but right here in northern Loudoun’s rural area. The controversial 14-pump gas station approved last year is given as the example of the kind of commercial strip development the county plans for this corridor.
Preservation of the Loudoun’s unique assets—its history, scenic beauty, and productive farmland—is the single most unifying and shared value of our county’s citizens.
The ink is hardly dry on the new Comp Plan that purports to preserve the rural west. The Board of Supervisors’ approval for a fatter Rt. 15 sows the seeds of its demise.
James P. Lucier