A major commuter route may get new lanes

RESTON, Va. — With thousands of commuters each day, Route 7 in Fairfax County and Loudoun County is congested most mornings and afternoons.

But the Virginia Department of Transportation hopes a plan to widen the road could alleviate some of the congestion.

“It serves a major corridor to Tysons that continues to develop. But in a nutshell, it takes a long time. To the motorist, they are stuck in traffic for a long time,” says VDOT Preliminary Engineer Bud Siegel. “Something needs to be done about Route 7 or it’ll get worse as development continues.”

A VDOT survey shows that 63 percent of residents along Route 7 believe traffic is a problem. Another 81 percent believe the roadway is getting worse, and 90 percent believe changes should be made.

VDOT is studying a $300 million project that would widen Route 7 from Reston Avenue to Jarrett Valley Drive from two lanes to three in each direction.

“It’s terrible on Route 7. With the growth in population, even with six lanes instead of four, it’s still going to be heavily congested. That’s just the result of living near Tysons,” says Jack Crosby, president of the Wolf Trap Home Owners’ Association.

But there is no money to actually build the new lanes yet. The project would have to go into the pot with others across Northern Virginia to compete for transportation dollars.

“I wish I could hold out some hope that it’ll be better after the widening. It might be for a short while, but the population growth is such that it’s not going to be that much better. Plus, as tolls go up on the Dulles Toll Road, drivers will be more tempted to use the free option on Route 7,” Crosby adds.

“But if nothing happened, I would say that instead of going 6 or 7 miles per hour, you’ll be going 3 or 4 miles per hour.”

Only $30 million has been allocated so far. But in order to get the remaining $270 million or more, the project must be scored based on congestion relief.

A new law passed in the General Assembly this year set up the process.

“There is more interest in managing the precious transportation dollars. It’s important to note, however, that Route 7 is a major east-west corridor. It’s long been on the planning board, and it’s something that our traffic studies indicate is a major corridor that experiences severe congestion,” says Siegel.

For Pam Smith of Great Falls, the issue is about getting around on Georgetown Pike. She says too many people get off Route 7 and crowd the narrow road, making leaving her home too challenging.

“People are using it as an alternate route from Maryland or the District out to Reston and Dulles. My message to VDOT is to fund Route 7 and get it started. It won’t get everyone off Georgetown Pike, but it will help,” she says.

“If there is also better access from Route 7 to the Capital Beltway, without paying a toll on the Dulles Toll Road and without going through Tysons, then I think people will not be so likely to use Georgetown Pike as a cut-through.”

But the exact future of Route 7 also remains to be seen. While the VDOT plans now call for a new lane in each direction for everyone to use, there is a chance that the configuration could change.

Currently, another study of the same corridor will evaluate transit options such as light rail, bus rapid transit, streetcar, express bus or some other lane dedicated to mass transit. The Route 7 Corridor Study will likely be completed before the end of the year.

“We’re looking at transit options, incentive programs for teleworkers or ride- sharing. We also are looking at bicycle and pedestrian options. So there is no single solution to the problem,” says Siegel.

But if any new lanes are added, residents might need to be convinced that transit deserves priority. According to the VDOT survey, 80 percent of commuters favor everyone getting to use a new lane, whereas only 23 percent support a bus-only lane.

Among residents, 60 percent support a new lane for all drivers, whereas 37 percent favor a bus-only lane.

Other options include HOV lanes or toll lanes like those on the 495 Express Lanes.

Ultimately, the decision will likely come from either the Commonwealth Transportation Board, the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority or both.

Construction on any project along Route 7 would not begin until at least 2018, assuming no delays in getting transportation money.

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