Greater Greater Washington

Loudoun blindly pushing massive, senseless road widenings

Loudoun County is pushing a plan to widen huge numbers of roads across the county, but residents are fighting back.


Keep most Loudoun roads more like this. Photo by Heather Elias.

The plan is something right out of Robert Moses' 1950s designs: Draw bigger and wider roads everywhere, at even spacing, and design completely around the needs of cars to the exclusion of people.

My grandparents used to live in South Florida (like so many others), where the entire landscape is filled with a grid of six-lane highways surrounding country clubs and housing subdivisions.

It's not a pleasant urban form, and is certainly not walkable or bikeable. It's not what Loudoun should aspire to look like.

Sadly, that's exactly what this plan envisions for Loudoun. Ashburn would become crisscrossed with six-lane expressways, between several freeways. The plan also calls for massive circumferential car capacity between Loudoun and Prince William County, despite the fact that current congestion is east-west, not north-south.


Eastern Loudoun roads in the Countywide Transportation Plan.
Teal roads will become 6 lanes, brown 8, red 10. Freeways are in yellow.

Loudoun planners, like so many others, just plugged their county into traffic modeling programs and out popped a set of road widenings. The basis of this is model is the MWCOG TPB model, which is widely criticized for having numerous flaws. It works only moderately poorly on a regionwide level, but when narrowed down to a smaller area, its flaws get magnified.

Skeptical residents hired Smart Mobility to evaluate the plan. They write,

The approach used in the CTP is one that has led our nation to spend exorbitantly on roadway construction, with the primary results being costly road improvements, induced traffic, and persistent congestion. The plan states that this approach is "industry accepted." This may have been true twenty years ago, but the CTP approach does not represent the current practice for multimodal transportation planning.

Transportation planners and engineers generally agree that this type of conventional application of a travel demand model is not appropriate for regions that are seeking to reduce traffic congestion by implementing compact, mixed land uses and street networks that provide options and ease traffic.

Smart Mobility found that the model is only about 74% accurate, and overstates the north-south travel demand by 33%. The model also assumes gas prices will remain low, which is unlikely.

In addition, Loudoun County interpreted the model in an entirely car-centric way. When roads showed up as congested in the future, they assumed the solution was to widen them. This flies in the face of the county's own Comprehensive Plan, which calls for reducing traffic through more compact and walkable development, not increasing it by paving more and more of the county.

[T]he draft CTP states that "the computer modeling exercise for the CTP only considers road segments," so it should be no surprise that the only solutions that arose from this modeling exercise was to widen road segmentswith a total cost of $1.64 billion dollars.

In the real world, traffic capacity is constrained at intersections, and not on roadway segments. This is somewhat acknowledged in some of planning documents, which identify "choke points" on the region's road network (see figure below). There are a wide variety of solutions to intersection congestion beyond simply adding lanes to roadways. In fact, adding lanes to roadways can make downstream congestion much worse.

Other solutions, such as increased street connectivity that allows drivers to avoid bottlenecks and provides alternative routes for short trip, or compact mixed use development that reduces trip lengths or allows some trips to be made by walking or biking, were not considered in the CTP analysis.


New Gilbert's Corner roundabouts. Image by VDOT.
The new roundabouts at Gilbert's Corner do a better job of alleviating traffic choke points than adding lanes. Development that creates a denser street grid, instead of pushing all traffic onto widely-spaced, heavily-congested arterials, better allows for growth without adding traffic.

Loudoun should follow the Smart Mobility recommendations and throw out its existing model. Instead, the county should identify more targeted road projects that focus on bottlenecks and access to areas slated for more compact growth in the Comprehensive Plan, not long-distance commutes that only exist in such numbers in the imaginary and inaccurate world of the COG/TPB model.

David Alpert is the founder and editor-in-chief of Greater Greater Washington. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and daughter in Dupont Circle. 

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They seem to have a transportation plan, plus a separate transit plan. Is transit not transportation? Am I missing something?

by Miriam on May 19, 2010 2:30 pm • linkreport

Yikes. This just screams of a blatantly unsustainable form of urban planning.

If a semi-rural region on the outskirts of the DC Metro area needs to be lined with 6,8, and 10 lane roads to get by, how on earth will they ever be able to funnel that much traffic downtown?

