Taking your life in your hands

Published 12:00 am Saturday, June 3, 2006

Attached to the bottom of this post is a recent article from Bacon’s Rebellion, the Web site that reports on Virginia transportation issues.

It’s about the trend in the state of adding new intersections and curb cuts to major thoroughfares in Virginia and how it’s hampering the capacity of these roads as well as creating dangerous traffic situations.

While the article focuses on US 1 in Lorton, Midlothian Turnpike near Richmond, the same could be said for our US 58 from Suffolk to the West.

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I used to live in Oak Ridge and it didn’t take me long to learn that when I was exiting the neighborhood and turning on to 58, that you don’t pull out as soon as the light turns green. Invariably, there would be a truck heading East from Holland or Franklin coming around the curve and gunning it to beat the yellow light and wind up running a red light. Accidents were frequent and while we loved the neighborhood, with a child who would soon be driving, it was among the reasons we wanted to leave it.

I’ve successfully avoided that part of 58 over the past three years aside from an occasional scary trip.

Now that the Tidewater News has joined our family of publications, I’ve had to make some trips down there and I’ve found 58 to be worse than ever.

Last Wednesday morning was my first trip. While waiting at the Holland Road stoplight, I glanced down momentarily at something and when I looked up, I saw that I had the green arrow. Being out of practice on traveling 58, I hit the gas pedal to pull out into the traffic. It was immediately followed by slamming on the breaks to let the tractor trailer that barreling down the highway at about 60 mph from the West run the red light.

My heart rate got back to normal fairly quickly. Then, headed toward Franklin near Manning Bridge Road, I came upon a young man who was standing in the middle of the right lane with his arms outstretched to the side. The little car in front of me and I both managed to brake and swerve around him in the left lane, but the pickup truck that was behind me had to stop.

I have no idea what this guy was doing. I pulled over to shoot a photo of him but he started walking off the road then and I couldn’t get much of a shot. He kind of scared me, too, so I didn’t want to get too close.

I then called 911 and reported the incident to the police. The dispatcher told me they already knew about it. I hope they were going to do something about it, but she didn’t say. I did not see anything in the police report the next few days.

My point is that with all the focus on transportation, it seems all we hear about is 64 and 460. What about 58? Something needs to be done to limit all the direct access shopping centers, fast food joints, convenience stores and subdivisions have to this road. The Bacon’s Rebellion article below talks about the problem.

Corroding Corridors

Slowly, almost imperceptibly, the addition of new intersections and curb cuts diminishes the carrying capacity of major traffic corridors. The Kaine administration says Virginia can do better.

May 11, 2006

By Peter Galuszka


Drive down many of Virginia’s major traffic corridors — U.S. 1 in Lorton, U.S. 29 in Charlottesville, Midlothian Turnpike outside of Richmond, Military Highway in Norfolk — and you’ll see a recurring pattern. Traffic flow is interrupted by an endless series of intersections, traffic lights and cut-throughs to shopping centers. 


When home builders lay out new subdivisions, they typically dump neighborhood traffic onto the nearest collector road rather than add side streets linking neighborhood to neighborhood. When developers erect shopping centers, they often funnel motorists onto main roads rather than divert them elsewhere. These practices may help sell homes and lure shoppers, but they also exact a toll on the main  drag. For motorists, what could be a speedy trip along a six-lane thoroughfare morphs into a frustrating, stop-and-go ordeal.


At long last, Virginia’s transportation planners are thinking that there may be a better way to build a road. Looking at roads as transportation &uot;corridors,&uot; they’re talking about using &uot;access management&uot; tools to harmonize land use planning and road construction.


States such as Florida and Colorado have taken the lead by forcing developers and zoning boards to consider traffic as they plan new projects. Until now, that idea hasn’t gained much currency in Virginia, where local governments approve rezoning projects without having to consider the impact on roads. If roads get congested, that’s the responsibility of the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT).


This year, however, the Old Dominion took a big step towards serious access management. The General Assembly passed Senate Bill 699, which requires VDOT to review a rezoning request that would significantly impact traffic flows on any state road. Still held up in the current legislative standoff is a $50 million provision proposed by Gov. Timothy M. Kaine to promote better corridor management, including funds to purchase access rights of way.


Reviews had taken place in a voluntary, piecemeal way in parts of the state such as Northern Virginia, but not in others. Outcomes often depended upon on factors as fickle as the personal relationship between VDOT officials and local county officials, says Robert Hofrichter, VDOT state land development manager. Now, for the first time, VDOT reviews will be required statewide. 


