The Road Ahead 

Are we paving ourselves into a corner?

No more digging for the map in the car for shortcuts. No more worrying about whether Parham Road will be too clogged after he passes the Willey Bridge. No more strategizing about alternate routes.

By taking 288, Hansen’s average 40-minute schlep will shrink by half. He’ll get home earlier, leave for work later. He’ll have more time to spend with his two young children, and weekend trips to visit family and friends in the West End become a snap.

“In terms of how I’m looking at it,” he says, his voice bouncing, “it’s either going to be the greatest thing ever or the biggest disappointment in my life.”

The time savings are staggering. The new road will ease traffic along Powhite Parkway by giving Chesterfield residents who work north of the James River a new, more efficient alternative. For example, using 288 will save Hansen — who lives in one of the fastest-growing corridors in Chesterfield — three and a half hours every week, or about 173 hours a year. That’s like gaining an extra four and a half weeks of vacation.

It’s a gift for house-heavy Chesterfield. Its drivers will be able to zip to western Henrico, where much of the job growth of the past decade has taken place. It relieves traffic along the area’s most congested roadway — the Powhite Parkway — and affords the more rural counties of Powhatan and Goochland new opportunities for economic development. And Chesterfield, long the region’s bedroom community, is in a prime spot to capture much-needed commercial growth around its 288 connectors, especially at Routes 60, 360 and Lucks Lane.

Like Hansen, county officials and politicians are ecstatic about the new loop, which comes after decades of planning.

But behind all the excitement, there’s a dark side to this story: The Richmond region may be setting itself up as the next Northern Virginia, where traffic is notorious. Some transportation experts say that building 288 mortgages the region’s future for a few years of easy commutes. Although travel will become significantly smoother in the short term, they say, in the long run 288 will worsen the very problem it’s intended to solve — traffic congestion.

How? The experts say that building roads such as 288 ignite development, create more traffic and catalyze sprawl — all of which can cause a traffic mess.

“We don’t have Northern Virginia traffic nightmares yet,” says Trip Pollard, a land-use expert who co-wrote a recent study on the area’s transportation trends. “But things are going to get worse. We’re headed toward those types of problems.”

Route 288 has been in the planning stages since the 1960s. Originally, the extension was to be built farther east, several miles closer to downtown Richmond. It would have connected Chesterfield with Henrico County at Interstate 295 in Short Pump. For years, Route 288 stood on the books as just another proposed roadway.

As the region grew, 288 was resuscitated in the 1980s. But the original route ran into political obstacles when the Virginia Department of Transportation finally considered funding the project. The original pathway had become cluttered with subdivisions, making it nearly impossible to rally public support. Residents scoffed at a major thoroughfare tearing up their back yards, spurring development and disturbing the peace and quiet for which they longed. Residents in Goochland and Powhatan were against it, as well as many in Chesterfield and Henrico.

The biggest and fiercest opposition, however, resided in Henrico near Short Pump. This was pre-Downtown Short Pump and Short Pump Town Center. The area was still a relatively rural suburban corridor. Earlier plans had 288 connecting to West Broad Street, via John Rolfe Parkway, which would have been extended south. But nearby residents were vehemently opposed. They didn’t need a road to Chesterfield. Most worked in the city and in their own county.

Political winds drove the road farther west. Plans were drawn to have the road cut through the western tip of Chesterfield at Route 60, and then connect with Interstate 64 in Goochland County, a few miles down the road from Short Pump. But the more western route came at a cost: The Federal Highway Administration recommended against the western route in meetings with state officials — it would generate less traffic, and wouldn’t connect with Interstate 295, the preferred course. Without federal approval, 288 didn’t qualify for millions of dollars in federal funds. And because it relied solely on state coffers, the project sat on the shelf.

All that changed in 1995, when Motorola announced plans to build a semiconductor plant at West Creek, breathing new life into 288. Motorola, in its negotiations with state officials, insisted that the road be built to accommodate some 5,000 employees who would be working there.

This was no ordinary deal. Not only would Motorola generate millions in taxes, it would solidify the region as a high-tech hub. The area needed the boost. Big North Carolina banks were gobbling up once-powerful Richmond institutions such as Sovran and Central Fidelity, and Richmond was in the throes of losing its status as a financial center. The region caught Motorola fever. Virginia Commonwealth University built a new engineering school, and White Oak Semiconductor, another billion-dollar chip outfit, announced its intention to build on the outskirts of eastern Henrico.

Suddenly, Route 288 became a political necessity. The state transportation board bumped it to the top of the priority list. It would require more than $324 million to complete the final 17.5 miles of the 40-mile loop. And without federal funding, and with heavy opposition to tolls, the state had to pay for the entire project.

