Surviving "Killer 33" 

One Hanover resident has spent a decade trying to widen U.S. Route 33. But is this $42 million project the best way to save lives?

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Every road — particularly roads as narrow, fast and curvy as Route 33 — has its tragedies. But Johnson firmly believes at least half the deaths on the road could be averted if it were widened from two to four lanes in Hanover County.

The logic is simple, he says. In the past 10 years, there have been five fatal crashes along 12 miles of road on the Henrico County side, where 33 is four lanes. But along 12 miles on the Hanover side, where the road is two lanes, twice as many fatal crashes occurred during the same time period.

"I was a police officer for so many years," says Johnson, a retired Richmond detective, "and it just doesn't make sense that we are allowing the large number of people to be killed on 33 when it could be reduced probably by 50 percent."

For more than a decade he's been on a crusade to get that asphalt laid and two lanes added. (And Johnson stands to benefit personally; he owns a piece of land just off 33, about three-and-a-half miles from the Henrico County line, that he has expressed interest in developing commercially.)

Now, in large part because of Johnson's efforts, the Virginia Department of Transportation says the road's going to be widened.

But is that what's best for the county?

Like most Virginia counties, Hanover is at the mercy of the state legislature and VDOT when it comes to funding and constructing major road improvements. Each year the county must submit a roads priority list to VDOT for consideration by the Commonwealth Transportation Board, which decides which projects will be funded, if any.

Hanover's road-project priority list places Route 33 third, mostly because of Johnson's "Killer 33" campaign, says Hanover Public Works Director Becky Draper. First and second on the list are the dangerous Lewistown Road interchange on Interstate 95 and the widening of U.S. Route 360. VDOT has placed 360 and 33 in its six-year plan, but not the I-95 interchange.

"Thirty-three's a different animal," Draper says — a narrow country lane with few places to pass, frustrating drivers. She says most fatal accidents on 33 are caused not by passing but by drivers' wheels slipping onto the dirt shoulder, causing them to over-correct and strike an oncoming car or a tree. With no margin for error, a driver's small wobble can lead to tragedy; "There's just no forgiveness," she says.

Which is why, about three years ago, the county used a federal grant to add a 4-foot shoulder to each side of 33 and place reflectors along the center line. It was an easy, cheap (about $100,000 per mile) solution, Draper says, and it seems to have worked. Since it was completed, she says, there's been only one fatal accident on 33 — and that accident occurred when the driver experienced a heart attack and lost control of the car.

But Route 33 is still in VDOT's plan. The most recent general estimate for widening five miles of the road is $42.4 million. VDOT anticipates having just under $32 million available for Route 33 in the six-year plan, from 2006 to 2012.

Road traffic has not increased significantly during the past five or six years, despite the high-dollar housing developments being built off 33. According to VDOT, traffic has actually decreased on the section of 33 proposed to be widened first, from Farrington Road to the Henrico line. It's dipped from an average 9,516 cars per day in 1999 to 9,069 cars per day in 2005.

So is spending $42 million for two more lanes worth it? Or will widening the road actually encourage more houses and more traffic, overwhelming other services?

Some residents, such as two women who live on Route 33, think it's a terrible idea.

"It's a bunch of impatient people," one says. "It's not the highway."

"Thirty-three is not a dangerous highway," says the other. Both say they do not want their names in print.

Draper says she can't give her opinion: "It'd be inappropriate for me to comment on that." But she does foresee increased residential development following if the road is made wider. "My gracious," she says. "Who wouldn't move out there?" S

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