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Old Sterling Continues Struggle

When Emil Azar invested $60,000 on the first commercial brick oven in Loudoun County eight years ago, business at his new restaurant was brisk. People enjoyed "Emilio's Brick Oven Gourmet Pizza" pies and sandwiches.

Sales, however, took a sharp downturn this summer, when an interchange opened at the intersection of Route 28, Church Road and Waxpool Road. His business has dropped 60 percent, Azar said Saturday.

"I used to be busy, lines out the door. Now, it's a ghost town," he said. "We used to do $2,500 lunches. Now we do $700 to $800."

Azar said he does not want to move his restaurant, because he invested so much money into the brick oven and other amenities. "I may have to start delivering [pizzas]," he said.

VDOT OPENED the interchange in early July, cutting off direct access from Route 28 to 39 businesses in the oldest section of Sterling. The move was planned to alleviate traffic congestion on Route 28 and to boost business. Merchants have paid 20 percent more in real estate taxes for improvements to Route 28 for nearly 20 years.

Transportation officials estimate more than 100,000 cars a day use that intersection, just north of the Dulles Toll Road. By 2012, transportation officials estimate 200,000 cars will travel it daily.

Sales for the majority of Old Sterling businesses continue to be down despite merchants' complaints about the interchange and related road closures. At least one business, however, has found itself in the minority. Steve Durmheller, manager of Auto Sport, said profits are up. "Guys buy car parts. They will drive for hours looking for car parts," he said. "If you offer good service and good prices, people will find you."

Emilio's and Auto Sport are both on Shaw Road. The Church Road access to Shaw Road also was closed when the interchange opened.

DURMHELLER SAID there were two benefits to the closing. One is that there is no longer a traffic jam along Shaw Road from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. daily. "Traffic was backed up from Church to Sterling Boulevard," he said. Shaw Road connects the two thoroughfares.

He also cited a decline in traffic crashes in Old Sterling. A retired paramedic, he placed a high value on that advantage. "If it saves one person's life, it's worth it," he said.

Charles Brownell, who worked for Henry's Wrecker Service for six years prior to becoming a part-time Auto Sport employee, agreed. "There were a lot of wrecks, from fender benders to a couple of fatalities on 28, head-on collisions, rollovers," he said. The intersection of Route 28, Waxpool Road and Church Road had one of the highest accident rates in the county, law enforcement officials say.

But Brownell and Durmheller agreed that the interchange and subsequent access problems are a problem for other businesses. "Cedar Road is a headache," Brownell added. "You can't cross 28 anymore."

Motorists used to be able to travel from Shaw Road to Cedar Road in Old Sterling, across Route 28, to businesses on the other side of Cedar Road.

The Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) removed a traffic light and installed Jersey barriers in the middle of Route 28. Motorists had to drive up to the interchange and turn around to get to the other side of Cedar Green.

Susan Shaw, VDOT's Route 28 project manager, said the Route 28 access to the west side of Cedar Green was closed this summer. This week, motorists will no longer be able to exit from there onto 28.

Nancy Murphy, co-owner of Murphy Electric, said the move makes it inconvenient for customers to get to her business. "Personally, I think it's totally unfair for all of the businesses affected by it," she added. Murphy said she has seen no improvement in the traffic congestion as a result of the interchange.

Lindsay Volkswagen, which opened for business on the corner of Route 28 and Cedar Road on the east side of Route 28 last year, has petitioned the state to abandon its decision to close the northbound access to Cedar Green. Shaw said the proposal is under consideration.

WHEN TRANSPORTATION officials opened the interchange, they also cut off direct access to about 10 businesses on the southern side of Church Road and on Shaw Road. This summer, they also closed one of two access points to Ruritan Circle businesses, also off Church Road, for seven weeks.

In response to complaints, VDOT created better signage, improved access into Old Sterling and last week, it reopened Ruritan Circle. The merchants asked the state to rename some of the streets intersecting Cedar Green and Shaw Road so it would be easier to provide directions to customers. Shaw said Tippit Hill Way, for example, will become Shaw Road.

The Loudoun County Board of Supervisors voted to accept the merchants' proposal to give a recognizable name to a section in the southeast quadrant of Old Sterling, south of Church Road and east of 28. The name is Belfort Park, after Belfort Furniture, which occupies a cluster of buildings in that area.

Betty Geoffroy, owner of Sterling Schoolhouse Antiques on Ruritan Circle, expressed relief that access to her road had been restored. "This was the worst summer I ever had," she said, referring to sales. Geoffroy has been selling antiques at the same location for 26 years.

She cited the ongoing construction as the No. 1 reason for the decline in business. A soft economy and high gasoline prices were other factors, she added.

One of her biggest gripes is that merchants have been paying 20 percent more in real estate taxes for Route 28 improvements, she said. "Twenty percent extra is a lot of money over almost 20 years."

Geoffroy suggested two solutions: complete the interchange construction and reopen the intersection of Church and Shaw roads. "I don't think it's fair," she said.

Shaw said the interchange construction is scheduled for completion by the end of the year. Contractors are building the flyover ramp. Formation of a Church Road bridge over the W&OD Trail, however, will take another year.

VDOT studied the possibility of reopening Church Road access to the businesses on the southern side of the thoroughfare, but determined it would not be feasible, she said. To create enough room for trucks to be able to do a U-turn at that location, the state would have to remove a historic church building and two businesses, she said.

THE INTERCHANGE is one of 10 planned for the Route 28; the next is scheduled to begin next month at the road's intersection with Sterling Boulevard. Two interchanges were completed last year, one at Route 606 and Old Ox Road and the other leading to the Air and Space Museum Parkway, formerly known as Bansfield Road. Two more are planned at McLearen Road and Westfield Boulevard.

The Public-Private Transportation Act made the project possible by allowing private companies innovative solutions for designing, building, financing and operating transportation improvements. It is the first time the funding mechanism has been used in Northern Virginia. Businesses in the Route 28 Tax District agreed to pay taxes to finance the balance of the project.