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Was it worth it? Residents question Opal flyover project

Wednesday, Dec. 17 | By Hannah Dellinger
A tractor trailer attempts to make a left turn onto Route 17 in Opal from the through lane on U.S. 29.
Fauquier Times Staff Photo/Steve Campbell
After two years of construction and $44.6 million of taxpayer money, some Fauquier County residents wonder if the Opal flyover interchange at U.S. 15/29 and 17 was worth it.

“People aren’t using the flyover like they’re supposed to, because they either want to go to Sheetz or they’re just so used to going the old way,” said Lindsey Murphy, a clerk at the Clark Brothers Red Shed, which lies on the southbound side of U.S. 29 just north of the flyover.

Other drivers say that they have made use of the flyover.

“I use the flyover to go home,” said John Mills, a clerk at Clark Brothers Gun Shop and Shooting Range. “It is more convenient, instead of crossing both lanes of traffic to turn left.”

Even though Mills frequents the flyover, he said that he doesn’t think that many other drivers are aware of the new option.

“I think people either aren’t used to the flyover yet or they think that the left turn is quicker, because it’ll still back up,” he said.

The flyover has been open to traffic for more than a year now. The Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) tracks traffic volume through the busy Opal intersection.

VODT has already made changes to the signs before the flyover and lobbied for updates to GPS systems in an attempt to make drivers better aware of the new route.

But the allure of the Sheetz gas station and convenience store on the northbound side of U.S. 29 seems to pull out-of-town drivers away from the flyover.

“We see a lot of people from out of town,” said Jessica, a clerk at Sheetz who asked that only her first name be used. “We get people from as far away as California. We have a reputation for being clean and efficient and a lot of people like our food.”

Jessica said that a lot of times customers come into the gas station asking for directions, because they are confused about where they can connect to Route 17.

County Supervisor Lee Sherbeyn said that he uses the flyover at least twice a day, sometimes up to four times a day, to get to his Bealeton home.
“I think anytime they spend that kind of money is too much, but the flyover is helpful,” he said.

Sherbeyn he thinks that one reason people aren't using the flyover may be that their GPS systems are not yet updated to show it. He said that while some drivers use cell phone GPS systems, many use older devices and don’t take the time to update them regularly.

Stacy Londrey, the acting communications manager for VDOT, said the flyover was constructed for people coming through Opal on their way to the beach. The old two-lane left turn lanes onto U.S. 17 would often get backed up.

“After the project was complete, we did a traffic count and found that roughly 50 percent of traffic was using flyover,” Londrey said.

“About 80 percent of all trucks are using the flyover. It’s closer to 40 or 50 percent of passenger vehicles that are using it,” she said.

After the new roadway opened, VDOT realized that changes needed to be made to signs, pavement markings and traffic controls to direct traffic toward the new route.

The changes were made in late March and early April.

“Two traffic counts have been done since the improvements, with approximately the same result—45 percent of vehicles using the flyover, 55 percent using the traffic signal,” she said.

Londrey said that VDOT will continue to monitor the traffic on the flyover and is still in the process of making improvements.

“The wording on the overhead sign will be adjusted to indicate ‘Right Exit.’ This change will happen soon, we are waiting on the new sign to be fabricated.”

The possibility of a new commercial center as part of the Opal Gateway Project raises more questions about traffic patterns at the interchange.

“I think that the Gateway Project will make traffic worse,” said Murphy. “They need to seriously consider different travel options if they want it to happen.”
But Londrey thinks with the Gateway Project in place, drivers will be more inclined to use the flyover.

“If there is a huge shopping center on the northbound side of Route 29, people will want to avoid that left turn onto 17 even more,” said Londrey. “They will want to take the flyover to avoid getting caught up in that traffic.”

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