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Rt. 7 Project Takes Shape

© Leesburg Today - 05/28/2015

During the past year, the 70,000 motorists who pass through Clarke's Gap each day have been witness to the largest western Loudoun construction project undertaken in two decades.

Shirley Contracting Co. crews have been reshaping the landscape along Rt. 7 between Rt. 9 and Leesburg's western boundary as part of a $36.4 million project designed to relieve a major traffic chokepoint. The first benefits of that work should be realized before Labor Day, by which time a third westbound lane is scheduled to open to traffic. Construction is expected to wrap up by October, when two roundabouts at the Rt. 9 interchange will be completed.

Over the course of the project, crews will have moved a quarter-million cubic feet of earth, laid 1.6 miles of stormwater pipe, re-routed the W&OD Trail, and removed and planted hundreds of trees and shrubs.

Formally known as the Rt. 7 Westbound Truck Climbing Lane, the project is federally funded and managed by the Virginia Department of Transportation through a design-build contract.

Particularly over the past few months as the pace of construction picked up, it has been difficult for motorists to visualize the road's final appearance as the landscape between West Market Street and Rt. 9 kept changing before their eyes.

Massive amounts of dirt were moved as hillsides were carved out in some places and built up in others, trees and scrub disappeared, piles of huge concrete pipes littered the scene, and deep stormwater pits were sculpted. A huge, 80-foot-long tunnel, for weeks seemingly unconnected to anything, sat just east of the Rt. 9 interchange,

But slowly the outline of the 2.58-mile widened highway has become clearer. The 80-foot-long tunnel that will carry W&OD Trail traffic safely under the busy intersection is now covered with soil. The first layer of pavement has been laid for the new climbing lane. And fresh plantings have taken root on what were bare roadsides.

VDOT Construction Manager Michael Pruitt said the most difficult part of the job was less visible: installing the large drainage pipes beneath Rt. 7 while keeping traffic flowing.

The Need

Western Loudoun has not seen a project of this size since the Rt. 7 bypass was expanded to four lanes in the early 1990s-a project far less complex.

As Pruitt says, ""This is not an average road widening project; it has a lot of pieces.""

Its stated genesis lay in a need to give heavy, slow-moving trucks an independent ""climbing lane"" up the steep grade west of Leesburg without impeding faster paced vehicular traffic, according to VDOT representatives.

But a parallel need is to ease the overall rush-hour congestion that can back up to the Dulles Greenway and into downtown Leesburg while resolving the frustration of residents on the side roads over long waits to access Rt. 7. Safety concerns played a large part in the new design, VDOT representatives stressed.

Rt. 7 is a colonial road-stretching from Alexandria to Winchester. Overall planning for various improvements to the road dates as far back as the 1960s, according to Farid Bigdeli, VDOT transportation and land use director for Loudoun County. When the Rt. 7 bypass was extended from Clarke's Gap to Round Hill in the early 1980s and then widened to four lanes a decade later, planners envisioned the corridor would accommodate the increased traffic growth would bring.

But that was before the huge population boom that Loudoun experienced in the 1990s and 2000s, before construction of the Dulles Greenway and before West Virginia became such a major employee source for Northern Virginia businesses. And the coming of Metrorail is expected to further increase traffic on Rt. 7.

Backups, in both the morning and evening, are daily complaints for commuters. As Catoctin District Supervisor Geary M. Higgins puts it from his own experience traveling from his home west of Waterford: ""It's a mess every night and every morning.""

It's been a mess during the past several months also, but the goal is better safety and a better functioning roadway, according to Bigdeli.

""We've been working on this for a long time-back when [former Catoctin District supervisor] Sally Kurtz was on the board,"" Bigdeli recalled.

""Loudoun County has seen tremendous growth, particularly over the past 20 years,"" said Bigdeli, who predicted that trend will continue.

And with scarce state transportation resources, it is unlikely there will be any more major work on the road for the foreseeable future, he said.

""This was the best we could get,"" Bigdeli said. ""It will help the flow.""

It also should help public school buses. Schools Traffic and Pedestrian Specialist Randolph K. Taylor is looking forward to the new Fort Johnson Road alignment, which he says will be ""much safer and easier"" for the three buses that pick up children along Leeland Orchard and Fort Johnson roads. The buses drop students off at Catoctin Elementary, Smarts Mill Middle and Tuscarora High schools. Taylor praised VDOT and the state police who have ""helped us out tremendously, with traffic control.""

Access, Planting Concerns

The Commonwealth Transportation Board awarded the contract to the Shirley Contracting/Dewberry team in October 2013. The entire project, including right-of-way acquisition and the required 20 percent match from the state, costs $36.4 million.

Construction began at the end of June 2014, following a community input session held May 15, during which various access concerns were expressed-leading to a redesign of the Roxbury Hall Road interchange on the eastbound lanes.

""Access was a key concern for the communities living off the side roads,"" Bigdeli said.

The changes increased the cost, he said, but ""it was important to accommodate the community's needs.""

Even before construction began, ""We heard concerns from Beacon Hill people about getting out [on to Rt. 7 previously] even to turn right, let alone across the median,"" Loudoun County Transportation Department Special Projects Manager Terrie Laycock noted. ""It wasn't safe before, and hopefully it will be better, with acceleration and deceleration lanes that weren't there before.""

Concerns also have been expressed about the loss of vegetation on both sides of the roadway and in the median, though VDOT plans to replant as much as possible.

In addition to the visual loss, the amount of trees and scrub cut down has resulted in an increase in noise.

Bill Henry, who lives at the top of Fort Johnson Road, says he and his wife recently have noticed the sound from Rt. 7 much more than in the past. They used to hardly ever hear any traffic noise.

""I hope they will plant more trees as a sound barrier,"" Henry said.

However, the Henrys are pleased that they will now have a internal linking road from Leeland Orchard through Beacon Hill that will give them options to access Rt. 7 safely.

""For years, we've risked our lives getting on to Rt. 7 to go eastbound in the morning or westbound in the afternoon,"" he said. ""We'll be thankful for the improved road.""

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