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Highway Links Loudoun to Region's Growing Pains

By Stephen C. Fehr
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 24, 1995; Page A01
© The Washington Post

Right now it seems like the road to nowhere: four lanes and 14 miles through the scenic Virginia forests, farms and streams west of Dulles International Airport. It's a highway from which you can spot wild turkeys munching on acorns and deer drinking at a creek.

But the Dulles Greenway, a privately operated toll road that opens at noon Saturday, is intended to become the main street of a new town center in Loudoun County, a suburban downtown of office buildings, industrial parks, residential communities, shopping centers and possibly even a Major League Baseball stadium.

All this is years away, but the toll road is the igniting spark. In linking Dulles with Loudoun's historical center of Leesburg, the highway will push the growth of the Washington area farther west into the Virginia countryside and bring Loudoun into the metropolitan area as never before.

At the same time, where there's growth, there's more traffic. Some of the traffic will spill onto already clogged roads in Fairfax, Prince William and other counties in the region, and that will increase pressure on officials there to widen highways and extend mass transit with limited money.

The new Loudoun highway is a long-planned extension of the state-operated Dulles Toll Road, which runs for 12 miles between the airport and Interstate 66, intersecting the Capital Beltway. When the highway opens, it will be possible to drive for about 35 miles from Leesburg to downtown Washington on the Dulles Greenway, the Dulles Toll Road and I-66 without stopping at a traffic light.

Stopping at toll booths soon won't be necessary, either. Starting in January, Dulles Greenway and Dulles Toll Road drivers with prepaid accounts will get an electronic device similar to a TV remote control to install in their window, allowing them to proceed through toll plazas where their car will be identified by an overhead "reader."

Tolls won't be cheap, though. Most Greenway drivers initially will pay $1.75 for a one-way trip. But that jumps to $2 on Jan. 1, making the toll road one of the most expensive per mile in the nation. A driver who continues on the Dulles Toll Road pays as much as 85 cents more, making the combined toll a daily burden for many commuters.

"We're a typical middle-class, two-kid, day-care-paying family, and that's too expensive," said Amy Bouza, of Leesburg, who commutes along Route 7 between Loudoun and Fairfax, as does her husband, Jose.

A new road that precedes development is unusual in Washington. Since the Capital Beltway was carved through miles of rural territory, local highway departments usually have had to scramble to widen congested roads in response to growth. With its new highway, Loudoun is in the rare position of planning development from scratch.

Land-use and zoning decisions along the road's corridor not only will shape Loudoun's future but also will have a ripple effect on traffic between Loudoun and the District, as well as on communities as far west as West Virginia. Fairfax County was in a similar position in the region in the 1980s, when its explosive development swamped roads in Arlington and Alexandria.

The land-use plan adopted this summer by the Loudoun Board of Supervisors aims for development to occur gradually and emphasizes mass transit as a way to avoid the haphazard sprawl of areas such as Tysons Corner. The plan calls for 11 compact, densely populated centers that would combine housing, offices and shopping, with each center near an interchange on the Greenway and served by a transit stop. Most of the development would not be allowed until a bus or rail system was in place down the median of the highway, a project likely to take at least 20 years.

"Loudoun stands ready to do the right thing. It's a question of whether the political will is there," said Peggy Maio, the Loudoun representative to the land-use group, the Piedmont Environmental Council.

Maio and others wonder whether political leaders will resist pressure from developers to change the plan to allow more growth. The current Board of Supervisors has been criticized by Loudoun residents, particularly those living in the rural western half of the county, for permitting sprawl in the east.

"We've had the luxury of being ahead of the curve in planning" along the Dulles Greenway, said board Chairman George L. Barton (R-At Large). "I think we were able to do it the right way."

The planning area covers 26,000 acres on either side of the highway, although no one expects all of that to be developed. Under the scenario that planners call "full build-out," the county would add 94 million square feet of commercial development near the highway during the next 50 years -- more than six times the current amount in Loudoun. With a slow commercial market now, and an uncertain local economy facing federal government cutbacks, planners estimate the total will reach 4.5 million square feet in 20 years.

Loudoun's current transportation problem is that it has two east-west highways, Routes 7 and 50, neither of which was designed as express roads for commuters. As residential and commercial development has increased along Route 7, so has the traffic. Loudoun's population has mushroomed to 110,000 people, growing faster in the 1990s than any other county in the region.

The Greenway -- a marketing term that evokes the road's pastoral character while avoiding the use of the word "toll" -- is projected to carry about 30,000 vehicles on weekdays after the first year, doubling by the year 2000. The six-lane Dulles Toll Road carries about 75,000 vehicles on weekdays.

A trip from Leesburg to the airport now takes 30 minutes or longer during rush hours. That same trip on the Greenway will be 12 minutes, road officials said. The hope is that the time savings will lure enough commuters so that congestion is eased on Routes 7, 50 and 28.

But out of two dozen residents of Loudoun's Ashburn and Exeter neighborhoods who were interviewed last week, only a few planned to use the new highway -- even though most said they would save commuting time if they did. Most of the residents objected to the high toll. Despite that resistance, Greenway officials said they are confident the road will be popular. They noted that people thought 75 cents was too much to pay on the Dulles Toll Road when it opened in 1984, but the road quickly filled.

At $326 million to build, the Greenway was an expensive venture. The $2 toll was pegged to construction, design, maintenance and operating expenses, as well as to the cost of borrowing money, higher for a private company than for a state government.

Timothy Sutherland, president of C.C. Pace Resources, of Fairfax, which arranged the highway's financing, said extensive analysis of the traffic and development projections were conducted to satisfy investors.

"They wouldn't have put this money down if it wasn't going to succeed," Sutherland said.

The state would have built the road eventually, possibly without tolls. But that was not likely to happen for several more years, and fast-growing Loudoun couldn't wait that long to launch its new downtown or provide relief to commuters.

"Too often in the public sector, the easiest thing to do is let things sit unresolved," said Ronald F. Kirby, transportation director for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. "The private sector is motivated by self-interest to resolve things quickly."

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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