Loudoun County roads leave commuters zig-zagging to get around missing links


The Loudoun County Parkway abruptly ends with a reflective fence in Ashburn. Loudoun County is quickly developing, but the parkway isn't keeping up. The road changes lane width and names as it winds throughout the county. (Maddie Meyer/The Washington Post)
September 9, 2013

There it is on area maps, a north-south artery near Dulles Airport. And there are big signs for the Loudoun County Parkway from the major highways it was designed to connect. But drivers who take the parkway exit heading south off the toll road find themselves, three miles later, staring at a huge orange-and-white fence, and a stretch of woods beyond.

There’s no sign. No detour arrow. The road just stops.

The county, one of the fastest-growing in the country, is changing so quickly that its roads haven’t caught up with all the new buildings and people, yet. There are more than 100 places in Loudoun, county leaders say, where there are missing links — a road starts, it jogs along nicely, then at some point, it stops dead.

In recent years, as developers have bought up land and transformed farmland to suburbs, county leaders often required the businesses to pay for some of the infrastructure that would be needed when the new homes were filled with families, offices with workers and stores with shoppers. The system developed as a way to try to keep up with road needs even when the commonwealth — which is responsible for building and maintaining most roads in Virginia — couldn’t keep pace with the growth.

But when the housing market slowed and construction got delayed, so did the road projects tied to those subdivisions. That left a problem: Gaps in busy roads as neighborhoods nearby mushroomed.


Loudoun's missing highways

Now county leaders are trying to get a handle on all those roads to nowhere. They’re pulling together maps, legal agreements, possible funding sources and timelines — and spending tens of millions of dollars to link up some of the dead ends. In some cases, they’ll pay for projects knowing that legal agreements with developers ensure the county will eventually be reimbursed. The state will end up fronting the money in some of the cases, and the county will pay outright for others.

In the meantime, with all the new homes and more than half of Loudoun residents commuting to jobs outside the county, people are crowding onto local roads, zig-zagging and looping around and inching their way to work on a road network that can feel like a maze.

“We moved here from New Jersey, and that was our biggest surprise,” said Sangram Deshmukh, who works in information technology. “On maps some things are so close by. But in order to access those places, you have to go around things. Sometimes it makes sense for two roads to be connected, but they are not connected. It’s really frustrating.”

At social events the traffic and weird roads often come up, he said, with people bemoaning the lost time. Why, people wonder, hasn’t anyone fixed such an obvious — and frustrating — problem?

“This all transpired because there was no transportation money for many, many years, no money for road projects,” said county supervisor Matt Letourneau.

At the state level, there is always a tussle between rural areas that need funding because of poor road conditions and urban and exurban places that need money to alleviate congestion, said Jonathan Gifford, a professor of transportation policy in the School of Public Policy at George Mason University. In a rapidly growing area, that tension poses a dilemma, he said. “Is it the responsibility of the state to just build a road wherever a developer wants one? How do you balance transportation and land development?”

County leaders recently budgeted $40 million to connect gaps in the busy Gloucester Parkway in Ashburn — money that will be paid back by a developer eventually, supervisor Shawn Williams said. In another case, the state loaned a developer up to $36 million to speed up construction on another link. Supervisors set aside more than $132 million in county funds to repair missing links over the next several years.

And they’re exploring options to speed up construction of Loudoun County Parkway, which connects — or is supposed to connect — busy Ashburn with Dulles south, from Route 7 south to Route 50. There’s a stretch that isn’t built, tied to agreements to two developers. One piece would be triggered by construction of an approved “active adult community” within the enormous Brambleton housing development. But that’s unlikely to be built soon, Williams said, so the county might fund the project with an understanding that the developer would pay that cost back eventually.

A spokesman for Brambleton declined to comment. Toll Brothers Group President John Elcano said in a statement that they stand by their commitment to the county, which requires them to build a three-quarter mile stretch within 60 days after Brambleton completes a longer piece connecting to Route 50, and that the company “has already completed a large portion of Loudoun County Parkway that’s in use today.”

Several residents said they have noticed improvements recently and are pleased that county leaders are taking this on. There’s more of Loudoun County Parkway connected than there used to be, said Robbie Milberg, of Ashburn, and a fix is now slated for a road that she uses all the time.

In the meantime, there are still fences here and there,such as at the sudden end of Claiborne Parkway, where a family of deer grazed on a recent morning. (Construction will begin on that next year.)

And giving directions can be a huge challenge because so many roads don’t connect, Milberg said. People don’t expect that they can’t go straight when they see a beautiful four-lane median-divided road, she said. They can’t get there from here, not without “wiggle-waggling. I’m always making a square.”

She drives in a square to get to the mall, in a square to get to the grocery store. And now that she’s retired, she doesn’t want to add to the pileups commuters are facing, and she wouldn’t have to get on the busiest east-west roads — if she had a straight shot.

The backups are exacerbated by the pricing of the Dulles Greenway. Like many of his neighbors, Deshmukh stays away from the toll road and sticks to the local roads, broken upthough they may be, rather than pay almost $12 a day to get to and from work.

That means more drivers piling onto roads never meant to be major thoroughfares.

“If you’re thinking about developing this region, putting so many people in this region, you’ve got to give them connectivity,” Deshmukh said. “There’s lots of lost productivity, lots of frustration . . . . In this country, you plan things. I’m from India. This is like India: Put in the houses and then ask, ‘How can I get roads?’ It’s really horrible.”

Drivers taking the Loudoun County Parkway north from Route 50 might never even notice that the road ends, because at some point the road becomes Old Ox Road, even though there’s no sign. Eventually, Old Ox runs into the toll road to the east of the parkway exit.

They would notice, for sure, if they were trying to get to Route 7, the northern end of the parkway, though — Old Ox Road takes a sudden turn east around the airport, and makes a beeline for Fairfax County.

For those coming south on the parkway headed to Route 50, the trip can be even more difficult. Eventually, drivers hit the big orange fence marking the end of the road.

Drivers can then either turn around and go back, or turn left where a big sign on a brick wall announces “Loudoun Valley,” even though there are no signs that indicate this is the way back to the Loudoun County Parkway.

Instead it’s the entrance to a brand-new neighborhood, with some houses finished and landscaped, some still swaddled in green house-wrap awaiting siding. There are baby trees held up with ropes, piles of construction dirt. The speed limit is 40 miles per hour. The road sign says Evergreen Ridge, and it loops through the development past a new school, the place where the community pool will be, workers shoveling mulch around saplings, to shining black asphalt that, on a recent afternoon, didn’t yet have lines painted on it.

That day, the road was almost blocked with a line of orange construction barrels. A single car could just squeak through. On the other side, the asphalt is faded. The road is now called Creighton, and an older neighborhood lies alongside.

Eventually, drivers have to go east, south, west, northwest, southwest, then southeast, on one road called Evergreen Ridge and another called Evergreen Mills.

And then, finally, the route meets up again with the Loudoun County Parkway. Just a mile from Route 50 — a straight shot.

Susan Svrluga is a Virginia rover for the Washington Post, covering anything and everything that’s happening in the Commonwealth.
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