With traffic once again surging post a pandemic-triggered lull this spring, Virginia’s management of its multi-billion dollar highway system will be critical to the commonwealth’s long-term recovery — as well as its coffers.
As the state seeks to keep its economy moving while reducing congestion, a new Virginia Department of Transportation study of the 320-mile long portion of Interstates 64 and 664 which it manages could prove a first test of a little noticed provision in Gov. Ralph Northam’s transportation omnibus bill that took effect on July 1.
“The General Assembly is now on record telling VDOT the new direction they want to travel in by prioritizing transportation demand management, safety and increases to rail and transit service,” said Trip Pollard, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center. “We need to connect more jobs to less expensive and more sustainable forms of transportation than having to always get into your car and drive. This is the first corridor study taking place after this new statutory language is in effect, so it’s a significant opportunity to establish that vision.”
From purely paving to smart planning
Whereas past transportation officials have focused on congestion as an engineering problem — and consequently deployed road widening as their sole solution, a gradual cultural shift within VDOT, strengthened by the governor’s omnibus, has emphasized the importance of transportation demand management. A TDM lens takes a comprehensive, cost-effective approach to congestion by trying to help people better use existing infrastructure and providing alternatives to driving, such as mass transit, micromobility and more.
“We begin by looking at the least expensive options available which are typically operations upgrades and changes,” said Ben Mannell, assistant director of planning at VDOT and the project manager for the I-64 corridor study. Operations improvements typically entail minor tweaks to existing infrastructure such as faster towing of disabled vehicles, clearer signage and better lighting, for example — all relatively low-cost upgrades that can reduce the occurrence and severity of backups.
“Next we turn to multimodal solutions such as additional rail and transit service, adding park and rides and vanpools,” Mannell said. “It’s not just about your single occupant vehicle. Capital improvements on the highway side like interstate widening are always our last choice. We can move more people in a bus so we should do it. That’s why we look first to multimodal solutions because they provide a wider range of travel options for folks that don’t have a vehicle and help better connect folks to jobs.”
Perhaps the greatest potential effect of the Interstate Operations and Enhancement Program — the official name of the new TDM provision in the omnibus — will be its centering of data in VDOT’s decision-making processes.
Although the IOEP wasn’t the law of the land until this summer, VDOT began experimenting with data-driven highway management with its I-81 and I-95 corridor studies of the past several years. “VDOT has done a much better job of gathering the data to show people what the true problems are,” said Pollard. “When we finally got the analysis on I-81 we saw that there were geometric deficiencies, more freight trucks than expected and excessive local traffic as people hop on the interstate for short distances to avoid surface roads.”
The goal of the public input phase of VDOT’s current I-64 analysis is to identify the top 25 percent of problematic areas resulting in severe injuries and fatalities, delays of an hour or more and equivalent property damage only — a jargony way to describe a metric for car crashes with a monetary value. After the public input period on the I-64 corridor closed last month, VDOT had logged more than 3,800 interactions with over 6,000 points dropped on the map study area. That represents a treasure trove of highlighted issues and possible solutions crowdsourced by the public ahead of the study’s second phase: presenting proposed fixes later this month.
For the sake of the forests and sensitive wetlands along I-64, Pollard hopes that further widening of the highway won’t make the list. “Thanks to this much better data we can accurately assess what is creating the safety, traffic and reliability problems with our existing transportation network,” he said. “Knowing the true causes of traffic helps us get away from the past thinking of ‘We just need more lanes.’ Experience has shown that we have thrown a ton of money at adding lanes and we have nothing to show for it in terms of congestion reduction.”
Conservation advocates may prove pleased with the results of the study according to Mannell: “Additional pavement is not going to provide a solution. We’re looking at how we can do the absolute minimum widening possible and, when we can, to widen to the inside to avoid issues with right of way and protected wetlands.”
That’s not to say that the study won’t result in major changes to the corridor. A network of roughly 45 miles of express lanes around Hampton Roads — similar to the HOT lanes found across Northern Virginia — appears to be a done deal. “We’re really trying to put forward the most cost effective solutions,” said Mannell. “With the potential for express lanes we see, those are definitely going to come online in the region.”
Transparency can prove tricky
As a decades-long watchdog of similar highway projects, including the most recent I-81 corridor study, Kim Sandum — Rockingham County coordinator and transportation lead for the Alliance for the Shenandoah Valley — is generally pleased with VDOT’s new approach to Virginia’s highways, but she’s concerned the days of the agency’s behind-closed-doors style of decision-making aren’t fully a thing of the past.
“I worry VDOT only sees the projects and they don’t see the public or focus on how to get buy-in from them,” she said. “When you’re talking about a 300-plus mile-long regional corridor it’s difficult for regular people to have much influence. The public input is where the real trick is in all of these processes, and I don’t think we’ve quite figured that out yet.”
The steering committee for improvements to I-81 is supposed to meet four times a year according to the legislation that established it. Due to the pandemic it’s only met twice. “The question is what has been happening in the meantime,” said Sandum. “The projects are moving forward. The funding is still being collected, but there’s no oversight.”
Despite some of the difficulties around ensuring average Virginians have an ongoing voice in such corridor improvement projects, Pollard is convinced that VDOT’s new TDM approach is a long overdue upgrade. “I would put more weight on environmental and equity factors than the current process does, but there is no question this is far better than what we did before.”
Although Sandum has trepidation about the transparency and accountability of these multi-billion dollar projects, she wouldn’t wish for a return to VDOT’s old way of business. “There are still bad projects out there and wasteful ways of thinking, but those bad ideas are no longer the only ideas being put forward,” she said. “Things are much more transparent now with more opportunities for public input. The trend is in the right direction.”
CORRECTION: This post has been updated to correct Kim Sandum’s title. She is Rockingham County coordinator and transportation lead for the Alliance for the Shenandoah Valley.