Although the Leesburg Town Council has no jurisdiction over the state-proposed North-South Corridor between I-95 and Rt. 7 at Belmont Ridge Road, the council’s debate over its position on the road has caught the attention of regional leaders, and they aren’t happy.
Mayor Kristen Umstattd introduced a resolution during Tuesday night’s meeting to formally oppose the North-South Corridor and it drew threats from County Chairman Scott K. York (R-At Large) and Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance President Robert Chase.
On a 4-2-1 vote, the council deferred action on the resolution until the council gets more information about the project.
York sent his aide, Robin Bartok, to read a statement from him during the petitioner’s section of the meeting. She outlined the road’s potential to increase job growth and take pressure off Rt. 28 and Rt. 15. She said opposition to the state's plan could come back to haunt Leesburg when other road projects are considered.
“The chairman asked me to ask you if you support roads,” Bartok said. “If you oppose this road, then it will appear as if you don’t support roads. I think the [Northern Virginia Transportation Authority] will keep that in mind when allocating its [funding from the recently passed transportation bill].”
York sits on the board of the authority, which is responsible for allocating 70 percent of the $1.6 billion in funding expected to come to Norhtern Virginia for transportation in the next six years. The other 30 percent will be distributed directly to localities, and Loudoun will be responsible for giving money to Leesburg. The county and the town are continuing negotiations over just how much money that will be.
The alliance, a group made up of largely business leaders, has been an outspoken voice in major road projects for decades, and Chase sent an email Sunday to Del. Randy Minchew (R-10) and Loudoun County Chamber of Commerce President Tony Howard that was forwarded to all members of council, and read from the dais by Vice Mayor David Butler.
“Key question: Why would Leesburg want to bite the hands that feed them transportation funds?” Chase wrote in the email. “I would suggest that the most important thing for the Mayor to consider is the likelihood of the unfunded projects listed below EVER being funded IF the Town Council comes out in opposition to the N-S Corridor. The [Commonwealth Transportation Board] and [Virginia Department of Transportation] do not lack for other projects in which to invest. The Six-Year Plan contains NO GUARANTEES. Funds are shifted around every year. CTB can easily decide to “de-program” funds for Edwards Ferry Road, etc. Message needs to be delivered by Leesburg residents. Got any candidates?”
Council members Kevin Wright and Katie Hammler led the motion to defer the decision until after the council receives a briefing from VDOT on the project and Hammler invited members of the Board of Supervisors to speak before the council when it actually votes on a resolution.
Umstattd and Councilman Tom Dunn were outspoken and ready to take on the challenge.
“I don’t think we can honorably represent our citizens if we cower every time somebody threatens us,” Umstattd said. “I don’t view that as an argument that I can abide by or really put up with. I think our duty is to our residents. I think this major highway is just going to bring tremendous traffic pressure on the Town of Leesburg, and so I have to support the resolution.”
Dunn seemed prepared to vote aginst the resolution had it not been postponed. He’s been an advocate for focusing council’s efforts on issues within the town’s boundaries, but the message from York and Chase rankled him.
“When it starts getting threatening, I start looking at what political sides are pushing which buttons,” Dunn said. “I normally don’t go looking for trouble, but when it comes my way, I love it. I’m not going to back down from anything.”
Members of the Piedmont Environmental Council also spoke during the meeting, opposing the road and questioning its necessity and the motivations of its supporters. The strong response from York, Chase and Howard, who spoke at the meeting urging the council to support the project, gave Butler pause as well.
“The more I hear, the more I’d be concerned with this road, but I do definitely want to wait” to make a decision, Butler said. “When I feel we’re getting threatened from multiple directions, that’s a big warning sign that the facts are not on the warning people’s side.”