Robert Moses indeed.

by andrew on May 19, 2010 2:44 pm • linkreport

Andrew: you're making the assumption that said traffic would have an origin or destination downtown. That's likely not the case...I'd hazard a bet that less than half of Loudoun commuters continue inside the Beltway, let alone all the way to downtown.

The item that's intrigued me about this plan since I first saw it a year ago is the "freeway" along SR 606 around the north and west side of Dulles. I could be wrong, but I'm pretty sure such a freeway facility is being promoted more by MWAA than it is by Loudoun County.

by Froggie on May 19, 2010 2:54 pm • linkreport

While building 6,8,10-lane expressways is not a desirable transportation plan, it should be worth commending that Loudoun is working to build a large road grid that can easily network. Rather than Fairfax and Arlington Counties, which are a complete mess of twisty, snaky roads, this grid of primary roads allows more capacity and alternatives for drivers.

Having a grid of roads in place allows drivers to choose any number of alternatives to get around. In Fairfax County for instance, there are only a select number of roads that form any semblance of a grid. Therefore, drivers are forced into taking major roadways (66, 50, 29, 123), however, all of those roads snake through the county and there is no real grid. 123 is an east-west route for its first 15 miles then suddenly becomes a north-south route to its terminus. 66, while for the most part a straight shot through the rural parts of NoVA, snakes through Eastern Fairfax and Arlington Counties, forcing traffic to take longer and more circuitous routes than necessary. Without alternatives, traffic is thus forced into these winding roads. A grid of parallel and perpendicular routes helps alleviate this by giving drivers options.

While it would be nice for Loudoun to consider every transportation option, the fact remains that it is a rural county, and it is not going to be booming at the same rates it was prior to the recession, which might create the demand for numerous forms of transportation. The fact is that Loudoun will remain an expansive and rural county for some time, and the best way to navigate that terrain is by roads and cars.

This blog argues that neighborhoods should be built in a grid-formation, reducing and eliminating cul-de-sac development. This is exactly what this is, just on a larger scale. Rather than having these small roads that dead-end or snake through an expansive area, a larger grid can provide more capacity and more options.

My best case-in-point would be suburban Chicago. Suburban tract-housing and cookie-cutter developments aside, the road network is conducive to giving drivers a plethora of options by having a major street grid, of north-south and east-west routes stretching for dozens of miles in each direction. The closer to the city, the closer the grids become, and as distance gets further, the grid becomes more spread apart.

The plan here in Loudoun is to allow for this grid and road network development, while it still can. Fairfax and Arlington had no choice but to build roads that snakes through whatever open space they could get. Loudoun has the ability now to build a real grid, in which grids can be built inside grids, and so on and so forth.

by DK on May 19, 2010 3:13 pm • linkreport

I used to live out that way and they are surely building out this road network at a quick pace. Funny how $1.64 billion in road building doesn't even poke up on anyone's radar but the similarly priced Purple Line is constantly maligned.

by staypuftman on May 19, 2010 4:08 pm • linkreport

RE: DK- I seriously wonder if you have ever been to Ashburn. There is no grid there. The whole thing is a mess of cul-de-sacs, loosely tied together by arterial roads, mainly waxpool (which no one would ever walk near).

I tried walking to the wegmans on waxpool once - took me 45 minutes and I was in the same 'grid-block' according to your logic. I can clear a DC long block in about 2-3 minutes on foot.

by staypuftman on May 19, 2010 4:15 pm • linkreport

@DK: The most glaring problem, to me, is the width of these roads. If one accepts the rest of your arguments in favor of the plan, I still can't see why the roads need to be 6 to 10 lanes wide. You said it yourself: it's a mostly rural county. Rural usually means low population. Why, then, would they have so many cars that they need huge roads?

It's quite a jump to go from advocating for a grid system in a city to advocating for one in an entire rural county. The difference is that in a city, there are going to be a lot of roads no matter what. The question comes down to whether you want dense winding roads with cul-de-sacs or a dense grid pattern. In a rural county, that's not an issue at all, because the density isn't there.

In a rural area, a much better plan is small roads where roads are needed, then a few larger ones for longer distances. Loudon is just proposing a ton of large roads. In this case, a grid could even be good, but not with huge roads.

by Tim on May 19, 2010 4:27 pm • linkreport

@Froggie

Oh, I get that. However, the bulk of Loudon residents are still DC commuters.

