Is the McDonnell administration serious about protecting state highways from encroaching development? A dispute over a rural stoplight on U.S. 29 may tell the story.
by James A. Bacon
If you want to know how serious Virginia is about preserving the integrity of its major highways from development pressures, pay close attention to an obscure residential real estate project in Greene County.
In February the Greene County Board of Supervisors approved a rezoning for Creekside, a 400-acre residential development, with the condition that the developer build a $1.6 million connector road to U.S. 29 and a stoplight at the intersection. That stoplight would be located only a half mile from an existing light, reducing the speed limit from 55 miles per hour to 45 on that stretch of road and adding another slowdown on a highway officially designated a “corridor of statewide significance.”
Before the stoplight can be installed, however, the developer, the Fried Companies, must pay for a “warrant study” to determine if the signalized intersection is justified. After the study is published, the final decision to approve the signal will rest with the Virginia Department of Transportation’s Culpeper district administrator.
The ruling is bound to be controversial, no matter what the outcome. The issue of access management is highly sensitive along U.S. 29 north of Charlottesville. Individual decisions like the Greene County stop light may seem small but over the years they have added up, rendering U.S. 29 increasingly unfit as an interstate transportation corridor.
The commonwealth of Virginia is sinking roughly $240 million into a controversial Charlottesville bypass, which will circumvent some 14 stoplights in Charlottesville and Albemarle County. The McDonnell administration approved financing for the project but admonished local governments to get serious about controlling access to the highway. Virginians should not continue the practices that made that investment necessary, Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton told Bacon’s Rebellion. “The definition of insanity [is] doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.”
The proposed stoplight would violate Greene County’s comprehensive plan as well as VDOT’s own access-management guidelines for U.S. 29, observes Brian Higgins, Greene Field Officer for the Piedmont Environmental Council. “It’s an opportunity for VDOT to apply their access management guidelines and show they are serious about it.”
But Ken Lawson, director of special projects for the Fried Companies, says the project has been in the works for years. Failure to approve the stoplight would redirect traffic emanating from Creekside’s 600 single-family homes and 580 town homes to the so-called Sheetz intersection to the north. That intersection, he says, is “failing.” VDOT is scheduled to make a $1.6 million improvement there but the intersection would be overwhelmed by Creekside traffic without a second stop light.
VDOT’s district administrator is in the hot seat. If he approves the stoplight, he adds more plaque to the clogged artery of U.S. 29 and undermines its value as a major commercial corridor. If he rejects the stoplight, he contributes to localized congestion in Greene County. Pressure from local politicians and citizens can be hard to ignore.
A Long Brewing Problem
While the Creekside matter has come into focus only recently, the larger issue of preserving U.S. 29 as a major transportation corridor has been percolating for years. For decades, cities and counties along the highway treated access as a free good, allowing businesses and developers to build along it with little interference. Entrances, cut-throughs and stop-lighted intersections have proliferated without let-up. As long as transportation funds were abundant, the solution to the resulting congestion was building bypasses. Danville, Lynchburg, Charlottesville and Culpeper all have bypasses on U.S. 29. Warrenton has two. Charlottesville is about to build a second, and local politicians foresee the need for a third. Meanwhile, leapfrog development in rural counties like Greene, Madison, Culpeper and Fauquier threatens to gum up the highway in between metropolitan areas.
“Strip development, the proliferation of driveways and traffic signals, and the overloading of traffic on a single roadway are all symptoms of a past approach that has emphasized exploitation rather than management of Central Virginia’s most important north-south transportation corridor,” summed up the Rt. 29 Corridor Study, published in 2009. “This trend cannot be allowed to continue. It’s time to move forward. … Land use and transportation planning should tie together to support the roadway’s functionality.” Read more.