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Virginia's unpaved roads bill acknowledges that it's not all about cars

Virginia legislators are considering a bill that would repair preserve nearly 300 miles of unpaved roads in western Loudoun County. While it may not seem relevant to the state's urban areas, it would make the state consider more than cars in assessing the needs of a street.

A gravel road in Loudoun. Photo by mdmarkus66 on Flickr.

HB 416, sponsored by Delegate Randy Minchew (R-Leesburg), requires the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) to maintain Loudoun's unpaved road network, many of which date to before the Civil War. The roads are narrow and some feature old stone walls or are steeply banked. But some are still heavily used and have become badly rutted, frustrating residents who otherwise prefer unpaved roads.

If passed, it means VDOT would have to consider more than just the movement of cars when assessing the needs of these roads. Notably, the bill also asks that VDOT maintain the roads as is "whenever practicable," rather than paving, straightening, or widening the road.

Unpaved roads in Loudoun County.

In this case, the bill is aimed at keeping roads that already demand careful driving the way they are. But the unpaved road network also adds to the value of rural communities. People enjoy the aesthetics of the road and don't want to give that up in exchange for pavement and a slightly faster commute.

This supports Loudoun County's policy as well, since officials want most of development to go to the eastern half of the county closer to Dulles Airport, allowing the rest to remain rural. It also helps the county support its growing agritourism industry.

Recreational cyclists appreciate the gravel roads as well. "Gravel Grinders" are cycling enthusiasts who like riding on unpaved roads. Blogger DKEG has a self-made map of many of Loudoun's unpaved roads that any cyclist in the DC area could enjoy.

The proposed new standards are a tacit acknowledgement that people in rural and more car-dependent areas also appreciate calmer streets, and that wider or faster isn't always better. Communities can make drivers more mindful of their surroundings by narrowing or removing lanes, but in this case the roads are already narrow. It's great that Virginia and Loudoun County want to keep it that way.

Canaan Merchant was born and raised in Powhatan, Virginia and attended George Mason University where he studied English. He became interested in urban design and transportation issues when listening to a presentation by Jeff Speck while attending GMU. He has lived all over Northern Virginia and now lives in Burke.  


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The map is not complete though. Part of Braddock between US-15 and VA-28 is unpaved.

by Jasper on Feb 20, 2014 3:41 pm • linkreport

Personal note! I grew up on a private, unpaved road. My dad cares about his gravel very much and somehow imparted that to each of his children. He'll get annoyed if you drive too fast and raise up a bunch of dust.

Both my sister and I have impressed our respective spouses because we're able to tell whenever new gravel has been laid on a road and they can't since they grew up on paved roads like fancy city-folk.

by Canaan on Feb 20, 2014 3:51 pm • linkreport

they grew up on paved roads like fancy city-folk.

In the civilized world, you mean?

I was surprised though that there are unpaved roads so close to DC. Some even go straight of US-50. That's Constitution Ave folks, but then 30 miles west of the Mall.

by Jasper on Feb 20, 2014 8:35 pm • linkreport

If you don't need to make a road paved, why make that impervious surface?

by Neil Flanagan on Feb 20, 2014 10:58 pm • linkreport

This is the exact same kind of NIMBY stuff that this blog usually complains about. As this article mentions, this effort is meant to help very small numbers of people at the expense of almost everyone else.

by Theo16 on Feb 21, 2014 7:36 am • linkreport

FWIW- since the start of the recession there's been a strong movement among transportation industry professionals to embrace unsealed roads, in some cases even reverting paved roads to gravel. While it's certainly an issue addressed selectively given traffic loadings, impacts of dust, local climate, and other impacts to users, they can contribute toward a sizable savings in maintenance costs.

@jasper, if you're not already aware: there are quite a number of river fords in the counties immediately adjacent to DC! I was quite surprised when I happened across my first-ever ford on West Old Baltimore Road in Montgomery County. Never did make it to Oregon.

by Bossi on Feb 21, 2014 9:53 am • linkreport

@ Theo16:As this article mentions, this effort is meant to help very small numbers of people at the expense of almost everyone else.

Really? Not paving roads is an expense to everybody?

by Jasper on Feb 21, 2014 9:53 am • linkreport

I grew you in Loudoun County, I made the map because of my love for the rural feel I get when I ride these roads. Plus to share info with like minded people. I have seen Eastern Loudoun over developed. Ashburn used to be a beautiful area with dirt roads and farms. I know change happens and there is most likely nothing I can do about it. In my opinion they have wrecked eastern Loudoun County.

One thing I don't understand is someone buying a house on a rural dirt road and then bitching about the road being dirt. It does not make sense. There is a lot of history in Loudoun. I for one don't want to see paved over

by DKEG on Feb 21, 2014 9:57 am • linkreport

BTW Jasper, I did not include much dirt roads East of Rte 15 because there is not much left and not worth riding. This map was put together for cyclists to be able to find dirt roads and build cycling routes in Loudoun and Northern Fauquier County.

by DKEG on Feb 21, 2014 10:05 am • linkreport

This is not just for people who live on rural dirt roads and want to keep them that way, or those who like to travel such roads for recreation or exercise. It's also for those who don't want to see unnecessary sprawl.

by DaveG on Feb 21, 2014 10:27 am • linkreport

@ Jasper

I should clarify. I meant: "at the expense of almost everyone else who needs to use those roads."

Leaving a road unpaved if it's only useful for local traffic is one thing (like a deadend), but purposely having crappy roads that people actually want to use is putting the needs of a small number of local property owners (and people who like biking on gravel) ahead of the common good. It's NIMBYism at its best and I'm surprised to see that this site supports such a thing given its typical anti-NIMBY stance.

by Theo16 on Feb 21, 2014 10:29 am • linkreport


It's not just the paving. But also the widening and ROW acquisition that comes when VDOT improves a road.

