On an icy morning recently in western Loudoun County, Greg Wilmoth eased his school bus over the slick, steep unpaved road and told the parents waiting at each stop: I wouldn’t want my children on this bus today.
Loudoun County, the wealthiest and one of the fastest-growing counties in the U.S., has more than 300 miles of gravel roads -- more than any other county in Virginia.
And people are fighting to keep it that way.
Many of the roads are carved with ruts and pockmarked with deep holes. Drivers like Wilmoth creep through blind curves, running water, and axle-rattling bumps. Yet one lawmaker says that for every person pleading for a dangerous stretch of gravel road to get paved, there are 15 urging him to preserve the network.
To follow these narrow roads, lined with dry-stacked stone walls and high mossy banks, trees arching overhead and views opening up across pastures, is to see the landscape much the way it was hundreds of years ago, when farmers brought wagons of crops to market , or Civil War soldiers marched through the dust. “It's the equivalent of Williamsburg,” said Richard Gillespie, director of education for the Mosby Area Heritage Association, “but it’s real.”
It’s a familiar Northern Virginia debate: Preserve what is historic and true to this place, or modernize to keep pace with the ever-growing appetite for new homes, new jobs, new opportunities
“There are people out here that want paved roads... the people that move out here from suburbia,” said Alfred Van Huyck of the Loudoun County Preservation and Conservation Coalition Rural Roads Committee. “They want the lighted ballfield, all the conveniences of Ashburn or Sterling - but to live out here on three or five acres and have a great view. Those people are not part of the rural economy.”
But after an especially bitter winter and many years of budget cuts, the roads have taken a beating. Even some of the staunchest preservationists are getting tired of replacing tires. Now a coalition of dirt-loving conservationists has a plan, extensively researched, worked into a bill, now threading its way through the General Assembly:
Protect and maintain the rural roads in their traditional state — keeping the same alignment, not tearing down stone walls and close-in trees — and focus the money already allocated for paving on higher-traffic, more urban areas. A proposed budget amendment would add another $1 million a year for maintenance of the roads — not paving.
“They’re really trying to set a n ew paradigm in how we maintain rural roads,” said Del. J. Randall Minchew, a sponsor. “Hopefully the bill will clear the Senate by the same strong vote that it cleared the House.”
There are more than a million miles of unpaved roads in the U.S., more than a third of the total system, according to the American Road & Transportation Builders Association. In some areas in and around the District there’s very little are very few unpaved roads; Fairfax has two miles, Prince William has several, said Steve Shannon, residency maintenance administrator for VDOT in Loudoun County.
But in Loudoun and northern Fauquier, in Greene and Clarke and counties in the northern Piedmont, Minchew said, hundreds of years ago fertile soil drew settlers, and farming communities grew. Western Loudoun stayed rural, leaving the network of roads intact very much as they were centuries ago.
People wander down these roads, with their views toward blue hills and faded barns and black cows tugging at dried grass.
Tractors putter by, and worn pickup trucks bump alongsideluxury SUVs and horse trailers .
They all hit the same potholes, spatter the same mud.
There’s real value to these unpaved roads, proponents say, since much of the rural economy now depends on tourism businesses such as wineries and bed-and-breakfasts and equestrian events, and the country roads add to the sense of escape for city visitors. Realtors said for some buyers (particularly car collectors) the roads are a deterrent, but that for many, they’re a draw, whether because they think it will keep developers away, prevent commuters from taking short-cuts past their house, or be a great place to ride their horses.
And there’s something else, too, advocates say: A deceleration, an acceptance of obstacles and bumps, an appreciation of the view unfolding around the next curve.
But Loudoun, like the rest of Northern Virginia, has been changing. Its population has grown more than 11 percent since 2010, according to 2013 estimates by the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia, and more than quadrupled since 1990.
The western end of the county has changed far less than the east, but still, Wilmoth’s bus, Number 655, passes first of all a new development of close-packed homes with almost identical beige siding before the roads turn to dirt.
Supervisors hear from people shocked to find that the nearby roads stay unpaved even after their subdivision gets built out.
Traffic increased in Loudoun, of course, along with the population.
Two new schools in Purcellville draw heavy traffic to unpaved roads. Susanne Kahler, president of the parent-teacher-student organization for Woodgrove High School, was used to country roads from her childhood in Oregon, “but on the west coast you don’t go back these little gravel roads only to find some huge housing development back there.
“There’s a lot of debate around here, people want to keep the small town feel and keep the rural roads because it’ll keep people off them,” she said. “My experience is people are going to drive on them regardless, and use them like they’re paved,” taking them as shortcuts to the highways and speeding despite the potholes, flooding and narrow bridges. It’s dangerous, especially without shoulders, she said. “I’ve almost lost my life a couple of times. People screaming around these roads — people come flying aroudn the corner, and there’s no way to get out of the road.”
Even as the traffic load increased, funding for maintenance was shrinking, along with transportation dollars statewide, until this past year.
Gravel roads “are a bear to deal with,” Shannon said.
By this point in a long winter, the calls about certain problem stretches are familiar to the Board of Supervisors— the roads that wash out all the time, the potholes.
“I get a lot of complaints,” said Supervisor Janet Clarke. “It takes up a lot of time in my office.”
Even many of those who grew up with these roads are tired of the wear and tear on their cars.
“When you’re on a first-name basis with your car-repair shop, the guy who does tires, front-end alignment, tie rods — when you come in and he’s glad to see you,” you know there's a road-maintenance issue, said Supervisor Geary Higgins, who loves the unpaved roads.
But if the bill passes and funding is bumped up to add another $1 million a year so that they have $4 million for maintenance, he thinks people will be happy with the roads. They also will be able to pave some of the really high-traffic stretches, and unpaved roads in the east that are no longer anything like country roads.
The bill is likely to come before a Senate committee next week.
Supporters like Mitch Diamond say it’s simple economics: It costs $3.5 million to pave a mile of gravel road. And $1.5 million a year to take care of the other 280 miles that VDOT maintains. (There is more unpaved roadway in Loudoun for which the commonwealth isn’t responsible.)
In Loudoun, the commonwealth spends far more per mile to maintain unpaved roads than the average elsewhere in the state, because there is so much more traffic chewing up the roads, according to VDOT — $6,000 a mile compared to less than half that statewide.
The bus drivers – hard as they work to keep those children safe – joke about it. They say they’re going mud-bogging, or getting paid to go four-wheeling. Christi Harris said one road on her route is so rutted out she has to go up on the steep bank; she tilted her hand as though leaning in to steer. “I’m skateboarding.”
On a recent afternoon, Wilmoth’s bus rattled and shuddered over unpaved roads near Hamilton. “You have to watch for those vines and tree limbs hanging,” he said. “You’ll hear them, tick-tick-tick-tick.” A bump sent him — bounce! — right up out of the driver’s seat. The twin rear-view mirrors poking up from the hood reflected the shaking bus, like googly eyes. “Woo-hoo!” he said, coming around a blind corner and stopping dead to avoid an SUV right there. The jeep inched past. The children on the bus didn't even blink.
Henry Ramirez, a first-grader whose family works cleaning a neighboring barn and house, was looking out the window. At one point, hundreds of starlings lifted up into the air when startled by the unexpected sound of the engine, and a single bright red cardinal bobbed past.
He likes the ride home, he said. “You get to see a lot of things.”
Wilmoth eased the bus back onto paved roads, ready for the next run. He knows plenty of people spend 40, 60, minutes each way, rushing to get to work each day, on generic smooth fast roads. “I never had to commute a day in my life,” he said. “I feel blessed.”