VDOT lays out basics of Richmond Highway widening, many details still to come

Meeting crowd

Meeting attendees look at displays showing various aspects of the widening project Tuesday evening at Mount Vernon High School.

Residents and business owners in the Richmond Highway area got their first up-close look at the major widening project set to remake a three-mile stretch of Route 1 on Tuesday evening at Mount Vernon High School.

Officials from the Virginia Department of Transportation went through the basics on the project, which will widen the highway from four to six lanes between Jeff Todd Way and Napper Road. The project will also include 6 1/2-foot wide asphalt bike lanes on each side, 6-foot wide concrete sidewalks on each side, a 58-foot wide median section so that Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) can later be added as part of the Embark Richmond Highway initiative.

Utilities will need to be relocated for the project, and noise walls will be added in some spots to protect residential neighborhoods. Three bridges along Richmond Highway — at Dogue Creek, Little Hunting Creek and a tributary of Dogue Creek — will also need to be replaced, and the road will need to be elevated in those spots.

Street layout

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Construction on the project is still years away, with an estimated completion date sometime in 2026. Right now the project is in the environmental assessment phase, which is scheduled to be done in late 2017. 

The most expensive and time-consuming part of the project will be acquiring land along the roadway to allow for the widening. That will begin in mid-2019 and last for three years. 

“We have somewhat of a marathon to go through to get this project under construction,” said Amanda Baxter, VDOT’s program lead for the project.

Many decisions still to be made

Many important project details still need to be worked out — including funding. The price tag for the project is estimated to be $215 million, and at this point only $25 million has been allocated. 

The balance of the funding will be drawn from a variety of sources, including allocations from the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority, federal funding and state funding from Virginia’s SmartScale process. 

The Route 1 widening was not picked for funding in the last SmartScale cycle, and will need to wait two years before applying again. 

Funding breakdown

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Another key question is whether a so-called “Superstreet” concept will be incorporated into the final design. The Superstreet would differ from a “traditional” street by making drivers make right turns only out of side streets like Sacramento Drive and Cooper Road. Drivers would then make a U-turn to head the other direction.

Drivers on Richmond Highway would still be able to make left turns on to side streets like Sacramento in the Superstreet setup. However, due to the large median for the future BRT, there would be far fewer points where cars could make left turns than the current setup.

VDOT said the Superstreet concept could potentially be used to better regulate the flow of traffic at three intersections: Sacramento Drive/Cooper Drive, Mohawk Lane and Buckman Road. The advantages of a Superstreet include a more efficient flow of traffic, as well as safety.

Possible drawbacks outlined by VDOT included tougher access for emergency vehicles, and the lack of familiarity drivers have with the Superstreet concept (currently there are no true Superstreet designs in use in Northern Virginia, according to Baxter). 

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Whether a Superstreet or a more traditional approach is used, the widened area will have few access points. Part of that is inevitable due to large median that will be constructed for the future BRT, but it is also an intentional design that  VDOT says will lessen the number of “conflicts points” where collisions are more likely, thus increasing safety along a stretch of road notorious for crashes. 

To drive that point home, VDOT noted that in the past five years, there have been 461 crashes in the section of Richmond Highway slated to be widened. Two of those crashes — both involving pedestrians struck by vehicles — have resulted in fatalities. 

Land acquisition

Right-of-way acquisition might be the biggest unknown for residents and business owners who live right on Richmond Highway. The right-of-way acquisition process is estimated to potentially impact 200 properties along that three-mile stretch.

VDOT distributed pamphlets on how the process works, and had representatives on hand at the meeting to answer questions. Officials stressed that the displays on hand at the meeting showed a very preliminary guesses at the properties that will be impacted. 

Baxter also cautioned that “impact” doesn’t necessarily mean that VDOT will be acquiring people’s land.

“Impact is a big word when you’re talking about a corridor like this,” Baxter said. “Impact means a variety of things … it could mean we need park a piece of construction equipment on your property. Impact could mean we would need a temporary easement. Impact could mean we have partial acquisition or full acquisition of a property.”

A number of business owners with properties along Richmond Highway were on hand for the meeting. Some expressed concern about what the widening means for their future.

Betsy Mathes, who along with her husband owns Griffin Plumbing & Heating and Mount Vernon Travel in the 8600 block of Richmond Highway, said she was very concerned about how the widening would affect those properties. The businesses are located at one of the narrowest points of Richmond Highway, and a display at the meeting showed that a large part of Mathes’ property would be need to be acquired by the state. 

If the preliminary design holds true, Mathes is concerned that the plumbing business that has been in her husband’s family since 1941 may have to close. 

“Basically they’d be closing a 75-year-old business,” said Mathes. 

Duane Collie, who owns The Keeping Room home furnishings store in the 8400 block of Richmond Highway, came to the meeting to see how the plan would affect his building. After looking at VDOT’s displays and speaking with representatives, he said he’s not too concerned the widening forcing his business to move. 

The state doesn’t want to buy any more [land] than they have to,” said Collie.

Collie, who’s been at that location since 1986, said his primary concern is about pedestrian safety for nearby residents. 

“It’s a dangerous road.  Very dangerous. This will make it safer,” Collie said. “This should have been upgraded a long time ago.”

More information on the widening project, including how to submit comments or questions, can be found on VDOT’s website

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