VDOT is likely to offer clearer, more dispassionate analysis of traffic impacts than the studies available previously, notes Scott Kasprowicz, Virginia Deputy Secretary of Transportation. Before, interested parties often supplied their own studies. &uot;Developers would put together an impact statement. Environmentalists would put together their own statement, and neither would really create a balance,&uot; he says. &uot;The new approach takes away a lot of politicking and you’ll get a more transparent study.&uot;


Though an improvement, the new approach is toothless. If VDOT concludes that a rezoning will adversely impact traffic flows, the local government is still free to do what it wants. A negative VDOT finding couldn’t be used either in a later lawsuit to oppose the rezoning, according to Trip Pollard, a lawyer with the Southern Environmental Law Center in Charlottesville. 


What’s good about the new law, says Pollard, is that it will require the discipline of a review and will focus attention on access management. &uot;We hope it will bring greater conformity and attention to the issue,&uot; he says. The new bill, he says &uot;is a significant turning point&uot; but &uot;, but no silver bullet.&uot;


Pierce Homer, the state Secretary of Transportation, is leading the writing of regulations that flesh out the law. The regulations should be completed by September and take effect next year, notes Pollard. The details will make a big difference in how the law is applied. One critical definition will be what constitutes a &uot;significant&uot; impact on traffic flows.


In a related initiative, VDOT is rewriting its land use permit manual. That effort may tighten the minimum standards for entrances to state highways, Hofrichter says. The rewrite will work in more &uot;elements of statewide access management,&uot; he says.


The idea of access management has been around since the early 1900s, but its modern incarnation traces back to 1979. In a radical departure from past practice, the Colorado legislature declared that all highways in the state were &uot;controlled access highways.&uot; Most states equated &uot;controlled access&uot; roads with highways accessible by clover leafs or special stoplights, typically with barriers or natural landscaping separating the highway from nearby development.


Colorado required that a contractor needed a state permit to tie into any state road. Furthermore, the state went about reclassifying all of its highways: Lower level highways could allow more access than higher level roads permitting higher speeds.


In Florida, the state requires coordination between state transportation and local officials. All growth master plans must list specifications for controlled-access highways. Side roads accessing controlled access highways are allowed only when they fit the main road’s specifications, taking into account visibility, speed limits, stopping distances and other factors.


Virginia has adopted some aspects of the Colorado and Florida systems, Hofrichter says. Virginia requires a permit before a side road can access a main one. State regulations require that speed and spacing be taken into consideration before allowing side roads to merge into main ones. For example, in areas with a speed limit of 45 miles per hour, there must be an unencumbered stopping area without side access for 450 feet. An on-going effort to reclassify the minimum entrance standards might bring about additional changes.


Effective corridor management requires more than new regulations. Local governments must summon the will to say, &uot;No,&uot; to developers who proposed in appropriate rezonings and building projects. That won’t be easy. &uot;Localities are focused on trying to accommodate developers so they can improve their tax base, bring in new jobs,&uot; says Gary Allen, VDOT chief of technology, research and innovation in Charlottesville. &uot;There’s a natural conflict involved.&uot; 


Kasprowicz says that urban planners and developers need to create new road patterns that provide alternatives to the traffic corridors. One of the most efficient is the traditional grid system of streets criss-crossing each other in city blocks. That pattern, which has been around for centuries, lets drivers easily take other routes if a main road is congested.


A drawback to the grid street system is that neighborhood residents may object to the perception of increased noise and safety risk that comes with increased traffic. Cul de sac roads are popular, Kasprowicz admits, because homeowners want their children to play safely on the streets without the fear of cars racing through. If homeowners like living on cul de sacs, home builders will persist in building them.


Established business practices are another problem. &uot;Business developers may believe they need access off main corridors,&uot; says Allen, &uot;but that’s not necessarily true. Their customers don’t want congestion and if the developers’ plans create congestion, they’ll lose the customers they need.&uot;


The emphasis on corridor management is part of  a larger effort on the part of the Kaine administration to coordinate land use and transportation planning, Kasprowicz says. Kaine’s proposed budget, which may not see the light of day, calls for $50 million to buy access rights of way to prevent serious safety and congestion problems. Two specific areas targeted are Route 7 in Falls Church and U.S. 13, which stretches down the Eastern Shore across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel and into Suffolk.


Whether Kaine gets that money or not, Virginia has made a critical first step: requiring VDOT to make access studies whenever projects have significant impact. That first step could lead to a longer journey.



Bacon’s Rebellion News Service