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Mapping the Harpers Ferry bottleneck

By Staff | Oct 20, 2011

For decades now Jefferson Countians, Washington Countians, Loudoun Countians and visitors have endured numerous delays on U.S. Route 340 through its half-mile stretch in Virginia (between Maryland and West Virginia) at Harpers Ferry.

At a meeting on Sept. 20 at the Comfort Inn in Bolivar (the old Cliffside Motel) legislators and highway agency folks from the three states met to consider what might be done about this bottleneck. Both short-term and long-term measures were discussed.

Any long-term solution will be expensive. But we must begin to find one now. West Virginia loses tourism dollars because of the congestion at this chokepoint. Maryland would like to make it easier for the many West Virginians who work there to get to their jobs. Virginia would like to ease traffic conditions for folks who live in the Loudoun County part of Pleasant Valley, the valley between the Blue Ridge and South Mountain (called the Short Hills in Virginia).

Meanwhile, Maryland State Delegate Neil Parrot (who organized the Sept. 20 meeting) has an idea for a short-term easing of the problem. I find his idea intriguing. He proposes an extra lane that would not be subject to the traffic light at the intersection of 340 and Virginia Route 671 (where the gas station/convenience store is located).

The extra lane would be officially southbound, since it’s in Virginia. Virginia calls U.S. 340 a north-south road, while Maryland calls it an east-west road. When my parents hauled me to our new home in Charles Town in 1946 (after my father got home from World War II) U.S. 340 was a north-south road in West Virginia. In the 1960s West Virginia changed the designation to east-west. About 20 years after that, if memory serves, West Virginia changed the designation back to north-south.

I was given to understand that the deciding factor in the second decision was the fact that 340 leaves Maryland to enter Virginia for the half mile passing the 671 intersection before entering West Virginia. During the time that West Virginia was calling the road east-west motorists would go from east-west to north-south back to east-west in less than a mile, then back to north-south 13 miles later (crossing into Virginia between Charles Town and Berryville). Making the road east-west in West Virginia eased the confusion. U.S. 340 is almost due east-west between Frederick and Charles Town, but is more of a north-south road between Charles Town and its terminus at Waynesboro, Va.

But I digress. Installing the extra lane avoiding the traffic light would mean a free flow of traffic from Frederick to Charles Town. Folks coming home to Jefferson County from work would spend much less time waiting in traffic backed up into Maryland over the Potomac River bridge.

It’s true that traffic going toward Frederick would still have to wait for the light. But Delegate Parrot’s proposal would be a godsend for folks coming toward Charles Town.

Some folks have suggested that the congestion would be sufficiently eased if Virginia would be willing to do away with the traffic light at the intersection of 671 and 340. That won’t work. Folks living on 671 in the communities of Loudoun Heights and Neersville would find it impossible during much of the day to get onto 340 in either direction. Possibly for that reason Virginia is adamant that she will not abandon the traffic light.

Delegate Parrot worked for many years with the Maryland Department of Transportation and is now in private practice as a transportation consultant. He estimates that the cost of his idea would be about $600,000. He suggests the three states split the cost, $200,000 each. I think that’s a great idea.

I attended the Sept. 20 meeting. Other legislators attending (in addition to Delegate Parrot) were Delegate Tiffany Lawrence, State Sen. Herb Snyder and Virginia Delegate Joe May (who represents the Pleasant Valley area of Loudoun County). Virginia State Senator Jill Vogel sent a staff person.

The highway agency folks were asked to pursue Delegate Parrot’s idea. I hope they find it workable. I will keep tabs on their progress.