Clogging Corridors

Graphic credit: Piedmont Environmental Council

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.

Share this article


(comments below)


(comments below)


  1. larryg Avatar

    this is an excellent and thoughtful commentary on the cutting issues of preserving highway utility verses accommodating inevitable development that is often located where it is BECAUSE of a major road. Notice that most developments are NOT located 20-30 miles down a 600 series secondary road but instead almost always within a few miles of a major interstate or primary road.

    I take a page on how successful preservation of highway corridors _can_ be by looking at how FHWA protects the interstates from individual, localized, or even regional development.

    It’s not perfect by a long shot and overall regional development can and does overwhelm the sheer carrying capacity of an interstate but a local development no matter how big is not going to get a curb cut on the interstate. The only access they will get is very a surface street interchange and even if a development offers to pay for an interchange, FHWA may not necessarily allow it if it is too close to an existing interchange or it will allow it if C/D lanes are built – neither C/D nor interchanges being cheap and 99% of the time the developer is not about to try to put up that much money so when you travel the interstate – you do not see curb-cuts, only interchanges .

    Route 29 will never be an Interstate or Interstate-grade road. Even the newer interstate-like sections in and around Lynchburg and environs have curb-cuts and traffic signals and successful adherence to strict access-management requirements is still subject to the influence of localities and developers to nibble away at VDOT’s efforts to prevent degradation caused by new curb cuts and traffic signals and at-grade intersections rather than grade-separated interchanges.

    The SELC’s primary alternative approach to building a new parallel road was to build new grade-separated interchanges on the existing Rt29, parallel access roads and to limit median crossovers and new curb cuts.

    But none of these will make Rt 29 more “interstate-like”.

    the speed limit even on a seriously access-managed roadway will never be 65mph.. and likely would be risky even at 55 mph.

    but approaching Rt 29 as a corridor at least establishes a context for the entire corridor – i.e. instituting draconian access-management on one section while having a Laissez-faire approach on others demonstrates the opposite of a corridor goal.

    but the next time someone heads south on Rt 29 to the NC line pay attention to two things:

    1. – the fact that there are uncontrolled side roads on even the newly completed sections of interstate-like sections of Rt 29.

    2. – look at what happens when Rt 29 hits the North Carolina line which is ludicrously signed as the “Future I-73”. The last 10-20 miles of south 29 in NC heading towards Greensboro and I-40 is a study in how to try to access manage a road that has uncontrolled side roads, median crossovers (for left turns), traffic signals – and just a few grade-separated interchanges/ramps.

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      OK. Simple question – where should the 1,180 housing units that are apparently in demand in Greene County be built? Look at a map of the county and tell me.

      One way or another those units will add congestion to Rt 29 but if there’s a better place to build them then great.

      Greene County has an unemployment rate of 4.5% in May, 2012. Sounds like a rural / small town success story. People want housing units in a very weak market. Again, another success story.

      So, how do we let Greene County succeed while protecting Rt 29?

      1. Maybe Fried Companies is paying the wrong proffer. Maybe it should chip in its $1.6 million to improve the Sheetz intersection instead. If that’s not enough to do the trick, maybe it should pay a bit more. I didn’t get into it in my story, but Fried wants to run it through the currently proposed location because it owns commercial real estate at the proposed intersection. That’s not a compelling public justification. Indeed, development of that commercial strip will only aggravate congestion.

        The proposed connector road will save Creekside homeowners only a couple minutes of travel time. It’s not a huge deal.

        The alternative to saying no is to throw up our hands and say, what the hell, let’s screw up 29 as bad as we want. We’ll just build another bypass — in another 35 years when we get the money. (Or maybe only 25 years from now if we increase the gas tax.)

        1. reed fawell Avatar
          reed fawell

          I do not know the specifics of this situation, or any others like it on Route 29. But, after having watched Route 29’s roadside commercial litter grow ever more luxuriant since the late 40s, I suspect that James Bacon’s Sheetz intersection explanation, may well suggest what’s been happening over and over since the late 40s. Namely a curb cut and access approval process that’s been very loosely regulated over the years has morphed into (or grown out of) a system that far too often favors monied local interests over the state public interest, and local public interests as well. The former being ignored by the state legislature because that’s the way the political game of favor exchange has been played for far too long. And the latter local public interests are and have been long ignored because they have not the resources, clout, organization, money or savvy, to insure that their local officials act in the larger public good, instead of for the benefit to the few special interests who have mastered the system. Perhaps I am naive, or a cynic. Perhaps spoils, money, favor exchange have nothing to do with all this. But I suspect that far to often they do. That maybe this is a culture whose legacy dates back to the Byrd era, or far beyond. Perhaps that’s unfair, given I have no facts based on personal experience. But what else explains what is plain to see: All the unsightly litter forever sprouting up along Va. roads? And nobody seems able or willing to fix it.