State Sen. John C. Watkins, R-Chesterfield, says the investment in 288 was worthwhile — and necessary. It was an important economic development tool. Although Motorola’s plans fizzled, 288 was an important factor in Capital One’s decision to move its corporate campus to West Creek three years ago. The road would also relieve congestion and give Chesterfield residents easier access to the western part of the region.

That the road was jump-started by economic interests is nothing new, Watkins says. As long as it’s driven by good planning, building new roads to bolster the economic base is OK, he says: “That’s what this country was built on.”

But some experts say that building roads to bolster economic development is a mistake. Studies show that new roads actually create more traffic — not just on the new roads, but for the entire region. The Virginia Department of Transportation projects that by 2020, for example, daily traffic on the stretch of 288 from Powhite to Lucks Lane in Chesterfield will number about 89,000 cars a day. Now, traffic on that same stretch is about 27,000 cars a day. Why? The theory goes that as more people discover the benefits of driving on a freer-flowing highway, it becomes clogged.

And more driving creates sprawl. Pollard says Richmond is a textbook example. Richmond has more miles of highway per person than any other region in the state — and that’s before the completion of 288, expected by mid-2004. Few people realize that Richmond is the second-most sprawling region in the country. Residents drive more miles a day, on average, than those who live in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads. A recent study found that Richmonders drive, on average, 26.4 miles per day. Those who live in Hampton Roads average 22.7 miles per day. In the Washington area, drivers average 22.5 miles per day.

“A free-flowing freeway is a thing of the imagination,” says Gary Johnson, a professor of urban studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. “What people don’t realize is the impact the road has on new development,” he says. “Development is going to mushroom up around it.”

County planners are excited about the road for that very reason. But Johnson, who specializes in transportation issues, says the region is ill-prepared for the expected growth. The extension connects one of the fastest-growing residential corridors in the state with a planned commercial corridor in Goochland that’s bigger than the entire city of Charlottesville. One recent study predicts that if the region continues to grow at its current rate, it will consume 531 square miles of land by 2023, the equivalent of 8.5 cities the size of Richmond.

“I don’t think people realize what’s happening to them,” Johnson says. “You have a crisis on your hands before you’ve begun to deal with it.”

Public officials say they can avoid a crisis by carefully balancing what private developers want with what residents need. Public officials contend that a strong land-use policy can keep profiteers at bay. But that’s tricky, say academics, who argue that politicians invariably give in to the private sector when there’s money to be made.

Resisting the power of residential developers is the key, says Tom Jacobson, director of planning in Chesterfield. He says Chesterfield has a strong land-use plan for the corridors around 288 that will prevent development from getting too unwieldy too quickly. And the county is attempting to restrict residential growth around the highway.

The county has a history of being open for residential development, which has strained the local tax base. Residents don’t pay enough taxes to pay for things such as schools and roads: Most of the money comes from commercial taxes.

“We have thought about 288 for a long time,” Jacobson says. “For 10 years, we have been planning nonresidential land uses along the interchanges of 288. We are saving land that will in the long run be good for business opportunities.”

One key corridor the county hopes to develop is owned by Watkins, who stands to profit considerably from 288. His family owns a 145 acres around where the Route 60 and 288 will intersect. The land is designated for commercial, retail and residential development. Among other things, plans call for an open-air shopping center.

“I’ve still got mixed feelings about it,” Watkins says. “We’re holding onto it because we don’t want to see it developed inappropriately.”

Goochland County has the same idea. The county plans to restrict residential development around West Creek and an area known as Tuckahoe Creek — a 13-square-mile, 8,500-acre tract that the county has slated for commercial development.

“Seventy percent of that is master-planned for business and industrial growth,” says Greg Reid, Goochland’s economic development director. “A lot of that land is not zoned, albeit it is master-planned. It’s going to be a major employment hub.”

Goochland officials aren’t so na‹ve as to think they can lock out residential development altogether, Reid says, but the county aims to keep such development to a minimum. And it has one key advantage: Much of its open space must be rezoned to allow for new houses. As long as it sticks to its master plan, Reid says Goochland will be just fine. After all, developers must first receive approval to build new houses from the Board of Supervisors.

In practice, however, it’s easier said than done. Just ask Chesterfield.

As growth beckoned in the 1970s and 1980s, residential developers built new suburbs in Chesterfield practically unabated — so much so that a recent analysis of undeveloped land by Jacobson’s planning department found the county was sitting on about 50,000 yet-to-be-built houses and apartments on land that has already been zoned. There’s nothing the county can do about it. State law doesn’t allow localities to impose proffers on property that’s already been rezoned. The planning department’s analysis shows the number of houses in the county will more than double during the next few decades, from 101,900 to more than 216,000.

