Potential speed limit change for part of Richmond Highway prompts varied reactions


The 7.8-mile stretch of Richmond Highway where VDOT conducted its speed limit study (Credit: VDOT)

The Virginia Department of Transportation’s (VDOT) presentation of results and preliminary recommendations from its Richmond Highway speed limit study led to a flurry of questions and comments from attendees of the July 20 virtual public meeting.

Reaction was strong from several participants who felt the proposed speed limit reduction from 45 mph to 35 mph along just over seven miles of Route 1 between the Beltway interchange and Jeff Todd Way would cause increased vehicle density, more traffic jams, more crashes and increased driver diversion onto residential streets. VDOT’s response to those concerns was that traffic is already slow along that section of the corridor during peak travel times and that setting an appropriate speed limit typically reduces the likelihood of crashes, at least partly due to heightened driver awareness. Based on the data that VDOT officials gathered and analyzed from the Sept. 28 - Oct. 1, 2021 speed study period, they concluded that there would be minimal changes in traffic volume associated with a lower posted speed limit. The agency said it would update the timing of the signal lights to keep traffic flowing while simultaneously incorporating some delays and stops. Driver diversions to other roads aren’t anticipated, said VDOT, though they promised to monitor the issue.

Another subsection of community members expressed concerns that pedestrian safety improvements along the corridor are taking too long and that reducing speed in and of itself won’t be enough to reduce pedestrian deaths — and might even embolden some people to cross the highway in an unsafe manner. VDOT officials assured residents that they are moving as quickly as possible to implement safety improvements but need to abide by certain processes before changes can be made. Noting that the Richmond Highway corridor is becoming increasingly urban, VDOT said they are looking at making further pedestrian safety improvements, some of which will come in conjunction with the highway widening and bus rapid transit projects. VDOT officials also pointed out that driving at reduced speeds increases driver awareness of pedestrians and cyclists, as well as improves survivability of crashes.

Earlier this year, VDOT added two new pedestrian walkways and, more recently, pedestrian signals at the corner of Boswell Avenue and Richmond Highway.

The issue of traffic enforcement came up repeatedly at VDOT’s public meeting, with participants questioning how effective the reduced speed limit would be without sufficient police coverage and because some drivers choose to speed regardless. VDOT said they coordinated the speed limit study with law enforcement and anticipated additional coordination and enforcement efforts to be discussed during the development of an action plan; however, no concrete enforcement plans are currently in place. While some drivers might continue to disregard posted speed limits, doing so in a 35-mph zone may end up resulting in stiffer charges like reckless driving, according to VDOT.

VDOT has proposed keeping the speed limit at 45 mph along Route 1 between Jeff Todd Way and Belvoir Road, the southernmost point in the speed study area, since there is a relatively lower crash rate on that ¾-mile-long segment. Slower highway speeds are preferred, however, by a couple of businesses located right at the intersection of Route 1 and Jeff Todd/Mount Vernon Memorial Highway. Jason Hunt, director of operations at Roy Rogers, said he believes that slower speeds may be better for businesses along Richmond Highway since drivers will take more notice of storefronts. He also tends to see more speeders heading southbound from his vantage point at the corner of Jeff Todd Way.

“From what I've observed, I feel like people naturally slow down at the intersection when they are headed north because the lanes narrow and traffic tends to move slower,” he said. “Where I have seen more dangerous speeds is southbound on Route 1. People regularly fly through the intersection to make it through the light or to show off their cars or for some other reason. I've also noticed more cops and emergency vehicles traveling at high speeds heading southbound rather than northbound.”

Dangerous southbound speeds also were mentioned by Pamela Hess, executive director of Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food and Agriculture, who would like to see the posted speed limit change to 35 mph as far south as the Sharpe Barn Complex — part of the historic Woodlawn property that sits on a side road just south of Jeff Todd Way. Hess cited a couple of recent accidents caused by drivers taking the curve on southbound Route 1 too fast.

“We still haven’t repaired the damage to one set of fencing,” said Hess. She added that one of her big concerns has been people losing control of their vehicles and running over people around the barn complex. “We are planning to develop those barns and as we do, there will need to be traffic slowing down. It would be safer to do that now.”

Southbound Route 1 between Jeff Todd Way and Belvoir Road, with the Sharpe Barn Complex visible on the right

VDOT officials said they are in talks with the City of Alexandria about the possible introduction of a 35-mph speed limit on the northern end of the Route 1 corridor at the Beltway interchange. 

While VDOT does not typically hold public meetings about potential speed limit changes, it did so in the case of the Richmond Highway corridor based on interest from community members, Fairfax County officials and the Fairfax County Department of Transportation. Several participants in VDOT’s virtual forum, including a few representatives from the Mount Vernon Council of Citizens’ Associations (MVCCA), thanked the agency for its initiative and expressed support for its preliminary recommendations.

“Everybody has a right to be able to live and work and play along Richmond Highway, and not just the people who drive through it at 80 mph,” said Pete Sitnick, transportation committee chair for the MVCCA. “All of us need a chance to walk this road and not die.”

Lynn Pascoe, co-chair of MVCAA, agreed about the importance of pedestrian safety and said that most of the concerns voiced about potential increased congestion from lower speeds weren’t borne out by the facts.

“Traffic actually moves better on Route 1 in Alexandria [City], where crosswalks at intersections occur every 400 to 500 feet,” said Pascoe. “Rush hour speed is controlled by the traffic lights, and Alexandria's are well timed. I thought the briefer did an excellent job in explaining this over and over. I especially liked his comment that a decrease in speed limit to 35 mph from 45 mph would add at most 1-1/2 minutes to the commute for the entire distance.”

The general public can provide comments on VDOT’s preliminary recommendations until August 1, 2022. The agency will complete its final speed limit study report and recommendations by fall 2022, with potential implementation of the speed limit change by early 2023.

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