The daily commute on Route 288 whips drivers and passengers by the rampant construction in western Chesterfield County with little stall. It's a speedy thoroughfare, where traffic flows smoothly past the sweeping trees and power lines and the steel building skeletons off Midlothian Turnpike, where the budding Watkins Centre development -- a 640-acre commercial, shopping and residential destination — is just beginning to bloom.

Today, few people worry about traffic congestion amid the pastoral fields along 288, but the mushrooming development brings a promise: more cars.

Richmond has dutifully kept up its reputation as one of the easiest regions in the state to navigate by car. The rep's paid off. Richmond's now tops in another category: having the highest amount of motor vehicle travel per capita of all Virginia's major metro areas. That's an average of 28.7 miles per person per day, well above the national average, according to a recent report by the Southern Environmental Law Center.

That distinction comes with another promise, environmentalists and transportation specialists say: Build it and they will drive — a lot.

Congestion isn't exactly a problem in Richmond, save the occasional 10-minute delay on the Powhite Parkway. But experts say there's a volatile mix brewing between the unrelenting pace of development in the suburbs and a car-happy populace. Eventually, they predict, congestion will come, not to mention the strain on the environment and an already underfunded road system — especially in the sprawling suburbs.

"It's not so much that the highways automatically cause sprawl, it's that absent thoughtful planning and careful management, you get chaotic development," says Jim Regimbal, a consultant with Fiscal Analytics Ltd.

Regimbal has studied the state's complex road-funding system under the Public-Private Transportation Act, which streamlined construction for projects such as Route 288. "Unfortunately," he says, "most local governments are unprepared for the development onslaught that comes with the highway infrastructure."

He says roads are the great enabler of that development onslaught.

Motorists drove more than 80.3 billion miles in the state in 2005, an average of more than 220 million miles daily. When it comes to average daily miles logged per person, Richmond leads the way of the state's metro areas [see box].

That doesn't mean traffic headaches are necessarily more painful in Richmond. In other regions, people drive fewer miles because they spend more time in bumper-to-bumper traffic. Some people, however, see Richmond's rise to prominence in the traffic department as a warning. If the region's outer suburban ring continues to grow unabated — and 288 is a testament — choking congestion may not be far behind.

Part of the blame lies with a de facto traffic-feeder system: housing. Residential construction has increased more rapidly than the population in the major metropolitan areas, particularly developments along major roadways.

In part, the ease of travel makes metro Richmond a desirable place to live, says Trip Pollard, director of land and community projects at the Southern Environmental Law Center. So much so that his group projects the region will need more than 125,000 new housing units between 2000 and 2030, using U.S. census projections and average household sizes. And with it comes increased pressure on roads.

Much of the new housing development in Chesterfield will take place along the corridors of Route 288, which completed a suburban beltway around the city in 2004. The Virginia Department of Transportation predicted that by 2020, 73,000 cars would travel daily from the Woolridge Road interchange to the Route 60 interchange, which opened three years ago. This year, the average daily count in the same stretch is already 45,134. And with the planned projects such as the new 5,000-plus home Roseland development, which has yet to be approved, and the nearby Charter Colony subdivision, traffic counts are expected to rise considerably.

Lee Yolton, project manager for the Richmond Regional Planning District Commission, says the rapid growth in the region means that state funding for new roads, and public transit alternatives, will be desperately needed.

The biggest need for road construction will be in the counties. While socioeconomic data from the Metropolitan Planning Organization shows a 3 percent increase in Richmond's population over the next 25 years, Chesterfield County is projected to see a 78 percent spike in new residents.

Jobs are shifting to the counties as well. Total employment in the city is predicted to drop 6 percent from 2000 to 2031, Yolton says, while the number of people working in Chesterfield is expected to increase 138 percent during the same period.

Yolton says population and employment projections show more intercounty travel as opposed to the traditional commute to the city, which will affect driving patterns. The trend is already becoming more pronounced in the 288 corridor, particularly as Chesterfield residents increasingly commute to jobs in Henrico and Goochland counties, where the West Creek business park, home to Capital One Financial Corp., one of the region's largest employers, sits at the northern edge.

The transportation issue has become a central focus for the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), says Tony Hylton, Richmond's AARP representative. In Chesterfield alone, the Virginia Employment Commission projects the population of residents 65 years old and older will increase 429 percent from 2000 to 2020, from 21,007 to 90,254 senior citizens.

"Richmond needs transportation alternatives for people who don't drive and still need to get around," Hylton says, stressing that the limited bus service to Chesterfield and Henrico counties isn't enough to meet the burgeoning demand.

The region's top billing in terms of highway miles should serve as a warning, Pollard says. While the counties struggle to manage growth — Chesterfield's recent election is a testament to an emerging awareness of the county's sprawling housing problem — the region needs to start planning to take cars off the roads, invest in public transit and encourage more high-density housing development.

"The current infrastructure was built on the assumption that most everyone can drive," Pollard says, "and increasingly this isn't going to fit with the cost, climate, air pollution or the aging population." S

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