The most obvious impediment to the future prosperity of the Richmond Highway corridor is traffic. Anyone who lives, works, or visits the area faces the prospect of stop-and-go traffic at various times a day, seven days a week. When we at the Southeast Fairfax Development Corporation (SFDC) conducted a survey of area residents back in March, more than 86 percent of respondents were concerned about the area’s traffic. Whenever I or anyone else from SFDC has an opportunity to hear from people about new development proposals, we invariably hear about how additional apartments, retail space, hotel rooms, whatever, will only add to our already crippling traffic concerns.
In short, we at SFDC are acutely aware of the severe traffic in the area. But, as professionals who study the area each day, we are also aware that a traffic problem does not equate to nine miles of wall-to-wall cars clogging the highway from the Beltway to Fairfax County Parkway. Instead what we have is a high capacity arterial highway along which bottlenecks at a handful of critical intersections cause traffic to stack up and cause congestion and long delays.
In particular, I point to four nodes along Richmond Highway that, if improved, would go a long way towards unclogging the whole corridor.
The jumble of roads that comes together at Penn Daw is one of the most scrutinized intersections in all of Northern Virginia. There are many problems with the current alignment, including high-volume traffic movements going in all directions, complicated movements required to get through the intersection, poorly designed curb cuts into shopping centers, short queuing areas for left turns, and misaligned roadways. The end result is frequent traffic jams and very long delays, particularly on evenings and weekends.
The Fairfax County Comprehensive Plan has long called for a total rethinking of the Penn Daw area that would make four key moves to remove much of the friction from the intersection: 1) remove the “yoke” that requires a left turn to stay on North Kings Highway (#1 in the diagram at the top of the page); 2) align Shields Avenue and School Street to form a four-way intersection (#1-2); 3) sever the direct connection between Richmond and Kings Highways (#4-5 in the diagram); and 4) build a new southern connector road between South Kings and Richmond Highways (#6-7).
The effects of the proposed Comprehensive Plan alignment were studied extensively by the Fairfax County Department of Transportation (FCDOT) during the recent Penn Daw Special Study. FCDOT concluded that these improvements would greatly improve traffic flow and safety in the area. Some of these improvements will be funded through proffers extracted from developers of properties in the Penn Daw area. Insight Properties has already agreed via its just-approved rezoning application for a 245-unit apartment development to pay for a traffic light at Poag Street, additional turning lanes, sidewalks along a section of School Street, and a contribution of $114,000 towards funding other
off-site improvements. The expected rezoning applications from Combined Properties (Penn Daw Plaza) and Capital Investment Advisors (Adler/Fast Eddie’s site) will produce additional funding to help the county get closer to its transportation plan for this area.
Little Hunting Creek
The quarter-mile stretch of Richmond Highway on either side of Little Hunting Creek between Sherwood Hall Lane and Mount Vernon Highway in many ways represents a perfect storm of traffic generators, including Walmart, the Mount Vernon Athletic Club, 800 mobile home units, the convergence of three major collector roads, the 209-unit Spring Garden Apartments, nearly 100 homes off of the dead-end Napper Road—and that doesn’t even include the Costco warehouse set to open next year. Perhaps more critically, this segment is the only portion of Richmond Highway between the Beltway and Woodlawn that lacks an alternative north-south route, meaning that anyone wanting to travel from Hybla Valley or points north towards the South County Center/Woodlawn area essentially has to pass through this “zipper.”
Planned developments in this area will mitigate traffic to some degree. , Costco is adding a right turn lane along its frontage from Richmond Highway and a second left turn lane into the neighboring Walmart. The 500-unit residential development proposed by Landmark Atlantic just south of Buckman Road is planned to include proffers to fund improvements that would make Buckman Road a right-in right-out intersection and move all left turns one light south to Janna Lee Drive.
While these improvements would certainly take nibbles out of the traffic problem, the lack of alternative routes through this stretch of Richmond Highway will always make it a challenge. Give the density of uses and environmental concerns in this area it may be quite difficult to ever build a new parallel road.