        2. DJRippert Avatar

          Charging a reasonable proffer seems like a good idea. With 1,180 housing units, a $1.6M proffer will add about $1,500 to each unit. If that makes the units unsaleable then Fried ought to move on.

          My guess is that these units are for people who want the lower costs of living in Greene County but have jobs in Charlottesville. They are willing to commute to work and Rt 29 is the route they want to use..

          The birth of a suburb?

  2. reed fawell Avatar
    reed fawell

    Route 29 is for me a Virginia’s poster child as of how not to land use plan on a major state thoroughfare. Route 29 use to be one of the most beautiful drives in America. You would drive through it saying: Virginia had to be one of the most beautiful states in America. That was within my lifetime. Now much of it is a horrible eye sore. All of it thanks to short sighted and Laissez-faire attitudes seemingly determined to trash up an otherwise beautiful state. “Exploitation by the few, rather than management by the responsible to protect the legacy of all, might be a good way to describe the problem.” I have no ideas how to fix it. But the two commentaries above sure look to me like a good start.

    1. Reed I doubt there’s much in the way of “spoils” for most of the traffic lights and cut throughs we see on U.S. 29. It’s too small scale, too penny ante. What I suspect we do see is a lot of rural supervisors working under a misguided sense that property owners have a “right” to connect with U.S. 29, and that voting in favor of such connections protects “property rights.”

      1. reed fawell Avatar
        reed fawell

        I am a huge believer is property rights. But these kinds of property rights are akin to the old days (50’s and 60s) where driving along you’d toss your fast food trash out the window at 60 miles an hour. Property rights should not translate into clogging up and trashing up the public highways. Nor, in the long run, is it good for anyone, save the narrow short term interests of a few curbside landowner doing their thing on the cheap. And getting away with it despite the fact that its the taxpayer’s money building and maintaining these public roads that are the primary reason these folks stand to reap such benefit on the cheap.

        Taking this issue at its best, we need a cultural shift here, I guess. Which effort, of course, in the wrong hands is just as dangerous. But fouling ones nest, along with everybody else’s, is not good public policy. Nor is it a legitimate, or smart, exercise of property rights.

  3. larryg Avatar

    We have a similar issue in Stafford which is a commuter-centric exurban county.

    The county wanted to designate a UDA east of Route 1 and connect to Route 1 at a new curb cut with a new simple signal.

    VDOT wanted them to connect to an existing surface street with an existing traffic signal but they wanted the traffic signal upgraded to a much more comprehensive signal with more lanes for thru, left and right.

    Stafford did care like that idea as much because it would not give a dedicated access to the prospective UDA and instead it would follow existing secondary roads.

    VDOT cannot deny the development but they can hold firm to what is necessary to mitigate the impacts instead of allowing heavy impacts in the name of less expensive development costs.

    and that’s basically how this issue shakes out in most places. The developers want to leverage their development off of existing infrastructure even if it degrades the existing infrastructure because it’s easier on their bottom line.

    VDOT’s “other” legitimate job is to add capacity to roads of statewide significance. Adding capacity to these roads is useless if the existing road has so degraded by piecemeal/incremental development, by multiple curb-cuts and traffic signals. In order to be able to add capacity, the existing road still has to have functional integrity as a traffic mover that can still move traffic and can move more traffic from capacity improvements.

    I would equate this to thinking about fixing the existing Rt 29 through Cville by conventional capacity improvements …. you can’t really add capacity since the corridor was co-opted for commercial development and the only way to get additional lanes would be to buy commercial parcels along the entire length – which is impossible.

    so , HOW do you keep that happening to start with?

    well.. you refuse to give curb cuts on a primary highway and force them to surface streets – that connect via signals to the mainline.

    Once you’ve allowed one commercial curb cut on a primary corridor, you’re dead because other commercial will follow and challenge you if you deny their connection after you’ve approved prior connections.

    1. reed fawell Avatar
      reed fawell

      Ungraded zoning, the idea that a particular site plan or up zoning of a particular parcel for higher use, can be approved and vest in the property without an time limit placed on the development is a very bad practice.

