When Less Is More

Sometimes, the cure for traffic congestion isn’t more asphalt, it’s less. By managing local vehicular access to state highways, VDOT can increase capacity at lower cost.

By James A. Bacon

U.S. 29 Bypass near Lynchburg

U.S. 29 Bypass near Lynchburg

The Virginia Department of Transportation created a problem when it built the U.S. 29 Bypass around Lynchburg, merging it with U.S. 460 for about 10 miles southeast of the city. While most of the shared roadway was limited access, allowing cars and trucks to move freely, a 1.7-mile section near Falwell Airport was used heavily by local traffic.

Vehicles traveling at highway speeds do not mix well with vehicles pulling out of restaurants, driveways and industrial access roads. In the 18 months before the bypass completion, the crash rate on that stretch of road was 16 per one million vehicle miles driven (VMD). In the 18 months following, the crash rate surged to 102 – more than six times higher.

Clearly, something had to be done. Upgrading that 1.7-mile stretch to a full limited access highway with exit ramps would have cost between $50 million and $55 million, says Rob Cary, VDOT’s Lynchburg district administrator. That seemed like a lot of money. Instead, VDOT adopted a strategy of pruning local access points to the highway. Since the completion two months ago of Phase 1 at a cost of $1.5 million, the number of crashes has been… zero. That safety streak won’t last forever, but a second phase costing $11.7 million should make the road even safer. Says Cary: “We get a lot of the benefit for one-third the cost.”

(Click on map for more legible image.)    

Access management is not a novel concept, but its application to Virginia roads is relatively new. Only in 2007 did the General Assembly direct VDOT to develop access-management regulations and standards with the goal to reduce traffic congestion, enhance public safety and reduce the need for new highways. The rules cover such aspects of design as the location and spacing of entrances, intersections, median openings and traffic signals. Since 2007, principles of access management have started turning up in VDOT documents such as the U.S. 29 Corridor of Statewide Significance (CoSS) plan.

U.S. 29, known as the Lee Highway in Virginia, stretches 1,000 miles from Pensacola, Fla., to Baltimore. Like other highways across the United States, U.S. 29 attracted commercial and residential development in the metropolitan regions it served as land owners exploited their proximity to a major transportation artery. But each new gas station, fast food outlet, shopping center and cul de sac neighborhood required an access point and an increasing share of the traffic became purely local. With traffic came signaling lights. As ever more vehicles halted at stoplights and pulled into the highway from driveways and store entrances, travel speeds decayed and congestion worsened.

The traditional response to highway congestion in Virginia was the bypass. When highway traffic bogged down on U.S. 29 in Danville, Lynchburg, Charlottesville, Culpeper and Warrenton, VDOT simply ran a new, limited access highway around the congestion. When the bypass got gummed up like the original highway, VDOT build another bypass. Warrenton has two, and Charlottesville is about to get a second one.

The Rt. 29 Corridor Plan fleshes out the new way of thinking in considerable detail. The vision for the corridor is one that allows access to the highway only at “designated and appropriately spaced locations.” VDOT and local governments along the route can clean up the accumulated detritus through a number of techniques, such as:

•    Changing zoning to shift growth pressures away from properties immediately adjacent to Route 29.
•    Putting land along the highway into conservation easements.
•    Having VDOT purchase access rights-of-way.
•    Developing parallel road systems to take local traffic off the highway.

   (Click on graphic for more legible image.)

•    Employing novel roadway designs such as roundabout crossovers and bowtie U-Turn configurations.
•    Requiring plans for any new traffic signal to have an “exit strategy” for removing the signal at some point in the future. Read more.

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4 responses to “When Less Is More

  1. There is a glimmer of light coming from VDOT. It is starting to think like a network operator, rather than just a road-builder. Reducing the number of curb cuts in a major road can help traffic flow better. Using a grid of streets can also help traffic flow better. The 527 process has generally been successful.
    VDOT does need to improve signal light timing to keep traffic flowing, but it is looking at using shoulders on major routes, not just for specified rush hour periods, but also to assist traffic flow when there are accidents or other incidents.

  2. excellent post – Jim! Yes… in many states Access Management has been a well-practiced discipline in part because of the realization that to NOT do it costs a LOT in increased traffic accidents AND a LOT to fix with bypasses that if not properly Accessed Managed will soon end up the same way.

    The problem is that localities – like Lynchburg AND Charlottesville have been routinely allowed by VDOT to put commercial curb cuts whenever and wherever new business wanted them with the implicit threat that if they did not get the curb cut – they’d go somewhere else.

    I like your graphics here that also fully show how isolated residential and commercial development without connecting roads/interparcel connections forces all traffic back out onto the main roads – even traffic trying to get to adjacent pods.

    It’s truly ironic that VDOT has spent – literally millions (billions?) of dollars trying to replace the original “bypass” in Lynchburg with a new one and yet just like US 29 in Charlottesville ..that portion is a real mess… but Lynchburg complains about Charlottesville’s “mess”.

  3. Great article, but know that lobbyists for commercial developers are trying to gut the new regulations. Just watch the 2012 sesion. The homebuilders & commercial developers were successful in weakening subdivision street and transportation impact regulations in 2011.

  4. For once, we all seem to agree. The endless curb cuts are a disgrace. Bosun is absolutely right about the lobbyists pushing to weaken the regulations. However, the absurdity of the “any access at any time and any place” is starting to be seen by the voters as politician capitulation. In Dranesville, John Foust is feeling the heat for his lack of leadership in keeping arteries open by reducing curb cuts.

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