Highways in Virginia

" And we came upon a greate wyde roade of a rod in breadthe and we followed it several dayes and to our greate dysmaye found oursylves backe at the pointe from whence we cayme"
(how Professor Jim Fonseca at George Mason University once suggested that John Smith would have described Interstate 495, the Capital Beltway.)

I-66 looking east from Vienna Metro
Interstate 66, looking east from Vienna Metro Station

That car window is a movie screen, and you're watching the show as you drive through Virginia. It's a bigger image than IMAX, and the color is much richer than what you see projected on a theater screen. A TV can't come close, of course.

view from Route 50 at Paris (Ashby Gap)
View from Route 50 at Paris (Ashby Gap)

We'll provide (ultimately...) a virtual tour here, with an emphasis on natural and historical resources just outside the window. If you're in a car now, browsing the Web with a high-tech device, take advantage of a simple upgrade to access Smell-O-Rama features. Just roll down your window, especially if the honeysuckle is blooming in June. Or - gasp!

  1. stop the car
  2. take a short walk

...preferably in that order.

Where do Virginia roads come from? Some started as animal paths, were used as Native American trails, then were upgraded to wagon roads by the European immigrants. Where do you think those Europeans built their first road?

No, it was not I-95 or the Springfield Interchange, though commuters sometimes think they have been under construction since time began. Remember where European settlement started in Virginia, back in 1607. You can still walk on the first road - at Jamestown. The pavement? Oyster shells, because the Coastal Plain there is offers few rock "exposures" for development as quarry sites. Walk on the green at Colonial Williamsburg, between the Magazine and the old James City County courthouse, and you can see that oyster shells were a common surfacing material in the new capital of the colony, a century after Jamestown.

When it rains on the Coastal Plain, the water doesn't always drain through sandy sediments. General George McClellan discovered in the Spring of 1862 that the dirt roads on the Peninsula would not support the pounding by the feet of massed troops - and the roads degraded quickly into muddy quagmires, after passage of a few wagons and heavy cannons.

In Virginia, Midlothian Turnpike (US 60) in Chesterfield County is reputed to be the first paved road in the state, way back on 1807. However, this claim suggests the Little River Turnpike was not "paved."1

Physical geography shaped where the first animal paths, and then trails, and then roads were constructed. On the Peninsula between Newport News and Richmond, Route 60 follows the watershed divide. However, with the capacity of transportation engineers to build bridges and use heavy equipment to literally move montains, there has been more flexibility in locating modern roads.

Political geography was been a factor in locating I-85, which directs traffic to Petersburg rather than north through the Piedmont. Lynchburg also lost an opportunity to be on I-64, despite the 1959 decision of the state Highway Commission to build the new interstate along the "southern route," the US 460 corridor west from Richmond to Roanoke and then north along the US 220 corridor to Clifton Forge.

The Federal government, which paid 90% of the construction costs for interstates, overruled the state decision (triggering yet another debate at that time about state's rights). The "northern route" had been recommended by a consulting firm, in part because it was 50 miles shorter and thus cost less to build. Nonetheless, Lynchburg politicians thought President Kennedy had altered the state Highway Commission decision because his state campaign manager had requested the route benefit his home town of Charlottesville. Today, Lynchburg is the largest city in Virginia not located on an interstate highway.2

Lynchburg was bypassed by both I-85 and I-64
Lynchburg was bypassed by both I-85 and I-64
Source: Federal Highway Administration, National Highway System - Virginia

Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT)

Where Does Virginia Get $10 Billion for Transportation?

- 2002 Transportation Referendum in Northern Virginia
- 2002 Transportation Referendum in Hampton Roads

Routes of Special Interest

Sprawl in Virginia

initial routes considered for interstate highways (1939)
initial routes considered for interstate highways (1939)
(I-64 and I-66 are not included, so no interstate access to Lynchburg, Charlottesville, or Hampton Roads)
Source: Toll Roads and Free Roads (p.109)


the basic supply/demand problem: growth in Vehicle Miles Travelled vs. increased capacity of highway system, 1982-2004
the basic supply/demand problem: growth in Vehicle Miles Travelled (VMT)
vs. increased capacity of highway system, 1982-2004

Source: National Surface Transportation Infrastructure Financing Commission interim report,
February 1, 2008 (Figure 1: Vehicle Miles Traveled and Capacity)


1. "Historic Firsts in Chesterfield," Chesterfield County, http://www.chesterfield.gov/visitors.aspx?id=3034 (last checked June 5, 2013)
2. "Charlottesville Won, and Lynchburg Lost; Routing of I-64 Was Major Tussle," Richmond Times-Dispatch, June 13, 1999, p.C6

route of proposed toll road for upgrading US 460
route of proposed toll road for upgrading US 460
Source: U.S. Route 460 Corridor Improvements Project

From Feet to Space: Transportation in Virginia
Virginia Places