Rural Va. tries 'traffic calming' to combat sprawl Piedmont towns strive to keep rural quality and improve road safety


MIDDLEBURG, Va. - It is an area known around the world as the home to wealthy people, successful horse breeders, even Academy Award-winning actors. But never mind those pampered few, say mere mortals of the area like Margaret Hawes, who runs the Little Apple Pastry Shop in the neighboring town of Aldie.

"I'm far from being rich in money," she said from behind the counter. "But I am rich when I look out the window and see trees and green and don't see someone come out, shooting somebody else."

For small-town quaintness rubbing elbows with the beauty of rolling hills, farmlands and vineyards, few regions in the country can match the postcard vision of Aldie, Middleburg, and Upperville - three towns in Virginia's Piedmont that hug U.S. 50 about halfway between Washington and the Shenandoah Valley.

Long a magnet for society's upper crust, the Piedmont region was home to three of the country's first five presidents, and more recently to the likes of the actor Robert Duvall; Willard Scott, the television weatherman; and one of the Smothers brothers (Dick).

Favorite commuter route

But time and proximity have brought other people through the towns, as well, many of them in a hurry to get someplace else fast.

As the Middleburg region has grown as a haven for the rich and famous and for day-trippers attending horse shows and wine tastings, U.S. 50, a meandering two-lane highway, has become a favorite commuter route to and from Washington for people from as far away as West Virginia.

Two years ago, the state proposed easing the traffic burden by constructing multi-lane bypasses around each of the three towns and widening U.S. 50 at the intersections between them.

A group of residents, banding together more than an year ago as the Route 50 Corridor Coalition, had another idea, and it was one intended to improve life for the residents, not the itinerants.

Rather that build larger roads that might attract the kind of sprawl that follows most urban and suburban development around the country, as well as additional traffic, the coalition embraced the notion of "traffic calming," a strategy slow to catch on in this country but one that an increasing number of communities are considering.

'A new way of thinking'

"This is a new way of thinking, a creative and innovative way to deal with transportation issues and we're offering Virginia the opportunity to be a leader in this field," Susan Van Wagoner, the coalition chairman, said.

Traffic calming has been successfully used in European cities for years and a growing number of places in the United States, particularly in New York, Florida, and Oregon, have begun studying the idea as a way to combat congestion, stop speeders and preserve the integrity of an area.

Traffic calming generally involves lowering speed limits and using tree-lined median strips, traffic circles and raised brick pedestrian walkways at intersections to make the roadways more attractive and safer.

But nearly every application of traffic calming in Europe and elsewhere has come in urban or suburban areas.

The efforts by the U.S. 50 coalition would be one of the rare efforts in the United States and the first for a rural setting.

Proponents say it slows traffic flow without adding any significant drive time - less than four minutes for the existing 20-mile stretch of U.S. 50 that would have been affected by bypasses - and that it improves safety.

An official with the Middleburg Fire and Rescue unit said that over the last 17 years she could recall 21 auto-related deaths along U.S. 50, compared with eight on other roads served by the unit.

Coalition members say their plan would also benefit local business operators, such as Hawes, by forcing motorists to slow down and smell the doughnuts.

'Scared to death'

"Some people are scared to death now to cross the road, cars are going so fast," said Holly Beth Eckhardt, owner of the Book Chase, a bookstore in Middleburg, and president of the Middleburg Business and Professional Association.

"I can sit at my desk and watch traffic going 40 to 45 miles an hour. The posted speed is 25," she said.

The coalition generated so much support for the concept of traffic planning that the Virginia Department of Transportation has abandoned plans to proceed with the bypasses.

A spokesman for the department, Joan Morris, said the project was removed from the state's six-year plan last summer because of a lack of community support.

But that does not necessarily mean that the state would support the coalition's alternative proposal for the highway, Morris said, an assessment that could force the coalition to alter its plans.

"The department is very interested in residential traffic calming," Morris said. "We're looking into making that work for communities that are getting whacked by speeders. But it's important to remember that Route 50 is a highway. It was meant to carry a large volume of commuter traffic. That's the way it was designed."

Pub Date: 2/14/97

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