By Martha Polkey, The Catoctin Coalition
For the past year and a half, Loudoun County officials have put on a great show of seeking public input on plans for Rt. 15 north of Leesburg. There have been surveys, public input sessions, and a stakeholders group.
But it now turns out it was just that: show.
Ignoring strong public support for well-thought-out alternatives that would improve safety without sacrificing the scenic and historic importance of this National Scenic Byway, the Board of Supervisors is rushing ahead with a destructive, costly, and business-as-usual plan to turn Route 15 into a four-lane, limited access “expressway.”
The losers in this plan?
Residents who will no longer be able to turn left out of or into side roads and driveways.
Rural businesses that depend on the Catoctin District’s unique rural attractions to draw visitors to thriving farm markets, wineries, and parks.
And taxpayers who will foot the bill for this expensive boondoggle when far less expensive and far more effective alternatives are available to reduce congestion and accidents.
What is now glaringly apparent is that the fix was in from the beginning. Before the public process had even begun, the county was treating its one and only desired outcome—four-laning as much of the road as possible from Leesburg to the river—as a foregone conclusion. And it withheld from the public key information and studies that challenged this approach even as it moved swiftly behind the scenes to lock in regional and federal funding for this sole alternative.
It has become clear that much stronger forces have driven this process from the start.
At the very beginning of the pubic process, even as the stakeholders group was being asked to consider whether to 4-lane Rt. 15 north to White’s Ferry Road, the county submitted a fully formed funding request to the regional Transportation Planning Board to 4-lane 1.5 miles farther north, to Montresor Road.
It presented to the Planning Commission the Comprehensive Plan Amendment to change Rt. 15 into a limited access highway—blocking safe left-hand turns for residents on Little Spring Road—without even notifying the directly affected landowners or telling them or the general public of this plan.
In December, the county submitted to the regional Northern Virginia Transportation Authority a funding request for 4-laning the road for 3.6 miles at a cost of $81 million, asking citizens voice their support. But it did not share with citizens the actual document. Only in May, after repeated requests, were citizens at last allowed to see it—and to discover that it argued that one “benefit” of the 3.6-mile widening would be to draw traffic from I-495 out to Lucketts.
In May 2018, Loudoun supervisors approved on the consent agenda—that is, without public discussion—an application for a $1 million federal grant to study widening the rest of Rt. 15, telling the Federal Highway Administration the goal is to divert freight and commuter traffic from I-495 and I-81.
And the new draft Countywide Transportation Plan released in May states that Rt. 15 is to become an expressway “like Route 7 in Sterling.” Apparently not even the Envision Loudoun Stakeholders group, which is supposed to be helping to draft the plan which will set county transportation policy for the next 20, was privy to that monumental change.
Finally, we learned that on Aug. 8, more than a month before the Sept. 26 “open house” session for improvements to Rt. 15 north of Montresor Road, the County already had submitted a $110 million application to Virginia’s Smartscale funding program to 4-lane the road up all the way to Lucketts.
In the rush to get its desired outcome in place before citizens could object, the county repeatedly spurned or ignored expert advice and tried to sidestep safety and environmental reviews. The county declined an offer from the state’s Highway Safety Improvement Office to provide guidance on design to further state goals for reducing fatalities and injuries. It never consulted the Virginia Department of Conservation’s expert on the area’s fragile karst geology, which will be directly impacted by any widening of Rt. 15, with potentially serious consequences for the groundwater supplies that residents and farms depend on. The county staff did not meaningfully engage its own historic preservation office, and never engaged Visit Loudoun, despite the strong tourism economy along Rt. 15. It did not engage the Rural Economic Development Office until August of this year, or evaluate the negative impact of increased speeds and reduced access its plans will cause for rural businesses that office has worked hard to support. It did no origin and destination study, and so is missing crucial pieces of the transportation puzzle. It did not coordinate this project with the Waterford Traffic Mitigation study, but claims that adding lanes on Rt. 15 will reduce the number of vehicles now cutting through Waterford and Taylorstown to avoid traffic on Routes 7, 9 and 287.
Notably, Supervisor Geary Higgins slammed the door shut on even considering a proposal put forth by many concerned Lucketts-area residents for having a comprehensive design for Rt. 15 done by Ian Lockwood, a nationally recognized traffic engineer who designed the award-winning Route 50 Traffic Calming Project. That project significantly reduced congestion and accidents without widening at much reduced cost, while preserving the unique historic and scenic values of a rural area that is another jewel of Loudoun. Without any evidence, Higgins simply insisted that the Rt. 50 traffic calming approach—involving roundabouts and other modern solutions—“won’t work” on Rt. 15,
Results from such studies and input from these government bodies would have provided a sound basis for fiscally prudent and sound transportation planning for the county. The fact that they were not part of the process from the beginning speaks volumes about county priorities.
County transportation staff members have repeatedly exaggerated the benefits of four-laning and understated the impacts. They have used a deeply flawed model of future traffic volumes that completely ignores the effect of increased traffic that will be drawn from other roads if Rt. 15’s capacity is increased. That “induced traffic” would effectively negate any improvements by 2040, according to a national traffic modeling firm that examined the data. Its analysis shows that peak hour volumes south of Montresor Road will increase 100 persent, with 87 percent increases north of Montresor.
But the ultimate plan for Rt. 15 to become an expressway serving interstate freight and commuter traffic and more sprawl development was foreordained. Whether it was written into the secret deal proposed to Amazon, or merely capitulation to development interests, we may eventually know. But the land speculation already has begun, and the future of Western Loudoun is on the block.
On Sept. 26, in a poorly advertised “open house” in Lucketts, the county staff allowed the public 60 minutes (following a 30-minute presentation repeating the county’s project process), to look at aerial maps of plans for a restricted access highway for 5 of the 8 miles north of Montresor Road and try to figure out what that would mean to their safety, access, and property values. Just a hundred (out of the several thousand directly affected) residents came. The deadline for comment was Oct. 14—but the county staff had not made public on the county website the maps of the concepts or the proposed bypasses around Lucketts.
Which is the perfect conclusion to what was just a show of public engagement from the beginning.
The county’s sacrifice of its National Scenic Byway now sets in motion the inevitable cascade of farmland loss, land speculation, rural economy decline, loss of historic structures, and further environmental harm to the sensitive limestone karst area and groundwater purity. We can look forward to a future where Northern Loudoun looks a lot more like Sterling. With more traffic congestion.