"Improve" is a loaded term anyway. You could improve a road in a number of ways that makes things worse for different types of users. Roads improved for commuters can harm local residents and vice verse so it takes a balance of how to move people and how to do it safely. This bill asks that VDOT explicitly consider this balance when looking at any particular unpaved road.

by Canaan on Feb 21, 2014 11:08 am • linkreport

Please visit our website for the solution. You can have the gravel road look with asphalt road benefits.

by Colby Price on Feb 21, 2014 11:20 am • linkreport

Our website is or you can click on my name

by Colby Price on Feb 21, 2014 11:37 am • linkreport

I wish this same discussion happened when we paved over the cobblestone in cities.

by Jeff on Feb 21, 2014 12:02 pm • linkreport

@ Theo16:purposely having crappy roads that people actually want to use is putting the needs of a small number of local property owners (and people who like biking on gravel) ahead of the common good.

There are a silent assumptions in your statement that people might disagree with.

1st: Dirt roads are not necessarily 'crappy roads'. Many of them are in better shape than paved roads. Plenty of unpaved roads are in better shape than the intersection Frontier and VA-289.

2nd: You assume people want dirt roads because they're 'crappy' and therefore undesirable. Canaan already mentioned many bikers like the dirt roads.

3rd: You assume there is demand for massive use of those roads.

4th: You assume that more use of those roads is good.

5th: You assume paving those roads will lead to more use of the roads, and that that is good for the common good.

by Jasper on Feb 21, 2014 12:05 pm • linkreport

What exactly would the benefit of paving roads be? Primarily paving enables motorists to drive faster, which is frequently a bad thing. How difficult is it to clear snow from gravel roads? Converting urban roads in residential areas from pavement to gravel could have a tremendous traffic calming benefit.

Even though I'm generally a supporter of and sometimes activist for car alternatives, I have to say that I do like driving on rural backroads.

by thm on Feb 21, 2014 12:23 pm • linkreport

The article doesn't mention the economics. In addition to all the other benefits of well maintained gravel roads, they save lots of money. It costs almost $4 million per mile to pave a gravel road and only a few thousand a year to maintain it in good shape. The folks in rural Loudoun love these old roads, and just want them to be properly cared for.

by Mitch on Feb 21, 2014 1:16 pm • linkreport

"Some even go straight of US-50. That's Constitution Ave folks, but then 30 miles west of the Mall."

Not really. Rt 50 between Ft Meyer and the City of Fairfax was an infill road built just before WW2; between Fairfax and Aldie it's the original Little River Turnpike, connecting Alexandria with the edge of the Virginia Piedmont.

by Kolohe on Feb 21, 2014 2:25 pm • linkreport

I would also point out motorcyclists who have dual sport motorcycles and so-called "adventure" bikes also appreciate roads like these.

by Paul on Feb 21, 2014 2:46 pm • linkreport

@ Kolohe:Not really.

Yes really. It changes names quite a few times, true. But it's all US-50 from Ocean City to Sacramento, via the Mall, Cincinnati, St Louis, Kansas City and a lot of not-so-much.

by Jasper on Feb 21, 2014 3:08 pm • linkreport

Bossi wrote:

While it's certainly an issue addressed selectively given traffic loadings, impacts of dust, local climate, and other impacts to users, they can contribute toward a sizable savings in maintenance costs.

That may be the case in some places, but as the Washington Post article from last week on this subject observed, that is not the case in Loudoun County (emphasis added):

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.

by C P Zilliacus on Feb 22, 2014 1:48 pm • linkreport

Bossi: True that, but in my layman's reading of it, that's still way, way, way less than what paved roads cost.

by Ralfff on Feb 23, 2014 1:40 am • linkreport

@Ralfff: 1) you may be comparing maintenance and installation costs; the gravel roads are much cheaper initially, but require much more frequent maintenance to be kept in good condition 2) a lot of Loudoun's gravel roads are in terrible condition, so we don't actually know what the maintenance costs would be if they were well maintained

@Jasper: not really. There's a numbered route formed by following pre-existing roads. The fact that Constitution Ave happened to get a "route 50" sign dropped on it doesn't mean that it is in any other way related to the Little River Turnpike in design, construction, history, utilization or actual original connectivity.

by Mike on Feb 24, 2014 7:35 am • linkreport

Enzyme stabilization can cut construction costs by 25% and reduce maintenance costs by as much as 75%. Loudoun County should really be looking into it as many counties across the country are doing it. And it's VDOT approved.

by Colby Price on Feb 24, 2014 10:13 am • linkreport

I did not see any of you pro-dirt road people express any concern with the amount of sediment and run off debris that is created by these dirt roads. I don't think the issue would be near as bad if the roads were just maintained. The roads I live on have not been graded for over five months now.

by Mike on Apr 2, 2014 5:41 pm • linkreport

There is a big difference between unpaved roads and 'crappy roads'. A well-drained unpaved road makes an excellent transportation conduit. Of course it is not suited to high-speed travel, but maybe moving at a leisurely pace of 30 mph or less can be a relaxing thing for myself and I'm sure other car drivers. Lower-speed car traffic certainly makes the roads a lot safer for all the other road users as well as reducing pollution from exhaust emissions.

by Paul Skilbeck on Jul 22, 2015 4:12 pm • linkreport

the problem with dirt roads is that you drag the dirt into your garage and from there into the house. I guess that that is ok with some folks but I nlike to live in a clean house.

by jimmy vee on Apr 26, 2016 7:45 pm • linkreport

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