Groups Release Safety and Traffic Solutions for Route 15 North of Leesburg

Journey Through Hallowed Ground, Coalition for Smarter Growth, The Piedmont Environmental Council, Catoctin Coalition, Southern Environmental Law Center

*Press Release*

For Immediate Release:
September 19, 2018

Stewart Schwartz, Coalition for Smarter Growth, 703-599-6437 (c)
Bill Sellers, Journey Through Hallowed Ground, 703-969-8478 (c)
Gem Bingol, Piedmont Environmental Council, 703-431-6941 (c)
Morgan Butler, Southern Environmental Law Center, 434-977-4090 (w)

Groups Release Safety and Traffic Solutions for Route 15 north of Leesburg

Urge County Board to adopt an approach that is safer, cheaper, better than a four-lane divided highway

Leesburg, VA: With the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors scheduled to vote on Thursday on a first phase widening of Route 15 for 3.6 miles north of Leesburg, a coalition of smart growth, conservation and preservation groups and numerous local residents are pressing the Board to instead adopt an approach that is safer, cheaper and more effective.

The groups commissioned two nationally recognized transportation experts to evaluate Route 15 and the county’s study. The findings by Norm Marshall of Smart Mobility, Inc, released today, show that:

  1. The county’s traffic evaluation fails to adequately capture just how significantly widening would induce new travel along Route 15. Widening would add traffic and simply shifts existing bottlenecks along the corridor to the north.
  2. A widening approach, beginning with the initial phase before the Board of Supervisors for a vote on Thursday, will create pressure toward a wasteful and repetitive cycle of successive and expensive widening projects that result in Route 15 becoming a larger and more dangerous highway primarily designed for regional travelers, while the historic character of the corridor is destroyed, local access is limited, but congestion remains.
  3. Traffic will not grow nearly as much along Route 15—and particularly along the congested portions—if the highway is not widened.

Smart Mobility’s report, Route 15 North of Leesburg: A Closer Look at the Effects of Widening, is further evidence of the wisdom of pursuing the recommendations by another consulting team, Ian Lockwood and Ken Ray of Toole Design Group, for a corridor-length roundabout and traffic-calming alternative. In June, the groups sent a joint letter to the County Board along with the report: Learning from Loudoun’s Route 50 Traffic Calming Project, a National Model by Ian Lockwood, PE Toole Design Group, and met with Supervisor Higgins, aides to Chair Randall and Supervisor Umstattd, and transportation staff. In August, the groups sent the county a single-lane roundabout proposal for the White’s Ferry Road intersection, showing that it can handle current traffic volumes and improve access for local traffic.

“The Smart Mobility findings are an ominous warning to decision-makers, business owners, and residents alike about the futility of using more lanes to solve the very real problems on Route 15,” Morgan Butler, Senior Attorney, of the Southern Environmental Law Center.

The current proposal before the county is for an initial widening of Route 15 at a cost of $81 million for 3.6 miles from Battlefield Bypass to Montresor Road. A second county study is considering widening to Lucketts, a bypass around Luckett’s, and could potentially lead to additional widening north of Lucketts.

“We are urging the county to vote Thursday for a single-lane roundabout at White’s Ferry Road instead of a traffic light, and to maintain Route 15 at one lane in each direction north of White’s Ferry and on the final approach to the intersection from the south. This will be cheaper, faster to implement, safer, and improve flow compared to the delays imposed by the traffic light,” Gem Bingol, Loudoun County Land Use Policy Staff for the Piedmont Environmental Council.

“We share the widespread community concern about traffic and accidents on Route 15 north of Leesburg and are committed to helping the county adopt the best solution for safety and traffic flow,” said Stewart Schwartz, Executive Director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. “But by focusing on widening and traffic lights we believe the county would make Route 15 less safe and fail to meaningfully improve the traffic situation. They will simply be moving the bottleneck, inducing more traffic, and putting the county and state on the hook for hundreds of millions of dollars of additional expense for widening and future interchanges.”