Route 288 doesn’t help. “It’s going to get worse before it gets better,” urban studies professor Johnson says. “If you want to look at what Richmond will look like in 25 years, look at Northern Virginia and Tidewater.

Chesterfield’s Jacobson concedes the pain that lies ahead.

Currently, 77 percent of the county’s tax revenue comes from residents and 23 percent from businesses. While Chesterfield is doing its best to spur business development — and thus more business taxes, especially around 288, the road will likely create an immediate burst of housing. That means that in the short term the county will have less money coming in — and more people to serve.

But Jacobson says the residential spurt won’t last forever. “We’re saving land that will, in the long run, be good for business opportunities” around 288, he says.

That land will be used for much-anticipated commercial growth to help pay for the expected costs of all that residential development, most of which the county can’t stop. The county already predicts it will eventually need an additional $5.7 billion to pay for schools, fire stations and roads to the meet the demands the new housing is expected to generate. The best way to raise that money is to bring in new businesses to strengthen the tax base.

“Chesterfield has done what I think is an outstanding job in laying out a land-use plan along that [288] corridor that will enhance business growth and development,” County Administrator Lane Ramsey says. “So maybe, for the first time, Chesterfield has a plan in place before all the development starts.”

The county’s master plan aims to create solid, sustainable communities where people can live and work, Jacobson says — which he contends will help combat sprawl.

But there will be big competition for businesses. Goochland, for example, has created West Creek, the 3,500-acre office park which recently lured Capital One, the area’s largest private employer. And it still has room for more than 21 million square feet of office, industrial and retail space, about 10 times the size of Innsbrook.

But luring all that business takes time — possibly 20 years or more — and the counties need the money now for new roads to accommodate an influx of new residents.

And it won’t be easy getting it from the state. Strains on the state transportation budget are immense. In 1998, the General Assembly’s Commission on the Future of Transportation in Virginia projected that the state’s transportation needs during the next 20 years — through 2017 — would fall drastically short of existing state revenue. From 1998 to 2017, the commission estimated the state would need $68 billion to pay for new highways, public transit, rail, airports and ports. The commission projected state revenues would fall $44.3 billion short.

With money running out, the state increasingly is handing over the work to the private sector. In fact, two competing plans to extend Powhite Parkway about nine miles to Route 360 are under review by the highway department. One of those plans proposes paying for the road by increasing tolls, a political bugaboo in Chesterfield.

Outsourcing road building to private developers will increasingly become more attractive to cash-strapped locales, says Pollard, the transportation expert. That will shift even more power to private interests, the natural antagonists to controlled development.

“If we go down that path, it has the potential to make it more difficult to have more coherent growth strategies,” Pollard says. The Public-Private Transportation Act that the legislature enacted in 1995, which allows private contractors to build roads, doesn’t require public input for such projects, he says.

There are other backstops in place, and state highway officials often heed the political will of localities where the roads are built. But the lesson, says Johnson, the VCU professor: It’s hard to deny the power of private development.

Case in point: Three years ago, sources close to the negotiations say that Capital One threatened to move the bulk of its Richmond operations, with more than 9,000 jobs, to Tampa, Fla., if the state didn’t cough up money for 288. The road became a bargaining tool, says Johnson, and that’s a big part of the problem.

Roads built for land development beget sprawl, tying up state funds that could be used for more pressing transportation needs, Johnson says. The state couldn’t resist Motorola, nor the threat of losing Capital One, so 288 became a subsidy. Capital One spokesman Hamilton Holloway says the company will have about 3,000 workers at West Creek by the end of next year, about half of the 6,000 originally expected. Holloway says the company has experienced “flat job growth” of late.

“That was really an economic development effort,” Johnson says. “In the past couple of [gubernatorial] administrations, Richmond has been open for business.”

Ultimately, 288’s contribution to the region’s growth depends on the political will of state and local politicians. Will they stand firm for smart growth, or succumb to the pressures of private developers? Can local governments work together to avoid competing for the same jobs and businesses?

Historically, the answer is no.

“Currently, there is not the political will — all of the [localities] sacredly guard their turf,” Johnson says. “It may take a crisis for that to change.”

Reid, Goochland’s economic development director, isn’t sure, either. “We know that it’s going to be a road that moves a lot of people,” he says of 288. “That’s about all my crystal ball allows me to say.”

In the meantime, commuters such as Chuck Hansen will enjoy the shorter commute. He worries about the traffic on Lucks Lane, which abuts Walton Park, but he figures the new 288 beats zigzagging across town every morning and afternoon.

“I personally think it’s going to work,” he says. “It’s going to give me a great, short way to get to get to work in the morning. Adding a half hour on either end of my day — that’s a huge deal.” If he’s still driving that route in 2020, he may find himself looking for shortcuts again. S



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