There may be an easy solution to this issue in the form of an existing connection that could potentially be reopened. There is actually a road called Audubon Avenue that connects the Audubon Village mobile home park and the Colchester Towne condominium, but the roadway and sidewalk are blocked off by an eight-foot high chain link fence. This situation is quite frustrating, as simply removing the fence would provide an alternative connection between Ladson Lane and Janna Lee Avenue, allowing residents of those areas to travel back and forth without clogging up Richmond Highway. Unfortunately this road is privately owned (the east side by Audubon, the west side by Colchester), so there is nothing that public authorities can do to force its reopening. The only leverage that the public sector has is through the proffer process, but this would only occur if one of the private owners were to come forward for a rezoning.
At the southern gateway to Richmond Highway and the Mount Vernon area sits a place eloquently described by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) as “the awkward off-set five-way intersection of Old Mill, Mount Vernon, U.S. Route 1 and the Woodlawn Plantation driveway.” The Jeff Todd Way (Mulligan) Road project is set to take on this longstanding traffic snarl. As I noted then, the new road and realigned intersection are projected to reduce traffic delays at the intersection by 70% during the AM rush hour and by 54% in the PM rush hour. When this road opens in about 18 months we should expect to see significant improvements in traffic flow through the Woodlawn area.
Tulley Gate/Accotink Village
The proposed widening of Route 1 through Fort Belvoir will do far more than add an additional travel lane in each direction. The project will also beef up bicycle and pedestrian facilities, increase capacity for transit service, and perhaps most importantly, correct one of the worst sets of intersections in Fairfax County. The scope of the existing problem is described in detail in the Environmental Assessment recently completed by FHWA:
“The poor levels of service can be attributed to the high volumes of traffic on the roadway and the existing roadway geometry. Although the horizontal and vertical alignments of existing Route 1 are generally satisfactory, there are some locations where sight distance is less than desirable, and the existing cross-section provides no median to separate opposing traffic. Turn lanes are typically inadequate to accommodate turning movements, particularly for left turns. In addition, the spacing and inconsistency of access points (driveways and commercial entrances) contribute to operational and safety inefficiencies.”
There are presently two alternatives being considered for this area by FHWA. Alternative B would improve mobility by adding turn lanes in all directions. Alternative C (pictured) that proposes a flyover ramp that would directly connect the Fairfax County Parkway with Fort Belvoir’s Tulley Gate, thus keeping these vehicles off of Richmond Highway entirely. Though Alternative B was named the preferred alternative by FHWA, local elected leaders are firmly in favor of Alternative C, as Alternative B also includes the so-called “southern bypass” that would bisect the Woodlawn Stables property. Regardless of which alignment FHWA chooses for this area, it will represent a substantial improvement from existing conditions.
* * *
I firmly believe that improvements to these four nodes would have a dramatic effect on traffic flow along Richmond Highway. The good news is that the necessary improvements at Woodlawn and the Tulley Gate/Accotink Village area are already funded and will be in place five years from now. The improvements that could potentially unclog Penn Daw and the Little Hunting Creek area are far more problematic, as they would likely be both very expensive and disruptive to existing neighborhoods and businesses. The cost side can be addressed in part through the use of proffers, particularly at Penn Daw, where several more rezoning applications are expected in the very near future.
As far as how to deal with the undeniable fact that major transportation improvements would clash with the needs of residents and business owners, we must accept that we are not going to simply be able to build our way out of our traffic problems. Instead of trying to ram through more widenings and other capacity increases I would suggest looking at alternative approaches to improving the flow of traffic through Penn Daw and the Little Hunting Creek area, including adjusting the timing of traffic lights, improving connectivity between existing properties and neighborhoods and, yes, encouraging people to choose to walk, bike, or use transit instead of driving. This more balanced approach to solving our transportation issues is, in my opinion, the best way forward for the Richmond Highway community.