Why roundabouts? Traffic lights add significant delay, while roundabouts do not. Roundabouts also make intersections much safer. In addition, the groups are proposing other design features that discourage speeding, align intersecting rural roads that today connect in too many different locations, and improve stabilized grass shoulders that allow for emergency pull-off but don’t allow for illegal passing. This approach is:

Safer — Because roundabouts are much safer than traffic signals. The slower speeds and car angles at crash impact don’t cause the very serious injuries and deaths found in high speed T-bone crashes at traffic lights. Traffic calming features ensure safer speeds, whereas widening to a four-lane highway increases speeds, accident risk, and accident severity.

More effective — Roundabouts allow for improved flow and eliminate traffic light delay (by about 20 seconds per vehicle). Realigning nearby intersecting roads with roundabouts provides improved access for farms, homes, and businesses along the corridor compared to a controlled access divided highway. By increasing flow, roundabouts offer an alternative to adding lanes, which attract new traffic that soon creates new congestion.

Cheaper – The proposed expansion of Route 15 from Battlefield Parkway to Montresor Road is estimated to cost $81 million for just 3.6 miles, and to this must be added the cost of subsequent widening, segment by segment, to Point of Rocks. The first expansion area and areas beyond include unstable Karst limestone terrain (see the costly courthouse construction problems in Leesburg). Then as the new highway attracts more development and traffic, it will take costly interchanges to make the road function. In contrast, roundabouts and traffic calming that maintain a two-lane road will be cheaper and won’t induce the levels of traffic that require never-ending widening and interchange construction.

“Because of the success of the Route 50 traffic calming project, which includes the Gilbert’s Corner roundabouts, and because of the success of roundabouts in other parts of Virginia and the United States, we are convinced that roundabouts and traffic calming offer a safer, faster to implement, and less costly approach for Route 15, and one that will improve traffic flow without attracting huge volumes of new traffic,” said Bingol.

The Gilbert’s Corner roundabouts have been extremely successful in removing the long commuter delays that existed when the Route 15 and Route 50 intersection had a traffic light. They were part of a traffic calming alternative in response to a VDOT proposal in the 1990’s to widen the entire Route 50 corridor to four lanes, with bypasses. Since the roundabouts have been built, traffic has never reached the high volumes that VDOT had projected, and the area has retained its rural, scenic character.

“Not only is a roundabout approach more effective and safer, it ensures that rural northern Loudoun retains its economic value as a tourist destination for those traveling to see and enjoy history, farms, wineries, and scenic beauty,” said Bill Sellers, President and CEO of the Journey Through Hallowed Ground National Heritage Area, a four-state non-profit partnership which was designated by Congress and endorsed by Loudoun County to preserve and promote the rich history of the corridor from Gettysburg to Charlottesville. “Route 15 is a National Scenic Byway that serves as the backbone of our National Heritage Area in support of our multi-billion-dollar tourism industry.”

“Because of the documented problem of induced demand, a widened Route 15 would attract more traffic and fill up again in as few as five years, leading to calls for more widening plus interchanges, at significant cost to the taxpayer,” said Schwartz. In fact, the county’s submission for funding by the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority openly speaks about attracting more traffic to Route 15:

“Improving Operation of Regional System:

By widening U.S. Route 15, the U.S. Route 15 corridor may become more attractive for those travelers wishing to move between the western portions of Northern Virginia and central and western Maryland. This benefit could be felt as far away as the American Legion Bridge carrying Interstate 495 over the Potomac River.”

The county staff’s draft Comprehensive Plan language proposes Route 15 become a major highway:

Principal Arterial – Expressway (Level 3)

This classification relates to planned at-grade arterial expressways where at-grade access is highly controlled, preferred only at major intersections. Examples include Loudoun County Parkway, Route 7 in Sterling, and Route 15 north of Leesburg. Principal Arterial – Expressways are intended to feature the following standards:

-50 MPH design speed

-Highly-Controlled at-grade access, with local access provided via other roads or, where alternative access is not available, via consolidated multi-parcel access points.

-Left- and right- turn lanes at all intersections

“Route 15 is at a literal crossroads,” said Sellers. We have the opportunity to design a safer Route 15, with improved flow, while also preserving and enhancing the community and the rural and tourism economy. We hope that residents and county leadership will see the great value in the approach we are recommending.”