      This creates a great game of rezoning land and vesting rights on the false proposition that the project or it development has any capability in the near future of being carried out. It’s one of the land speculators oldest games, create false value and flip or hold and never develop just flip at a later time. And if its locking in the State and county forever to such vested rights, its bad public policy, because its hold the public good hostage to irresponsible future development. Every such zoning needs to expire absent development within a reasonable time.

  4. reed fawell Avatar
    reed fawell

    Thanks Larry, that clarifying. I assume, without knowing ,that much of this in terms of solutions requires State action. That, as a practical matter, only the State can change the rules of state road access. And if it did, it might jump start some more enlightened roadside land use on the county level. Is that too simplistic, or is it generally where your comment leads?

  5. larryg Avatar

    Well, the counties often like to believe that any road that is in their jurisdiction is one in which they will decide land use no matter how it impacts the road.

    They even lay out Comprehensive Plans that designate intensive land use on either side of VDOT’s road corridors – even if those corridors are Primary Roads and Corridors of Statewide Significance – VDOT-speak for roads that have similar functional goals to interstates – i.e. allowing Virginians to go from one region to another or from one side of Va to the other.

    Imagine how we’d do that if there were not interstates and the major state designated roads (the “100” series, 1, 3, 17, 460, 29, etc).

    FHWA basically has a “thou shalt not connect” philosophy for the interstates. No curb cuts. No commercial venues and no at-grade intersections. If you want to connect to an Interstate – you have to put in an interchange and you don’t get to decide where or which kind – you get told by FHWA and you have to find the funding to do it.

    Compare and contrast that with VDOT’s ability (or inability) to accomplish a similar preservation of State Primary roads and roads of statewide significance – like Rt 29.

    Locally, we see pushback of VDOT’s efforts to retrofit stronger access management on Rts 17 and 3. The businesses don’t like it and they complain to the elected but VDOT really has no choice – unless they’re going to try to build a parallel road next to the commercialized sections of Rt 17 and Rt 3 and that’s on the seriously problematic side of things given Virginia’s fiscal capacity to do 2 or 3 more Cville-type “bypasses”.

    re: property rights

    as far as I know… if you own property – it does not mean you own public infrastructure or have a guaranteed right to access it since it’s not yours and instead belongs to taxpayers – the “collective” property owners.

    We have an interesting referenda on property rights and VDOT’s (and local govt) ability to “take” private property for public use like road expansions.

    the referenda seeks to make this a more difficult and more expensive process which, in turn, if it is approved, will make bypass building even more problematic and expensive.

  6. reed fawell Avatar
    reed fawell

    Regarding PEC’s recommendations that state act more aggressively to protect U.S. 29’s capacity from encroaching development, including: reduce access points … Downzoning by-right rural densities. Strict local access management plans. Re-evaluate approved not yet built projects. Develop strategy to find conflicts between land use and transportation plans. Use Entrance Corridor overlays to establish and enforce strict access management standards.

    And as to concerns expressed about property rights and local governments’ needs focused on growth along their main transportation artery;

    Perhaps to accommodate fairly all these concerns a land use density transfer program might be considered, on a county or even regional basis. Under the program, higher density mixed use development locales could be designated. These would be founded on a wide variety of best practices factors. And owners outside the locale but with vested rights (such as along Route 29, for example) could sell or shift those rights into a development locale where they otherwise would not exist. This has been done in numerous urban situations. For instance, to encourage the preservation of threatened historic structures, or to allow the construction of something desired that otherwise would not work financially or legally. In the preservation case, the owner is allowed to sell his historic site’s unused density to a different site where it can be used without harm and indeed for public benefit. Done right, such transactions under such programs can create a great deal of “value out of thin air”. This thin air value can be put to great private and public good. A farmland tract housing development density or strip commercial use thus generates far greater value for public and private good at far less cost in a planned higher density mixed use zone.

    The intent is to leave all parties far better off while protecting the rightful interests of each, whether its livability, commerce, profit, environment or whatever.

    1. reed fawell Avatar
      reed fawell

      A density right transfer program might also be used to facilitate a program designed to limit access on existing clogged State Primary Roads. Here it could be used a tool that makes it easier to move and collect existing or vested strip commercial uses into a single roadside locale. Each pod would be served by a single access point. Thus, one access and its costs are shared among numerous uses within the pod, and property rights are respected at the same time, as clutter is effectively cleansed from the State’s highways..

