Greater Greater Washington


Invest in transportation to enhance places, not bypass them

Should the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) use its scarce transportation resources to bypass cities to relieve congestion? Or should VDOT invest in main street infrastructure that increases safety, preserves historic streetfronts, and grows local economies?

Gilbert's Corner roundabouts. Image from VDOT.

Panelists at the the Virginia Conservation Network's 2012 Virginia Environmental Assembly argued that more state transportation dollars should flow to making existing roads work better, rather than building new ones.

Chris Miller, President of the Piedmont Environmental Council, described how citizen activism reshaped VDOT planning for a historic segment of Route 50 passing Aldie, Middleburg, and Upperville, VA, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. VDOT came up with the conventional solution: expand the road into a 4-lane, divided highway with bypasses around the small towns.

The citizens, however, had another vision: an innovative "traffic calming" plan that would address the problems on the roadway while promoting local business and protecting the rural and historic character of the area.

One of the most innovative sections of their approach design is a network of roundabouts replacing the conventional signalized intersection at the junction of Routes 50 and 15, said Miller. VDOT has been convinced, has already completed a of roundabouts at Gilbert's Corner, at the intersection of Route 50 and Route 15. The agency will finish 3 other traffic calming projects in the area in the next few years.

Gilbert's Corner roundabouts. Image from VDOT.

The roundabouts also cost considerably less than the bypass idea. The plan, which has improved levels of service on Route 50 from D and E to A and B, cost around $17 million dollars. This is a fraction of the $450 million VDOT estimated for their original plan.

The state should take care to consider how to adopt this model to transportation challenges that it now tries to solves with expensive major projects, including a $250 million bypass for Route 29 near Charlottesville. That project has drawn criticism for its projected environmental impact, said Jim Bacon, who blogs at Bacon's Rebellion.

State Senator Barbara Favola pointed out that by 2017, there will be no construction dollars remaining in the state of Virginia's transportation budget. As transportation challenges mount, Bacon emphasized, the state needs to seek the best return on investment (broadly defined) for the transportation dollar.

One of the best returns would be great investing in smart growth. Northern Virginia contributes 44% of the state's funding, while receiving only 7% of the state transportation pot, said Favola. Despite this, cities like Arlington have led the way with linked transportation and development planning and the provision of effective multimodal service, all paid for overwhelmingly by local funds.

VDOT should view the progress made in Northern Virginia as a model, not an outlier. Virginia can invest in a handful of major transportation projects, or it can invest in smart growth. It can't do both.

Neil hails from the land of sun, oranges, and sprawl, and is excited to escape the last by living in Washington, DC He's interested in how cities can be sustainable and great places to live. Neil has a joint degree in law and urban and regional planning from Florida State, and has been a continuous fan of trains since age 5. The views expressed here are Neil's alone. 


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The obvious answer is that Virginia must do both.

by Jeff on Oct 25, 2012 10:31 am • linkreport

Roundabouts can be nightmares. VA could look to MD's experiences, especially the roundabouts on 295 at Arundel Mills which were a disaster and quickly abandoned. Hopefully Gilbert's Corner works better.

by Tom Coumaris on Oct 25, 2012 10:44 am • linkreport

As I understand it, the Gilberts Corner roundabouts do work better. Plus the connector road allows folks going between 15 South and 50 East to bypass the main intersection.

by Froggie on Oct 25, 2012 10:55 am • linkreport

Tom, statistically roundabouts are still one of the safest ways to reduce congestion for areas without substantial volumes. (IE typically a great resolution for towns outside of a metropolitan area and rural areas)

Maryland is actually a model for roundabout designs reducing collisions and fatalities.

I think these designs are a wonderful fit for this section of Virginia. It's really just a mental state that people fear about entering roundabouts since they're not so common elsewhere, but if one is suddenly dropped in place and the local public gets used to how their roundabout operates, they're very convenient and easy to get through for most citizens.

The roundabout design was changed at the Arundel Mills interchange because of the arrival of the Casino. Their tenants thought increased traffic would overwhelm the interchange so they contracted to change it. It would have been just fine otherwise.

by Another Andrew on Oct 25, 2012 11:06 am • linkreport

The roundabouts are fantastic. I like the traffic calming stuff in Aldie, which to many was a speed trap.

The problem is that US-50 is being widened with added traffic lights just east of there. US-50 needs transit all the way from the Mall to Gilbert's Corner. Streetcars or metro.

A problem that has not been addressed though is that US-50 narrows to two lanes from Aldie to Middleburg, only to widen up to Winchester and further. If the area east of Gilbert's Corner keeps growing as it is, no roundabouts will fix congestion there.

by Jasper on Oct 25, 2012 11:12 am • linkreport

Bypasses in general are a tough nut to crack. There are so many factors:
If there is a lot of traffic where you want to build a bypass, what is the nature of that traffic? Is it mostly through-traffic? Or is it traffic generated by the place you want to bypass? Is that through-traffic seasonal or every day? What kind of economic growth does the traffic produce and how does that coincide with what we want to produce?

