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Virginia and West Virginia Plot Contrasting Paths for Route 9

W.Va. Highway Runs Head-On Into Loudoun Growth Fears

August 18, 2001
Washingto n Post

map - route 9 at virginia and West VirginiaRoad crews from West Virginia and Virginia launched separate projects this week to improve a crowded two-laneroad that connects the states. One is a $70 million, four-lane stretch of highway from Charles Town, W.Va., to the state line. The other, three miles down a narrow Virginia road, is a stoplight.

The sharply divergent visions for Route 9, which stretches through West Virginia and Loudoun County, have resulted in recriminations among state and local officials, spurred accusations of pork barrel politicking against Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) and highlighted a philosophical clash between those who believe building bigger roads solves traffic woes and those who don't.

Loudoun supervisors said they got the idea of putting a stoplight near the border when they realized that a broad West Virginia highway was to be built straight up to the two-lane leg of Route 9 that cuts through rural western Loudoun. That area is the centerpiece of a far-reaching slow-growth plan they passed last month.

The red light is part of a new transportation policy that is as controversial as the supervisors' efforts to cut more than 80,000 houses from future projects and to create a 300-square-mile rural reserve. The light also is a symbol of the predicament facing supervisors elected in 1999 on promises to curb development. They are beset by forces beyond their control, from the powerful pull of the housing market to decisions made in neighboring jurisdictions.

"You can't build enough roads to build your way out of congestion problems. There isn't enough money, and there isn't going to be," said Supervisor James G. Burton (I-Mercer). "We have shaped our land-use plans and transportation plans with that in mind."

In practical terms, that means that most county transportation money will be channeled into projects in eastern Loudoun, where most of the population lives, officials say. According to the new plans, traffic-clogged roads in western Loudoun -- including major commuter roads such as Routes 15, 50 and 9 -- won't be widened, a policy that officials argue promotes both efficiency and preservation.

Others believe that the supervisors' transportation plans are rooted in fantasy. The people -- residents and commuters -- are here, and more are on the way, the argument goes. And Loudoun won't keep them out by refusing to improve its small, choked roads.

"No matter what happens, [congestion is] going to come. It's already here, and we're dealing with it," said Randy Epperly, West Virginia's deputy state highway engineer. "I just think it's an inevitable thing that people will be moving west from the Washington and Baltimore areas. . . . If we elected not to build Route 9, I don't think it would affect that growth pattern and the continuing migration to the west."

The contrasting approaches to traffic show up clearly on Route 9, which stretches from just west of Leesburg through pastureland and over the scenic Blue Ridge, but is often clogged with commuters.

Loudoun Supervisor Sarah R. Kurtz (D-Catoctin) pushed for the stoplight at Route 9 and Harpers Ferry Road near the West Virginia line. Impeding West Virginia's commuters, she argued, will give them an incentive to find another way to reach work -- namely Route 7. That road passes through Loudoun's center, is already four lanes and is planned for more. The light also will improve safety by making rush-hour merging less daunting, she said.

"You have to decide how many of your gateway, historic corridors are you willing to give up," Kurtz said, noting that Route 9 cuts through the tiny town of Hillsboro, which has turned life in the close-knit community into a daily standoff with a stream of fast-moving cars.

Fred Skaer, a Federal Highway Administration official who worked on the Route 9 plan that got its final approval in January, said that states have a lot of autonomy in making road plans and that neighbors don't always have "the same set of interests."

"It's not as if we feds are calling all the shots," Skaer said. "There's no formal requirement for two adjoining states to have compatible or consistent plans."

Virginia considered rebuilding Route 9 as a four-lane road in the early 1990s to ease traffic, but backed off after residents protested that such a change would bring more cars and development.

"West Virginia is interested in moving the traffic. They have a vested interest in making it easier for their people to commute to work in Virginia," said Kamal Suliman, an official at the Virginia Department of Transportation. "Loudoun County has a different interest in keeping them out. We're dealing with different states and senators and congressmen."

Byrd has fought for the four-lane road for a decade, initially in conjunction with his unsuccessful effort to relocate 3,000 Central Intelligence Agency employees to the Charles Town area. Now, he calls it a matter of safety.

"Two-lane rural roads, like Route 9, tend to be among the most dangerous roads in America," Byrd said in a statement. "Any federal funds that help to save lives, prevent injuries, and reduce accidents along this road are funds well spent."

Byrd has rebuffed earlier challenges to the Route 9 project, including a 1994 Clinton administration effort to cut its funding. His response then still draws chuckles from his staff, and head-shaking from critics.

"You might as well threaten to slap my wife as take the highway money from West Virginia," he said. The powerful chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee won.

Today, the 18th-century Loudoun town of Hillsboro, barely able to accommodate the current two-lane road, is at the center of the debate.

"The main issue is the traffic," said John Ware, 66, president of the community association. "You don't dare pull out." A week ago Friday, he counted 110 cars before a good Samaritan waved him into the stream of traffic.

"What we're trying to do is preserve the town," Ware said. "We used to be able to walk across the street without a problem."

Across the border in West Virginia, Paul Runion, 63, is custodian at Blue Ridge Elementary School, on a mountainous stretch of Route 9. He said the new four-lane highway -- which will include a new bridge over the Shenandoah River and will take a straighter path up the face of the mountain -- is needed to reduce dangerous backups.

"They are taking a chance of getting kids killed because of the traffic coming around that curve up there," Runion said, adding that Virginia officials are sure to follow suit.

"Eventually, they are going to have to build it," he said. "You're not going to stop the traffic coming into the state, are you? How can you do that?"

© 2001 The Washingto n Post


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