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More Lanes, Exits Planned for Greenway

Expansion Sparks Fears of Worsened Loudoun Sprawl

By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 4, 2005; Page B01

The private owners of the 14-mile Dulles Greenway in Loudoun County announced yesterday that they will spend more than $71.6 million to expand part of the artery from four to six lanes, build two new exits and improve roads near the highway.

Six major projects, all scheduled for completion by 2007, will make up one of the region's largest road construction ventures, boosting the outer suburban highway's capacity by one-third.

The Dulles Greenway construction projects are expected to cost more than $71.6 million. About 70,500 drivers use the private toll road each day. (1999 Photo Robert A. Reeder -- The Washington Post)

Portrait of a Private Road

Where: The 14-mile highway connects Dulles International Airport and Leesburg.

History: Dedicated in September 1995, it was the first private toll road in Virginia since 1816. Planning started in 1988 after the General Assembly authorized private development of toll roads.

Tolls: Fees increased in September. Drivers pay as much as $2.75 to drive the full length during the busiest times and $2.35 at other times. Tolls could rise as high as $3 by 2007.

Advantage: The 65 mph speed limit and absence of traffic lights give commuters an alternative to congestion on Routes 7 and 28. Greenway operators estimate it saves at least 15 minutes at rush hour on the trip from Leesburg to Dulles.

Expansion: Plans include widening the highway from Leesburg to Claiborne Parkway in Ashburn and building two exits in between, expanding the main toll plaza, building a ramp to the airport and reconfiguring an exit at Route 606 as a cloverleaf.

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The Greenway's owners promise the improvements will ease traffic for the thousands of new commuters settling in the nation's fastest-growing county. Advocates of controlled development said the expansion will spur home construction, promote sprawl in an area already flooded with new residents and increase traffic on other arteries the highway feeds, such as the Dulles Toll Road.

When it opened in 1995, the Dulles Greenway, which stretches from Leesburg to Dulles International Airport, was the state's first privately funded toll road since 1816. That status gives the highway's owners more freedom to expand when they believe growth will support it. They can bypass the long waits for state and federal money that slow publicly financed projects such as Maryland's intercounty connector.

The expansion is needed to keep cars flowing and to sway commuters to choose the toll road rather than free alternatives such as Route 7, said Tom Sines, chief operating officer for Toll Road Investors Partnership II, which owns the highway.

"As the area grows, so does the traffic volume," he said. "We're trying to increase capacity to keep up."

The company promotes its 65 mph highway as a zippy alternative to the congestion along slower routes. Its Web site asks visitors if they are "desperate for a faster way to work" and promises drivers "Leesburg to Dulles at a mile-a-minute."

But some of the 70,500 drivers who use the highway each day complain about increasingly frequent congestion at rush hour. As late as 9 a.m. yesterday, miles of cars inched east toward the main toll plaza near Dulles, a jam that Sines blamed on bright sunlight.

"Some days it's just fine. Other days, for no apparent reason, it all backs up," said Shawn Flaherty, who takes the Greenway daily on the drive from her home in Ashburn to her office in Tysons Corner. She applauded the expansion plan. "We're spending a lot of money on this road. It'd be great if they can figure out a way to manage the traffic so it's not just another parking lot."

The improvements include widening a stretch of the highway from Leesburg to Claiborne Parkway in Ashburn and building two exits between the two burgeoning areas. The company also plans to expand the road's main toll plaza and build a ramp leading from the highway directly into the airport. An exit at Route 606 will be rebuilt and configured as a cloverleaf.

Several of the projects, which have been part of plans for the highway for years, are being accelerated by as much as five years, Sines said. He said the company is paying for the improvements through a sale of bonds, completed Wednesday, and hopes the road will make a profit for the first time soon.

Sines said the company also will study the feasibility of a further expansion to eight lanes.

Experts said potential investors in other road projects are watching the financial status of the private highway. The state is encouraging public-private partnerships across the state as a way to spread scarce tax dollars for road improvements.

But critics charge that rather than alleviating traffic, the Greenway is partly to blame for the rapid conversion of rural farmland into housing developments on the region's outer edge, as far away as West Virginia.

"This is proving the 'if you build it, they will come' phenomenon," said Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smart Growth. "Any congestion relief would be very temporary as more new residents join the morning and evening commute on the Greenway."

Sines insisted that a red-hot Northern Virginia economy is creating jobs, and that new workers will need homes, with or without the Greenway projects. He said Loudoun residents would appreciate the improvements on overpasses and other roads.

"It will help residents of Loudoun County, whether they use the Greenway or not," he said.

The highway's owners rely on tolls to pay back debt and make money. Drivers pay as much as $2.75 to drive the full length of the road during the busiest times and $2.35 at other times. The toll includes 35 cents for use of the Dulles Toll Road.

The State Corporation Commission, which regulates the Greenway, has given the company approval to raise tolls as high as $3 by 2007.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company