      1. reed fawell Avatar
        reed fawell

        I suggest we can make far more effective land use “road” decisions. This includes “mundane issues” such as road access. Why? Because it turns out these mundane penny ante access decisions, even on the most local level, over time do not have mundane penny ante consequences.

        Indeed, they have far broader, long lasting, and cumulative impacts than we realized before.

        Thus, in making such decisions, we must understand and connect far more dots than we have historically considered. And show far more seriousness and resolve in the making of decisions. To do this requires that we bring our decision making process on such matters into the modern age, using all available best practice tools. Things like data collection and analytical tools that access and parse an array of impacts.

        To oversimplify: local roads and their access have big impacts (positively and negatively) = on travel times and costs, on land values and use, on public and private revenues (often cumulatively and in vast amounts), on public and private costs (often cumulatively and in vast amounts), and on the sustainability and public and private health of all our citizens and their multiple political subdivisions, from neighborhoods to the State.

        This realities need to be deeply understood and appreciated. Such as the fact that many such decisions hold the opportunity to create great wealth, and simultaneously greatly minimize costs, over time.

        So “Best practices” must be used to arrive at practical solutions that maximize all the opportunities available and minimize all the costs and pitfalls that threaten. Long term, exponential wealth creating solutions depend on it. Truth is however, that given ingrained habits up and down the line, a major para-dine shift is likely the first and greatest hurtle.

  7. larryg Avatar

    property rights do not include any/all access to any adjacent road. Property rights apply to what you own not what is owned by others including publically-provisioned infrastructure.

    You are not entitled to water/sewer nor to connect to an adjacent interstate nor to use a school for any purpose other than what govt says you can use it for.

    The State has the right to determine what kind of connection to the road system you can have (or not).

    For instance, does anyone think that if the Cville bypass is built that any adjacent property owner will be entitled to his own curb cut on the new bypass?

    ask yourself why that is the case. How can the state deny access to an adjacent property owner – on what basis?

    If the Feds can do it for Interstates and VDOT can do it for “bypasses”, then what is the basis of their authority and what is the criteria for granting access (or not)?

  8. larryg Avatar

    re: proffers.

    how about a proffer for a grade-separated intersection? An interchange?

  9. DJRippert Avatar

    Virginia constitution

    Bill of Rights

    Section 11

    “That no person shall be deprived of his life, liberty, or property without due process of law; that the General Assembly shall not pass any law impairing the obligation of contracts, nor any law whereby private property shall be taken or damaged for public uses, without just compensation…”.

    LarryG lives in a world where the Imperial Clown Show in Richmond can do anything they like, pass any law at will.

    That is simply not the truth.

    However, the Imperial Clown Show in Richmond sometime sees fit to ignore the Commonwealth’s Constitution. Section 5 is interesting:

    “That the legislative, executive, and judicial departments of the Commonwealth should be separate and distinct; and that the members thereof may be restrained from oppression, by feeling and participating the burthens of the people, they should, at fixed periods, be reduced to a private station, return into that body from which they were originally taken, and the vacancies be supplied by regular elections, in which all or any part of the former members shall be again eligible, or ineligible, as the laws may direct.”.

    The should, at fixed periods, be reduced to a private station ….

    Tell me how we have a General Assembly without term limits given that provision of the Virginia Constitution.

  10. larryg Avatar

    well I think you missed the part about “due process” (and elections) but as far as I know, no property owner has a “right” to property he does not own – like roads – anyhow.

    what does the Constitution say about public use of roads?

  11. larryg Avatar

    re: local land use vs roads that connect the state.

    the distinction is that local roads that are oriented to local economic development should not be the same roads that the state is trying to maintain for state level connectivity.

    and that’s the way it actually works in 46 other states where local roads are the responsibility of the locality and state roads “belong” to the state and are not allowed to become economic development venues for localities.

    When you look at a county comp plan and it designates state level roads for intense commercial development – it’s a clear conflict where the locality is planning on “using” something that in reality does not “belong” to them but rather to the taxpayers of the state.

  12. reed fawell Avatar
    reed fawell

    I could not agree more, Larry. And, at the least, your comment suggests that the State has levers of power to insure good growth that, for whatever reason, they are not using.

  13. larryg Avatar

    VDOT has a checkered history on preserving and protecting corridors.

    For a couple of major primary roads in the Fburg Area Routes 3 and 17, they essentially abandoned them in favor of a planned “connector” (belt) then when that died, they went back to rehabilitate the roads they originally had said were not “rehabilitatable”.

Leave a Reply