The very first transportation network in Virginia was created by animals who established trails between sources of food/water, and where the animals stayed during the night.
Starting about 15,000 years, hunters expanded upon that network. Hunting trails were shaped by topography. Watershed divides dried sooner than valleys, and in Virginia many such divides were also flat - such as the divide separating the James, York, Rappahannock, and Potomac rivers. Mountain passes that offered a way to avoid steep climbs. Those hunters also selected routes that took advantage of different fords where it was easiest to cross rivers; fords and mountain gaps became key nodes in the maze of hunting trails.
As Native Americans adopted agriculture, temporary hunting camps evolved into permanent sites for towns, often surrounded by protective wooden palisades. The animal path network evolved into a set of hunting trails, which evolved again to serve as trails that connected permanent agricultural communities.
Colonists built the first roads for horses and then wagons, starting in 1607 with a sand-and-shell road between Jamestown Island and the glasshouse just upstream. Later, the Great Road linked Jamestown with Williamsburg.1
No matter what sort of people settled in Virginia (Native Americans who initially crossed the Bering Land Bridge, or Europeans who sailed across the Atlantic Ocean) and no matter what sort of leaders they chose, physical geography has always been a major factor.
Routes through the Blue Ridge had been created by erosion long before humans first arrived in Virginia. The Fall Line defined where ports developed. The logical location for a modern spaceport would always be on the Atlantic Ocean coastline, so errant rockets could be destroyed over water rather than a populated place.
The taxpayers' investment in roads, canals, railroads, and airports has been shaped by sectional rivalries and personalities of political leaders, but physical features shaped where transportation infrastructure was built.
Today, traffic congestion reflects cultural patterns of where housing and "job centers" are located. Jobs are centralized in a few locations, such as downtowns and edge cities such as Tysons in Fairfax County and Short Pump in Henrico County. Housing is decentralized in subdivisions scattered in suburbs and exurbs, such as Stafford/Prince William and Chesterfield/Hanover counties. Congestion is most obvious during morning/afternoon commutes, as workers drive (often in single occupancy vehicles) between jobs and houses.
Solving congestion is a perpetual political issue, with candidates for state/local offices promising to "fix the transportation mess." There is no quick fix to the disconnect between the locations of jobs and houses, so no politician can solve the problem within a two-year, four-year term, or even six-year term.
the first human-built transportation network in Virginia was a set of hunting trails developed as much as 15,000 years ago
Source: Theodore De Bry Copper Plate Engravings, The Princes of Virginia
People live in one place and work in another, and housing is designed to last for 30-50 years. Once a suburb is constructed and the houses sold, workers must commute back and forth during morning/evening rush "hour." Some solutions that seem obvious - add lanes to widen existing roads, build interchanges to eliminate traffic lights, extend commuter rail and bus service - may reduce traffic jams in the short run, but exacerbate the problem in the long run by encouraging more suburban sprawl.
in the colonial era "rolling roads" were used to haul tobacco from plantation to wharf, where hogsheads were loaded on ships and exported to Europe
Source: Documenting the American South by the University of North Carolina, The Old Method of Getting Tobacco to Market (in The Great South by Edward King, 1875)
Virginia's investment in building transportation infrastructure almost bankrupted the state once. The state's Board of Public Works, created in 1816, absorbed the state's existing investments in the Little River Turnpike Company, plus canals in the Dismal Swamp and beside the Appomattox, Potomac, and James rivers. The Board of Public Works, through the Fund for Internal Improvements, then financed turnpikes, canals, and railroads by purchasing bonds of private corporations that built "internal improvements." Among those projects were the James River and Kanawha Canal, Northwestern Turnpike (modern-day Route 50 from the Shenandoah Valley to the Ohio River) and the Valley Turnpike (modern-day Route 11 between Winchester to Harrisonburg, and ultimately to Staunton).
Roads and turnpikes were designed as a farm-to-market system. Individual, fragmented projects were financed primarily by large cities such as Alexandria and Richmond, plus communities on the route seeking to ship local products to obtain higher prices at a port. Easier access to market provided a competitive advantage for port cities, so they competed rather than cooperated in building connections inland. The Board of Public Works financed construction using the state's credit, but there was no state-directed plan to build an integrated network of roads, canals, and railroads.
