For more than 10 years, residents east of Leesburg have been wondering if a major highway, the Western Transportation Corridor (WTC), could run through their back yards one day. That fear was laid to rest in 2001 when the previous county Board of Supervisors eliminated the corridor from the countywide transportation plan.
However, that relief may have been short-lived. The new board, which took office in January has not only proposed the corridor's resurrection, but has fast-tracked the process, calling for action on the matter to be taken by April 14.
MONDAY NIGHT, the county Planning Commission held a public hearing on the proposal, which drew mostly supporters of the plan. The commission, after testimony from 38 residents, forwarded the restoration plan to the supervisors with the recommendation for approval. In addition, the commission tacked on two amendments, one recommending other modes of transportation rather than just planning for a vehicle highway, such as Metrorail or VRE be looked at for the corridor, and second, the insistence the corridor does not terminate on Route 7. The commission, however, much like the audience, was split 6-3, with Commissioners John Herbert (Catoctin), Nancy Hsu (Blue Ridge), and Christeen Tolle (At large) opposed.
"One of the reasons for not putting the corridor back in the plan is there is no study that shows it's a good location for a highway in Loudoun County," Herbert said. He went on to point out, a study completed by the Virginia Department of Transportation, which studied three alternatives for a western bypass, deemed this corridor the least cost effective; the lack of consensus between Virginia and Maryland about a Potomac River crossing; the location of the corridor does not serve business centers; the impact on existing homes; and the lack of funding for the project.
THE NEARLY two-and-half hours worth of testimony saw more people in favor of at least restoring the corridor to the plan for possible future use, by a nearly 2-to-1 margin, even if it is never built. A majority of those supporting the corridor were from the general area of Leesburg and Lucketts, saying a western bypass would lessen traffic on Route 15, which is designated a Scenic Byway, but has become the only north-south passage from Virginia to Maryland in Loudoun County. Others wanted the county to make a decision and stick with it.
"If we can't protect land for the WTC, then let's make Route 15 the WTC … make it six lanes … and stop wasting time," said Andrew Pitus of Lucketts.
While no one came out and said it is time to build a major highway, most of the supporters said it only makes sense to have the corridor on the books to save the land for the future. Some suggested by placing the project back on the books, Loudoun could take the time and ensure the bypass resembles a parkway and has limited access points to help protect existing neighborhoods. In addition, other options and locations could also be studied.
"You never want to dispose of your rights-of-way. You need to protect your options," said Ken Reid of Leesburg. "That's what we're talking about — not bridges, not techways."
THE WTC WAS ADDED to the county's transportation plan in 1995 and removed in 2001. It has been the subject of two major studies, one in 1990, when it was identified as an alternative for a Washington western bypass, and the other in 1997, when the Commonwealth Transportation Board endorsed the recommendation that VDOT proceed with an environmental impact study of the so-called powerline alignment, more commonly known as WTC. The corridor is roughly 17 miles long and nearly a mile wide. It begins at the Prince William County line immediately east of Lightridge Farm Road (Route 705) and runs northerly crossing Braddock Road (Route 620) east of Goshen Road (Route 616) to Route 50. Then it crosses Route 50 near Racefield Lane (Route 877) and follows the powerline easement northerly between Evergreen Mill Road (Route 621) and the Beaverdam Reservoir, crossing the Dulles Greenway in the vicinity of Sycolin Road (Route 643). From there it continues north-easternly along Cochran Mill Road (Route 653), crossing Route 7 near River Creek Parkway and tracks northeast to the Potomac River. If Maryland agrees, it would then cross the Potomac River east of Leesburg and west of Goose Creek. To date, however, officials in Maryland have opposed a river crossing, leaving the WTC to end at Route 7.
NOT EVERYONE believes the WTC will reduce congestion, however, and many predict it will lead to more residential development, and therefore more cars.
"Most traffic is east-west. How is a road that's 3 to 4 miles from Dulles Airport going to help the airport? I don't know," said Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. "How does a parkway accommodate trucks? I don't know."
Many of those opposed to the proposal live in the corridor's path.
"I'm very concerned how the project will affect our new community," said Lisa Rowden, a new resident at Potomac Station "We are not NIMBY [Not in my backyard] people, but I'd like to point out that's where the reservation [of right-of-way] is."
County staff said the previous studies placed the cost somewhere around $3 billion to $4 billion, and so far there is no funding available for the project. Some residents said instead of building a "road to nowhere" the money should be spent on local arteries such as the completion of the Loudoun County Parkway or intersection improvements throughout the county.
The proposal will now go before the supervisors for another public hearing and possible approval April 14.