Highway Through Keswick?

Can the local community come up with a better plan for Routes 22 and 231 than VDOT’s plan to make it a highway?

The main road through Keswick in Albemarle County—Rtes. 22 and 231—runs through a landscape that Thomas Jefferson described as “the Eden of the United States”. Today, a traveler on this road can experience a landscape much like the one Jefferson and others of his generation saw—open farmland rising up to woodlands on the gentle slopes of the Southwest Mountains. What will it be like to travel on this road in 20 years or 50 years or 100 years? It’s an open question.

Because of its exceptional scenic and historic qualities, the area has been recognized as the Southwest Mountains Rural Historic District and the road has been designated a Virginia Scenic Byway.  This landscape is also part of the Journey Through Hallowed Ground National Heritage Area and the road is a National Scenic Byway.  But increasing through traffic has caused some strain, with drivers expressing concern that it is becoming more difficult and more dangerous to drive here.

VDOT’s answer to these issues is to widen the road into a four-lane divided highway—a plan that is already on the books. VDOT’s current twenty-year plan, known as VTrans2025, calls for four-laning Rte. 231 from Shadwell to Cismont and Rte. 22 from Cismont to the Louisa County line. The plan also calls for changes to the northern portion of Rte. 231, from Cismont to the Louisa County line, including expansion of the road corridor with wider shoulders. These proposals would require significant infringements on private property, cost a huge amount of taxpayer money and permanently diminish the experience of traveling through a unique, historic landscape.

So, PEC has been working with the local community to explore possibilities for alternative solutions—building on our success in achieving a community-led plan for road improvements on Rte. 50 through Fauquier and Loudoun Counties.

In the 1990’s, when VDOT was preparing to turn Rte. 50 into a four-lane highway from Lenah to Paris, PEC hired renowned transportation consultant Ian Lockwood to help citizens along the route come up with alternatives. In the end—after fifteen years of advocacy—the community-based vision prevailed. VDOT dropped its plans to four-lane the road and instead built the traffic calming solutions generated by the local community. On Rte. 50, these solutions include three roundabouts at Gilberts Corner and nearby intersections and other design changes that cue drivers to slow down and pay attention to their surroundings—such as landscaped medians, roadside trees, textured pavement, raised crosswalks and entrance features at villages. These changes have proved a big success—significantly improving traffic flow and safety at a small fraction of the cost of widening the road.

Now, PEC has brought Mr. Lockwood, who works for the planning firm AECOM, to Keswick. In April, PEC held a series of meetings so that local residents could share their ideas about improving the road. From the meetings, Mr. Lockwood learned that citizens want to keep the road essentially the way it is—a beautiful, rural two-lane thoroughfare with distinctive character. Citizens also indicated that they want reduced risk for vehicles entering or exiting the road, safer intersections, slower speeds and less traffic from through trucks. Citizens also said they wanted to prioritize simple changes rather than dramatic changes to the road.

Starter ideas

Based on this input, Mr. Lockwood presented the following ideas as possible elements for a community generated plan—arranged from the least intrusive to the most intrusive, in keeping withc citizens’ priorities.

This current bridge in Keswick is fairly nondescript. If VDOT’s plan to four-lane Rtes. 22 and 231 moves forward,
when it comes time to replace a bridge, it will be built extra wide — paving the way for a four lane highway. An alternative plan that would use traffic calming instead of widening to improve the road, could call for more distinctive bridges.

  • Lower the road surface. Every few years, the road is repaved but the existing surface is not milled down, so that the surface keeps rising. Sharp drop-offs from the edge of the pavement can lead to accidents when vehicles veer even slightly off of the road.
  • Change the pavement texture. Rural roads are generally paved with a rougher surface than highways and urban roads, but right now Rtes. 22 and 231 are paved with a very smooth surface that encourages faster speeds.
  • Design bridges to call attention to water crossings. Distinctive bridges, perhaps arched stone bridges, over streams that intersect the road would call attention to the area’s natural resources and beauty—cueing drivers to slow down and enjoy the landscape.
  • Install entrance features. Adding features where traffic enters and leaves this stretch of road would call attention to its special scenic and historic nature and encourage slower driving.
  • Create alternating stretches of enclosure and open views. Stretches where the road is enclosed by trees and feels narrow can encourage people to drive more slowly—and when the views open up, their impact is all the more stunning.
  • Improve signage. In some places, the roadsides are cluttered with an excessive number of signs, which could be reduced. Signs could also be mounted on more attractive posts, and the shiny backs of signs could be painted black or dark green.
  • Improve visibility of driveways. When landowners mark their driveways with entry features—as many have already done—drivers are more likely to expect that vehicles will enter or leave the road at these points.
  • Add pulloffs. There are currently few places where vehicles can pull over. Working with willing landowners to add occasional pull-offs would allow tractors to let faster vehicles pass, police to enforces speed limits and drivers to stop and read historic markers.
  • Construct roundabouts at difficult intersections. Roundabouts improve safety because traffic slows down, instead of speeding up to make the light, and because they are configured to prevent head-on and t-bone collisions. According to VDOT, roundabouts reduce fatal crashes by 90% and injury crashes by 75%. Roundabouts also take up less space than other potential changes to intersections, such as additional turn lanes.

Mr. Lockwood suggested that a combination of traffic calming measures would discourage the use of the road by through trucks, creating a corridor that caters more to local traffic than vehicles cutting through in a hurry.

Next steps

The community will steer this process. If there is sufficient momentum among local residents to pursue an alternative vision, PEC will continue to assist the process, helping local citizens create a plan for the road. Then, the goal will be to get that plan adopted as part of the Albemarle County Comprehensive Plan, and then to get VDOT to adopt it.

“We know that if citizens don’t plan for the future of this road, it will be planned for them,” says Jeff Werner, PEC’s Land Use Officer for Albemarle County. “The idea is to work with the community toward a proactive vision for safe, scenic roads that convey the sense that this is a special place.”

>> Learn more: see information from Mr. Lockwoods’ powerpoint presentation.