Growing up in coastal Maine, I saw the effects of bypass planning first hand. US Rt 1 is the main coastal road and used to wind through lots of little towns. In the 70s, due to increased summer traffic, the road was realigned and bypasses were built around many of these small towns. The road was still kept as two lanes (one in each direction) but shoulders were widened and the road no longer passed through these small downtown areas. One town fought a bypass tooth-and-nail, saying it would kill business there. Fast forward 30-40 years and the town that didn't build a bypass is economically depressed compared to the other centers that were bypassed. Locals avoid it on summer weekends because it is choked with through-traffic, and it's not a pleasant walkable place because of the traffic.

Just a story to illustrate different scenarios. I think lots of the bypass projects we talk about though (e.g. Charlottesville) are mostly people thinking that there is way more through-traffic mucking things up than there really is - lots of that traffic is people going from one place to another within the city!

Streetcars/Metro from the Mall all the way to Gilbert's Corner? Sorry, that just seems like wasted transit infrastructure to me. We need to encourage densification and growth in places where there is transit already (like VRE corridors), not enable more nowhere sprawl 40 miles out.

by MLD on Oct 25, 2012 11:44 am • linkreport

Agreed. Roundabouts are great. Not sure why Tom doesn't think so.

Are there buses to Winchester on 50?

by charlie on Oct 25, 2012 11:46 am • linkreport

I never had problems with the roundabout that was on Arundel Mills Boulevard nor did I witness any problems there before they changed the intersection, Tom Coumaris.

by selxic on Oct 25, 2012 11:51 am • linkreport

Not sure this is "innovative," but it was a prudent choice nonetheless. Innovative (on a US scale at least) would be the Keystone Ave project in Carmel, IN. People should be looking at that and other Carmel projects for good examples of the impact of using roundabouts instead of traffic lights and/or wider roads.

by Jason on Oct 25, 2012 12:19 pm • linkreport

The Gilbert's Corner roundabouts are a huge improvement over the old traffic light during rush hour, but they slow things down considerably at other times. I think, in general, that it's a pretty fair tradeoff.

But that doesn't mean it's the perfect solution everywhere. Places where the road is already more than one lane each way might not see as much improvement at rush hour and would still experience the slowdown the rest of the time.

by Theo16 on Oct 25, 2012 12:30 pm • linkreport

Jason- I agree. The Carmel, IN Keystone Avenue project is the most innovative use of roundabouts and major highway coversion there is.

by Joe H on Oct 25, 2012 12:38 pm • linkreport

Those Arundel Mills roundabouts were disasters from the beginning, well before the casino. Out of maybe 30 times I went through them I saw cars hit other cars maybe half the time. Those roundabouts only lasted about a year I think.

I like the idea of roundabouts generally. But that one stunk.

by Tom Coumaris on Oct 25, 2012 12:55 pm • linkreport

The Carmel/Keystone roundabout project is particularly impressive because it satisfied the interests of two local factions who began the process in conflict: auto-oriented commuters who wanted to see Keystone upgraded to be a freeway with exits for the major cross-streets; and neighborhood groups who opposed the footprint of traditional exits intruding into their portions of the community (and some of whom wanted to improve connectivity across Keystone by foot/bicycle).

by Nose Straw on Oct 25, 2012 1:04 pm • linkreport

@ MLD:Streetcars/Metro from the Mall all the way to Gilbert's Corner? Sorry, that just seems like wasted transit infrastructure to me.

Ok, what is your solution for the massive congestion on US-50 east of Gilbert's Corner and on US-15 south of Gilbert's Corner to Warrenton? US-50 is being widened and that will not help. Yet the area is growing fast.

by Jasper on Oct 25, 2012 1:12 pm • linkreport

Story and video about Arundel Mills roundabouts being changed to better "Divulging Diamonds"

Doesn't hurt to keep up on alternatives and not assume one size fits all.

by Tom Coumaris on Oct 25, 2012 2:05 pm • linkreport

I'm not arguing for or against roundabouts, diamonds or any other method, but I went through the Arundel Mills Boulevard roundabout on nearly a daily basis and never saw an accident, Tom Coumaris. An accident every other time you were present is a statistical abnormality. Were you perhaps the culprit?

by selxic on Oct 25, 2012 2:58 pm • linkreport

I think the fact they lasted such a short time shows other people noticed they didn't work well there too.

by Tom Coumaris on Oct 25, 2012 3:19 pm • linkreport

For anyone interested in the Carmel, IN roundabouts.

Construction video:

City Gov infomation:

by Joe H. on Oct 25, 2012 3:55 pm • linkreport

It's interesting the Carmel, IN Keystone Avenue project came up in the comments. I have been advocated for a bypass/express bus project in Manassas that uses elements of the Keystone project.

by mcs on Oct 25, 2012 9:15 pm • linkreport

MLD: sounds like Wiscasset.

by Froggie on Oct 27, 2012 12:55 am • linkreport



by MLD on Oct 27, 2012 5:32 pm • linkreport

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