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Highway As Beast

Dulles south's main thoroughfare is under scrutiny by officials who want to fix it and residents who want to avoid it.

Stephanie Smith has a secret.

The South Riding resident commutes to Dulles every day, where she's a senior forensic chemist at the U.S. Postal Service Inspection National Crime Lab.

That's not the secret — it's how she gets from South Riding to Route 28 while spending a minimum of time on Route 50.

The route adds another two or three miles onto what would be a seven-and-a-half mile trip, but it's worth it to avoid creeping along in bumper-to-bumper traffic every day on Route 50.

"The main thing is, I can keep moving," Smith said.

Smith isn't the only one with a secret. Every day, hundreds of commuters pour off of hopeless Route 50 and onto secondary roads, weaving through subdivisions and rural, sometimes unpaved roads before popping out again onto routes 50, 28 or 15.

"I can't believe all these people find out about these alternative routes," Smith said.

ROUTE 50 is an undeniable quagmire. From Route 15 to the Fairfax County Parkway, it varies in width from two lanes to four lanes to six lanes to four lanes to six lanes again. There are 21 stoplights — half in Chantilly — and several more in the planning stages.

Many of the north-south feeder roads are two- or four-laners that back up for dozens of cars during peak hours, waiting, waiting to get onto Route 50 — where drivers wait some more.

Dean Zywicki is the president of the Westview Homeowners Association. The 58-home neighborhood is located south of Route 50 on Gum Spring Road.

Zywicki won't give away his secret for avoiding 50 on his way to McLean every day. Let's just say he's looked into it, and he's pretty sure it's not illegal.

Still, it can sometimes take more than an hour to get to work. Zywicki and his wife, who commutes to Leesburg, have thought about pulling up stakes and moving out just a year and a half after moving to Westview.

"My wife and I talk about it pretty much every week," he said.

It can take 30 minutes to go two miles along Route 50 to Route 606, Zywicki said.

SO WHAT'S being done?

The answer: not much — yet. Supervisor Stephen Snow (R-Dulles) has made it a pet project of his to ease the Route 50 commute, but his nearly 6-month-old Route 50 Task Force has yet to present recommendations to the Board of Supervisors. Even then, implementation of the recommendations will require a careful balance of developer cooperation and resident and county approval.

On top of that, Snow must gain the support of the Virginia Department of Transportation and Fairfax County. Even if Route 50 in Loudoun is eventually converted into a six-lane limited access freeway, eastbound commuters will still simply hit Chantilly's imbroglio of stoplights.

Currently, the only plans for improving Route 50 in Fairfax are widening from four to six lanes where it narrows west of Route 28 and adding two interchanges.

"Without Route 50 becoming a functional road, I think we have a crisis on our hands," Snow said. "Something has to be done, and obviously, it needs to be done relatively quickly."

A May 17 meeting between Loudoun and Fairfax transportation planners and VDOT engineers was Snow's first step toward coordinating a cross-county effort to improve Route 50.

The ideas presented dovetailed with some preliminary recommendations from the Route 50 Task Force — build or improve existing east-west roads north and south of Route 50 to take the pressure off the road.

Braddock Road is the nominee south of Route 50. Currently, it is a two-lane, partially paved road. North of Route 50, there are no current options, and the Dulles International Airport is a huge, uncrossable roadblock.

A north collector road didn't sound like a particularly hot idea to Leo Sheffer, president of the Washington Airports Task Force.

"A north collector road wouldn't do the trick," he said. "It would dump people onto 28, and we don't want to do that."

Sheffer proposed a kind of Route 50 bypass that would rise out of the road, parallel it, and return just before Route 28 — another infamous quagmire currently under construction to convert to a freeway.

BUT IMPROVEMENTS that vast would require millions of dollars' worth of federal funding, which will take years to materialize.

Take the Route 50 Traffic Calming Project. In 1995, residents hired experts to put together a conceptual plan to help ease traffic between Aldie and Paris. After taking the plan to Congress, the group received $23 million in state and federal funds.

Now, 10 years later, the calming project is in the preliminary engineering phase. The ultimate results will be grading, landscaping and signage improvements that won't widen roads or lower posted traffic speeds, but encourage drivers to slow up while driving through Aldie, Middleburg, Upperville and Paris.

"It's very subtle because it's all done within the right of way that's there," said Susan Van Wagoner, a Middleburg resident who serves on the task force.

Van Wagoner has been involved since the beginning of the project and understands the lengthy time process involved with federal funds. She's also educated herself about traffic and what widening roads really does.

"It doesn't take a rocket scientist to know that adding a lane is going to shorten the parking lot line, but not a lot," she said.

ADDING A LANE is one of the proposals of a developer who owns 150 acres south of Route 50 near the Fairfax County line.

Developer Scott Plein of Equinox Investments has proffered a two-mile third eastbound lane on Route 50, but where exactly it would go — in the median or outside the current road — and how much it would actually mitigate traffic is unknown. His application has not yet received county approval.

Plein's offer, however, is typical of what Snow would like to see happen on Route 50. Snow has urged cooperation with developers as the only way to get money on the table for Route 50 improvements up front, without the waiting time of federal dollars.

With that in mind, he invited developer representatives from Greevest, Toll Brothers and Buchanon Partners — as well as Plein — to be leaders on his Route 50 Task Force last fall. At the time, the move concerned citizens who felt Snow was putting the fox in charge of the hen house. He responded by adding citizen, historical and preservationist voices to the task force.

Snow has also begun talking with Fairfax County Supervisor Michael Frey (R-Sully) in an attempt to bring Chantilly into the Route 50 improvements fold.

"Certainly Fairfax County is definitely interested in what goes on in Loudoun County, and so is Loudoun County," said Young Ho Chang, director of Fairfax’s transportation department. "We work a lot better staff-wise if we have trip time numbers."

GETTING THOSE FIGURES is the next step on the Route 50 improvements. After meeting with Snow and the county transportation planners, VDOT agreed to begin compiling data on traffic signals between Route 28 and Stone Springs Road by Stone Ridge. VDOT will also determine in the next month the scope needed for a complete study on Route 50, which one engineer estimated could cost $200,000. Meanwhile, Loudoun County staff will also prepare information on a possible traffic study and how to fund it.

An already state-approved preliminary engineering project on improving Route 50 from Route 28 to Pleasant Valley Road will get underway in July.

A community input session on Route 50 traffic was held May 25, after the Connection's press time.