I come from a part of New Jersey that has similar demographics and population density to Loudon County. We get by without those huge highways, and somehow also have less traffic (without resorting to a grid network, which I will respectfully interject is inappropriate for a semi-rural area that wants to remain semi-rural).

Ever since Moses's "downfall," massive road projects around NYC (and especially those that lead directly into NYC)have essentially been off-limits. Money is instead pumped into improving the efficiency of existing corridors and improving transit accessibility.

Then there's also the issue that unconstrained growth in Loudoun may very well be a bad idea, regardless of roads or transit.

by andrew on May 19, 2010 4:34 pm • linkreport

I have been wondering if the GGW network was going to reach out to Loudoun after reading your great article in the Post refuting the idea of the Outer Beltway. I grew up in this county and the paving over of the eastern half has seriously disturbed me. Massive traffic jams now extend all over the county and gridlock extends into the towns, at rush hour and beyond. The last 15 years of pro-growth politicians have sold their souls to the developers and are laughing on the way to the bank. There was a saying "Don't Fairfax Loudoun" but I'm afraid that has already happened.
This county will be dealing will the repercussions of this maniac road/subdivision building spree for decades to come.

How could you re-engineer this county to reverse some of the damage that has been done? Will the Metro rail from Dulles truly change the suburbs by 2020?

by Chris R on May 19, 2010 4:34 pm • linkreport

DK: As Tim said, this grid is really very huge. The average is about a mile between roads, and sometimes 2 miles. There's another report I didn't get to talk about in the article, which advocates for a denser grid.

If instead of building 6- and 8-lane roads Loudoun instead added new 2-4 lane roads in between the existing roads, that would be a much better way to approach adding roads.

by David Alpert on May 19, 2010 4:40 pm • linkreport

RE:

The idea is that Loudoun should create this grid while it still can. Fairfax and Arlington sprung up overnight and they no longer have the luxury to build a grid of major roadways, and that's where we get the problem of "small roads where roads are needed." They did that. They built roads that went places only where they needed to go and connected only the places that needed connecting. The result is a hodge podge of roads that have no real connectivity and snake throughout the county with no real alternatives.

For instance, recently I drove from Merrifield to Reston, and in order to avoid 495/267, I took major surface streets through Vienna/Oakton/Reston. This resulted in snaking throughout the county and making numerous left and right turns in order to get where I was going. Had planners in the 1950s (when the county population was only 40,000, as opposed to 1,000,000 now) built a grid network of roads, my trip would have been much less cumbersome.

While Loudoun will likely never reach the same density as Fairfax and Arlington, it will continue to grow over the next few decades. Exurban transit in Loudoun will likely be more focused within the county, rather than moving lots of people from the county to a concentrated area downtown. Roads, should therefore form a grid to create the connectivity that is needed with a grid, rather than forcing all the traffic into one road or building roads the way they were built in Fairfax and Arlington, only when they were needed.

by DK on May 19, 2010 4:44 pm • linkreport

@David:

I am in absolute agreement that roads do not need to be widened to 6,8,10-lanes. There is no argument coming from me that supports road widening, certainly not to this degree.

My argument, which you touched on, is that there needs to be some sort of a real grid of roads that connect to one another without snaking and winding the way that Fairfax and Arlington fell into, whereby they reacted to the growth rather than being proactive to the growth. Loudoun has the chance now to make a large grid system, which in the future, as density increases, can accommodate grids withing grids. Without first building and strengthening a grid network, you will end up with the same patchwork of roads that Arlington and Fairfax ended up with.

by DK on May 19, 2010 5:08 pm • linkreport

I'm reminded of Jane Jacobs: "When you ask why aren't there enough roads, you're asking the wrong question, which should be 'why are there so many cars'?"

I suspect transportation congestion will always be a problem in Loudoun; with the exception of Leesburg and a few hamlets, the county's built environment is entirely premised on the use of the private automobile for every out-of-the-house task. The main goal should not be how to enable more driving with wider roads but how to reduce the number and the length of car trips.

