After years of debate and studies, a step forward on US-15 improvements

Long-term plans to improve a severely congested and often dangerous Loudoun County highway took a step forward Tuesday, but it’ll still be a while before commuters see improvements.

The Loudoun County Board of Supervisors has amended its 2019 Countywide Transportation Plan to widen U.S. Route 15 from two to four lanes, from near Lucketts to Leesburg in Northern Virginia.

A bypass around the village of Lucketts will be built west of Route 15, with a final alignment to be determined as part of the design process.

Route 15 north of Leesburg is a picturesque drive through rural Loudoun County, passing vineyards, produce stands, recently built subdivisions and Lucketts, known for its antiques stores.

For years, the mostly two-lane Route 15 — in particular, near the traffic light in Lucketts —  has been the site of gridlock for residents and commuters. At other hours of the day, head-on collisions and near-misses have troubled people who live and travel the once-bucolic stretch of road.

With Loudoun County’s continued growth, and its location near the two-lane Point of Rocks bridge over the Potomac River, county elected leaders felt compelled to act after years of study and land use debate.

The final item to be determined was whether the bypass around Lucketts would run to the east or west of Route 15. The western bypass would affect the JK Black Oak Wildlife Sanctuary; the eastern bypass would be near Lucketts Elementary School and cut through protected wetland and stream conservation easement areas.

The agreed-upon amendment provides flexibility to move the bypass a bit father west, perhaps resulting in a realignment of Newvalley Church Road.

But changes won’t help commuters today, tomorrow or anytime soon: If all proceeds as planned, the project is slated for completion in 2040.

However, the supervisors added a component to soothe those bristling at the idea of an expensive, long-term project: By October of this year, the county board will come up with a list of safety and operational improvements that can be completed within of seven years.

Some opponents of the plan criticized the uncertainty of moving forward on a major unfunded road project: “We’re about to say yes to a $500 million project, with no detailed budget, no detailed timeline, and no clue where the funding is going to come from,” said Supervisor Michael Turner, of the Ashburn District.

However, Board Chair Phyllis Randall said voting to amend the county’s plan will provide the leverage to get funding on a regional basis: “It opens it up for us to apply for grants, and get Northern Virginia Transportation Authority money and look at Smart Scale money,” referring to regional programs that provide funding for identified projects that would improve regional transportation.

Other supervisors, including Matt Letourneau of the Dulles District, agreed on Route 15’s importance to the region for commuters and people traveling along the north-south route through the western part of the county.

Supervisor Juli Briskman, of the Algonkian District, said it’s unusual to begin a project without a blueprint of how it will be paid for, but the safety concerns on Route 15 demand the board take action: “Because we’ve grown so drastically, we have to do things we’ve never done before — that’s just the nature of the beast.”

The portion of Route 15 that will be widened runs through Supervisor Caleb Kershner’s Catoctin District: “This balances the correct approach that we need,” he said. “Safety is first and foremost; we have to have these improvements.”

In addition, he said, “We have a planning document,” an outline that provides the flexibility to consider and study specific aspects during the design process.

Opponents of the project have predicted the widening project would just push commuter congestion farther north, since there are no plans to widen the two-lane Point of Rocks bridge, which was built in 1937.

Letourneau and Randall said it’s time for Loudoun County to begin the project, despite a lack of buy-in from Maryland officials for regional improvements of Route 15.

“You’re not going to make any kind of incremental progress if you don’t do that,” Letourneau said. “If that was the argument, we would never improve any road, because there’s always a point where we can’t do any further.”

Randall said despite uncertainty about the source of future funding, and the years of as-yet-unseen challenges, “This idea that because it takes a while, you don’t start, is illogical at best.”

Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a reporter at WTOP since 1997. Through the years, Neal has covered many of the crimes and trials that have gripped the region. Neal's been pleased to receive awards over the years for hard news, feature reporting, use of sound and sports.

Alejandro Alvarez

Alejandro Alvarez joined WTOP as a digital reporter and editor in June 2018. He is a writer and photojournalist focusing on politics, political activism and national affairs, with recent multimedia contributions to Reuters, MSNBC and PBS.

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