$8.8 Million More Approved For Left-Turn Lane on Rte. 7

By Michael Laris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 24, 2008

If traffic flows like water, as transportation engineers like to say, then the intersection of Leesburg and Georgetown pikes can get pretty puddly.

This month, the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority, which is levying new taxes for roads and transit, voted to add millions of dollars to a Virginia Department of Transportation plan to add a second left-turn lane at a key approach to the intersection, which officials said will help commuters on Route 7.

But some residents of the Great Falls area say they fear the fix will worsen traffic in their neighborhoods. For many Route 7 commuters, the intersection adds to an already tough commute. Eastbound drivers trying to make a left onto Georgetown Pike overflow from the turn lane and plug up one of Route 7's two main travel lanes, squeezing drivers into the single remaining lane and slowing their trip toward Reston and Tysons Corner.

The VDOT project will widen a relatively short stretch of Route 7 to three lanes in each direction and add a second left-turn lane at the eastbound approach to the intersection, among other things. The authority voted unanimously to add $8.8 million to the effort.

It was one of a host of projects the authority intends to fund with expected proceeds from new regional transportation taxes approved last year. Authority members also voted to fund bus shelters, commuter incentives and sidewalk repair in Falls Church; improvements to Route 50 in Fairfax City; a transit ramp beside the Vienna Metro station; and other projects. Opponents have filed a legal challenge to the authority's taxing powers, an issue being considered by Virginia's Supreme Court.

VDOT officials said the widening project would speed traffic along Route 7 and get rid of a hazardous blockage.

"If they are not in the turn lane, and they are sticking out into traffic, that's dangerous," said VDOT spokesman Mike P. Salmon. "We want to alleviate cars backing up onto Route 7, where cars are traveling at a relatively high rate of speed." Drivers also make risky U-turns at Reston Parkway to more easily get onto Georgetown Pike, he said.

For drivers starting farther west in Fairfax or Loudoun counties, or elsewhere in Virginia, West Virginia or Maryland, improving Route 7 could ease daily commutes. The project will stretch from Rolling Holly Drive to Reston Avenue, roughly a mile, and cost $34 million, VDOT said.

Some residents who live on or near Georgetown Pike appealed to the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority not to add funding to the project, arguing that adding a turn lane and lengthening the existing turn lane will channel more traffic onto the scenic two-lane road that cuts through the center of their community and is already slowed by existing bottlenecks.

"Georgetown Pike is truly an historic road, having under its surface in a number of places the oldest engineered roadbed in this country -- roadbed engineered by George Washington," Eleanor Anderson, a member of the Great Falls Citizens Association's transportation committee, wrote to the authority. She was among a handful of residents who e-mailed the authority ahead of its Jan. 10 vote to register opposition to the plan. "Along its route are some of the handsomest scenic vistas that exist on any primary road in Fairfax County."

In a phone interview last week, Anderson said she opposes the current plans and wants VDOT to delay the widening project until money is available to improve the road all the way to Tysons. Otherwise, cars will get backed up when the lanes taper down from three to two at Reston Avenue, giving people greater incentive to take Georgetown Pike.

"We think it's inviting more traffic by design, instead of trying to discourage as much traffic as possible," Anderson said, adding: "We recognize there is currently a stacking problem. What we don't recognize is that the only solution is to have two left-hand lanes." A single, longer turn lane is a better plan, she said.

Salmon said Georgetown Pike is at capacity and won't carry more cars because of the improvements. He said the widening is necessary to address growth and congestion in Northern Virginia, even if financial realities prevent VDOT from making all the planned improvements along Route 7 immediately, as Anderson suggested. He said improving the road all the way to Tysons would cost roughly $200 million.

The need for improving the Leesburg and Georgetown pikes intersection and Route 7 in general, Salmon said, "is supported by recurring traffic counts and data that show continuing traffic growth in the corridor."

"Economic and traffic growth in the region will continue to put pressure on almost all the roads in our communities," he said. Georgetown Pike's "status as a two-lane roadway will constrain traffic growth that could otherwise occur on it."

VDOT officials, prompted by Fairfax Board Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D) ahead of the authority vote, will hold a meeting with residents this year to discuss the project. Construction could begin in 2010, VDOT said.

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