As more and more jobs continue to migrate to places where land is cheaper (Loudoun Co. and western Fairfax Co.) and taxes are lower (anywhere outside DC), the problem may resolve itself as Loudoun residents will become closer and closer to their jobs.

by Eric F. on May 19, 2010 5:37 pm • linkreport

Some of these projects are desperately needed right now during rush hour, especially some alternative to go from the toll road to 50 on the 606 side of the airport. Even the county commuter buses get stuck in that morass. When the Silver Line is finished, how are people supposed to get to the station other than with wider roads? A network of light rail or something would be cool, but that's not going to happen since on average, the county isn't that dense.

Some parts of the project may not ever get built since they seem to have decided in many cases to make the developers pay for it. The Arcola Center shows some grand plans for development which hasn't broken ground. If housing demand doesn't pick up again, a lot of the developers won't be developing there and no one will be building those roads.

by Nathan on May 19, 2010 6:08 pm • linkreport

"Ever since Moses's "downfall," massive road projects around NYC (and especially those that lead directly into NYC)have essentially been off-limits. Money is instead pumped into improving the efficiency of existing corridors and improving transit accessibility."

That status quo ignores the concept of new roads directly into and through Manhattan that employ a greater use of existing corridors, most notably the TUNNEL version[s] of the canceled Mid Town Manhattan Expressway connecting the Lincoln and MidTown Tunnels (a cancellation that could be opposed on environmentalist justice grounds).

http://cos-mobile.blogspot.com/2007/07/thinking-over-box-with-existing-right_25.html

http://cos-mobile.blogspot.com/2008/02/recycling-right-of-ways-ad-other_5329.html

No such option has been developed on the Lower Manhattan Expressway though given the irregular street grid.

by Douglas A. Willinger on May 19, 2010 6:52 pm • linkreport

Miriam,

You need to read the Citizens funded transportation report. Yes, there may be a transit plan but the county does not model that into the overall network. It is just talk and the only solution the county is capable of generating from the "road" plan is more "roads". They do not model transit and in the modern transportation world, they can.

by Sudley Springs on May 19, 2010 8:02 pm • linkreport

I'm always torn by these stories. As a (somewhat) compassionate person, and fellow American, I'm hoping the smart folks win, and things start to turn around out in suburban MD and VA. As a DC homeowner, who bought as a strategy for essentially "shorting" suburbia, I'm hoping there's not a return to sanity anytime in the near future.

by oboe on May 19, 2010 8:05 pm • linkreport

The problem is that while Loundoun is still (half) rural, it is led by car-loving republicans. Once they've built their roads and more urban folks move in, and all the roads get stuck, democrats will be voted in. They on their turn will be clueless on how to solve the congestion problem. In about 20-30 years, they will look at the Rosslyn-Ballston and the then finished Tyson's and go: Oh, we need that! Then it will only take another 30 years to build a new metro/VRE line there.

by Jasper on May 19, 2010 8:25 pm • linkreport

Has anyone ever considered a greenbelt type zoning for loudoun? Especially for development west of Leesburg?

It seems like with some urbanist developments like belmont if the success of that could be transferred to other others (like adopting a form based code for ashburn village and sterling corridor along and around rte 7 and near dulles town center) then loudoun could focus on keep traffic in those towns mostly local and the need for widening every road would become nil.

Hell, even after a while density could be built up to eventually justify some sort of rapid transit between these centers.

by Canaan on May 20, 2010 12:10 am • linkreport

Also, when I've been in Leesburg (and fredricksburg particularly from what I've seen.) they use the historic urban fabric as a selling point for tourism. I find it amusing that through some deliberate choices the rest of the county could be a lot more similar to what people find so attractive about historic downtown leesburg.

by Canaan on May 20, 2010 12:13 am • linkreport

Don't forget that people from the WV panhandle commute through Loudoun via WV/VA 9 and VA 7, and that people from Front Royal, Winchester, and Woodstock commute through on VA 7, US 50, and other roads. Not to mention the Warrenton and Western Prince William folks coming up US 15 and VA 659.

