Could I-64 prove VDOT’s highway management is on the road to reform?

Could I-64 prove VDOT’s highway management is on the road to reform?
Widening work on I-64 between Williamsburg and Norfolk in 2010. (Source: Trevor Wrayton)

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 the 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.”

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