For example, before the Civil War, three rail lines were extended across the Blue Ridge into the Shenandoah Valley. The Virginia Central connected the southern end of the valley (including Staunton) with Richmond. The Orange and Alexandria/Manassas Gap line connected Alexandria with the central part of the Valley, turning south at Strasburg to Mount Jackson. The Winchester and Potomac Railroad connected Winchester with Baltimore - but the northern part of the Shenandoah Valley had no rail access to any Virginia port, and had to rely upon transport by wagon or the Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) canal along the Potomac River.
Farmers in the valley may have wanted a north-south railroad between Winchester and Staunton, providing three outlets for their crops and facilitating competition, but business leaders in port cities had a different priority. They used independent roads, canals, and railroads to create "zones of influence" in the backcountry, steering economic activity to just Baltimore, Alexandria or Richmond/Petersburg. Only after the Civil War, when northern capitalists rather than Virginia business leaders determined where to build new rail lines, was the Norfolk and Western Railroad built through the entire valley.
Why? No Virginia city would benefit from a southern extension of the Winchester and Potomac, which was controlled by the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. Alexandria, in particular, sought to compete with Baltimore by extending its influence into the northern part of the valley. However, the Alexandria, Loudoun, and Hampshire Railroad (today's W&OD Trail) was blocked by the cost of tunneling through the Blue Ridge, an engineering feat achieved in Virginia by just the Virginia Central at Afton Gap (modern I-64).
As a result, the Board of Public Works's investment in transportation was not effective in linking all communities to all other communities in Virginia. Fredericksburg was slow to build a canal system that would ease shipment of crops downstream, and of manufactured products from the port back into the rural hinterland. By the time Fredericksburg build locks and dams on the Rappahannock River up to Kelly's Ford (Remington in Fauquier County), the Alexandria and Orange Railroad and the Virginia Central already dominated the trade. Crops produced on the northern Piedmont of Virginia, east of the Blue Ridge, went to ports on the Potomac River or Richmond rather than Fredericksburg.
From an 1888 report:2
Great Road in Jamestown, first highway built by colonists
After the Civil War, Virginia was too poor to fund new transportation projects. In 1874 the state constitution banned the purchase of new turnpike company stock, and counties took the lead in maintaining the existing road network. The Board of Public Works shifted its focus to regulating outside-the-state investors, especially those building railroads such as the Norfolk and Western Railroad through the Shenandoah Valley. The Board was finally replaced by the State Corporation Commission in 1902, and the first state Highway Commission was created in 1906.3 As part of a political realignment under the Byrd Road Law in 1932, the state assumed responsibility for almost all road construction. The counties were relieved of that cost, but gave the state all revenues from income taxes.
Competition between Virginia ports and Baltimore/Philadelphia over Federal funding for dredging channels, building lighthouses, and improving harbors dates back to the early days of the United States. Today's competition between advocates of mass transit and highway construction today pale in comparison to the nasty debates between canal and railroad advocates in the 1830's. Petersburg and Richmond conducted financial sabotage - and at one point, actual physical destruction - of the Portsmouth and Roanoke Railroad that connected Hampton Roads with the Roanoke River. The James River cities implemented a "Fall Line Blockade" to steer traffic from North Carolina to Petersburg, limiting economic development at Portsmouth.4
Public and private investment in transportation have always shaped patterns of economic growth in Virginia, from colonial days to the present. Public investments can create windfalls for property owners near a new road, canal, or rail line. The idea that a project might be constructed with taxpayer dollars, for the benefit of a few at the expense of the many, is not new.
The ethics and financial interests of individuals helped to shape Virginia's transportation network. The personalities of leaders such as Joseph Carrington Cabell (advocate of the James River and Kanawha Canal) and Colis P. Huntington (builder of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad, with a new coal-exporting port at Newport News) are key parts of the story. Today, disputes over proposed new roads through the North-South corridor defined in western Prince William and Loudoun counties include accusations that some big developers will receive excessive private benefits, because new roads would enhance the potential for rezoning undeveloped land for new subdivisions.