Overall, i agree than many of the widenings are unnecessary, and make huge swaths of the county very unwalkable. On the other hand, the development pattern makes for the unwalkability even moreso than the road network from what i've seen, and i'm out in Ashburn at least weekly and have many friends in Sterling/Potomac Falls.

by dcseain on May 20, 2010 12:27 am • linkreport

"Those who don't learn the mistakes of the past are condemned to repeat them." -George Santayana

Loudoun is making all the mistakes of the past in a time when they won't even be able to reap the short-term benefits that Fairfax did. While change can be slow, the 2008 crash was the hinge of history that was the beginning of the end of the post-war 20th century oil-and-corn-syrup society. That game is up and not a moment too soon. The fact that Loudoun would want to escalate their position in that game when it's been in zombie mode for two years now says that they have long-since crossed the line from overly optimistic and naive to just plain willfully ingnorant.

This isn't planning for the future. This is trying to pretend it's still 1960-2000. It's not and that way of life is decaying and has no future. If Loudoun does these plans, its economy will never be able to support maintaining their road infrastructure. In terms of their budget, it will also have no future.

by Cavan on May 20, 2010 11:08 am • linkreport

Hmm, yeah, and where are they going to get the money for all of this road widening?

The State? Good luck with that.
Raise County taxes? That will be popular.

So I suppose they really hope to get the Feds to pony up the cash for this thing?

by Jack Russell on May 20, 2010 12:00 pm • linkreport

@Jack,

No, they're pretty much f***ed...

by oboe on May 20, 2010 12:12 pm • linkreport

NoVa (and most of MoCo) is total auto-oriented sprawl. People will commute hours on clogged roads to afford the luxury of living in a piece of crap townhouse with no yard and to shop at boring, chain store strip malls. Anything unique or inviting has been (or will be) destroyed by greedy developers who don't care one iota about smart growth and transit. I hope residents fight the proposed widening plan and win. We fought freeway development in SF and won; we fought giving up historic districts in NYC to freeways and won.

by Mark on May 20, 2010 12:32 pm • linkreport

Gas prices will only remain low as long as employment numbers stay low. As soon as companies start hiring again, the demand for fuel will run up against a constrained supply - and that will lead to massive price increases. The oil supply is even more limited now than it was before these economic problems began, and there is a lot more international competition for that oil now than even a few years ago.

When the oil prices spike, this will in turn result in more layoffs - another recession. The only way to keep employment numbers high is to stop building auto-centric land-use patters like this.

This is not building for the future or even the present, because there is no longer enough oil to support high employment with even the present degree of auto-centric development. We can have auto-dependence, or we can have higher employment numbeers, but we can't have both.

by Lee on May 21, 2010 8:08 am • linkreport

I grew up in Sterling, "Potomac Falls" for 20165 people to be exact, and was always wondering why they converted the Washington and Old Dominion train line into a bike path. The W&OD line runs right through the middle of all the growing population centers in this map from Herndon to Leesburg. This could easily have been maintained as a VRE line with a new diversion to Dulles Airport. There also used to be a group that wanted to create an alternative bike trail along the Potomac River to compliment the C&O Canal on the Maryland side. Now there are too many golf courses in the way for that to ever happen. The Dulles "Greenway" was intended to channel growth strictly within these boundaries. Now the silver line will make large off ramps on that highway into new "centers" of urban growth, only to further erase those old boundaries of suburban sprawl. Nobody cares until the wealthy of Middleburg feel threatened (hence those traffic circles at Gilberts Corner). As a former Loudoun resident I think it is safe to say that trying to save Loudoun's future is now a lost cause. Certainly so in the east. One of the most beautiful and stunning parts of the national capital region has been destroyed forever. Just take a look at Round Hill in the west and how they destroyed Sleeter Lake at the base of the Blue Ridge!! Future generations will continue to curse the names of the County Board of Supervisors. I still do almost everyday when I think about what has been lost.

by james on May 25, 2010 5:45 pm • linkreport

Yes and that is why the board, including Scott York and Steven Snow, were under federal investigation in 2006. There was a series of articles in the Washington Post detailing how real estate developers had essentially bribed their way into new zoning changes and studies were conducted to support those changes by parties that were extremely biased. In fact the Piedmont Council and many citizens fought against these changes, slated to occur in the so-called Transition Zone adjacent to route 50. It is interesting that up to now, politics have played out very differently in Prince William County, where an area known as the Rural Crescent was held to be a slow growth and limited development area. We in eastern Loudoun need to be extremely aware of proposed changes and to adopt a unified approach in response to them. As they say, its not over till its over. And as far as I know, nothing is over yet.

by Shane on Nov 16, 2012 3:05 am • linkreport

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