Who benefits vs. who pays for increased transportation capacity still affects modern decisions, such as where to locate the Coalfields Expressway/US Route 121 on the Appalachian Plateau from BI-77 in West Virginia to Pound (Wise County), Interstate 73 to link Blacksburg with Roanoke and points south, a high-speed rail line and new 4-lane highway between Petersburg-Norfolk, and a proposed new bridge over the Potomac River in Loudoun County.
Funding for new transportation projects in Virginia is limited now, primarily because the gas tax has not been increased since a special session of the General Assembly in 1986. In 2011, after Gov. McDonnell borrowed $3 billion to fund his transportation initiative, the debt-to-revenue ratio of the Transportation Trust Fund (TTF) exceeded the target level of 5% designed to maintain the state's AAA bond rating.5
In the absence of additional taxes or debt capacity, the Commonwealth Transportation Board has pursued private funding through Public-Private Transportation Act (PPTA) agreements for new projects. Tolls will be added to I-95 to finance High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes from Dumfries south to Spotsylvania County, and new bridge-tunnel projects in Hampton Roads will result in tolls for every crossing into the City of Portsmouth.6
One effect of the inability to fund new projects could be a change in the state's growth patterns. Since World War II, developers have converted farms and forests on the edges of cities into new subdivisions. The pattern of suburban sprawl was based on the state's willingness to build new roads, so people could live in the suburbs but commute to jobs in the cities.
If taxes are not increased again in the future, and if Virginians drive fuel-efficient cars so gas tax revenues actually decline, then future highway funding could be limited to just maintenance of the existing road network. Before the General Assembly raised taxes substantially for transportation in 2013, the Virginia Department of Transportation was forced to shift funding from the Transportation Trust Fund (TTF) - the construction side of the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) budget - to the Highway Maintenance and Operating Fund (HMOF). Starting in FY2010, the state stopped providing construction funding for the secondary road system (roads numbered 600 and above).7
In 2011, the Secretary of Transportation told the Chamber of Commerce that funding for all other road construction would be diverted to maintenance by 2017. That was avoided when the General Assembly passed the second-largest tax increase in the history of the state in modern times. The additional $1.25 billion annually for transportation, when fully phased in, allowed the Secretary of Transportation to approve projects that became very controversial, including a replacement highway for US 460 between Petersburg-Suffolk and the Bi-County Parkway in Northern Virginia.8
Federal funding for transportation has faced a similar challenge. In the absence of new money obtained by borrowing or taxing, at some point there will be no more new road construction or transit upgrades. In Northern Virginia, dreams of extending Metro to Centreville or Woodbridge will die, and the Virginia Railway Express (VRE) commuter rail system will not be extended to Gainesville/Haymarket.
If home buyers decide that traffic congestion from the suburbs will be permanent, and the cost of toll roads that might bypass traffic jams will be excessive, then decisions by many families on where to live/work could change. The value of houses near job centers could increase, especially in urban areas offer high-quality bus or rail service, while construction of suburban McMansions could drop off precipitously.
samples of transit passengers vs. Census data in 2007 showed that bus travel was more popular among people with incomes below $50,000/year, and a smaller percentage of the wealthy chose to take the bus
Source: American Public Transportation Association, Profile of Public Transportation Passenger Demographics and Travel Characteristics Reported in On-Board Surveys (Figure 18)
The model for transit-oriented "smart growth" is the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor, which revitalized dramatically after the Orange Line was completed. Developers are mimicking that approach, building live-work-play "town centers" in places such as Short Pump west of Richmond, New Town in James City County near Williamsburg, Town Center in Virginia Beach, and Dunn Loring/Merrifield in Northern Virginia.
There is another possibility - telecommuting could becomes a feasible alternative to commuting to work for many jobs. Telecommuting may reduce the need to commute, but does not necessarily mean that workers will still seek to live in the suburbs. If service sector jobs evolve so most work assignments can be handled online, with only occasional visits in person to the office, then living in rural Virginia could become far more attractive.
Housing costs are relatively low in small towns compared to urban and suburban areas. If the local schools are acceptable, the quality of life for young families can be much higher - especially for those who enjoy outdoor recreation. Virginia's Rural Broadband Initiative was designed to level the playing field with urban areas. If it succeeds, then commuting in the future may depend more upon the speed of an internet connection rather than the number of lanes of a highway.
Metro (Blue and Yellow Lines) at Reagan Washington National Airport