A pedestrian crosses Route 1. Photo by AnneBPhoto on Flickr.

The US Department of Defense has approved a $180 million plan to widen Richmond Highway in Fairfax County. The proposal is unlikely to reduce traffic over the long term. It’s more likely to harm the community character, degrade historic sites, and make traffic worse.

Moving so many jobs to Fort Belvoir, far from effective transit, was a mistake in the first place. Unfortunately, that decision is out of local hands. But rather than impose an ineffective and undesirable highway, DoD and Fairfax County need to find a more creative way to address the area’s congestion.

Communities along Route 1 have long fought to revitalize the corridor. The current plan, however, would turn Richmond Highway into such an expressway that it would make revitalization along its sides difficult. It would divide rather than knit together the two sides of Route 1.

Expanding the road would also harm adjacent historic sites like Woodlawn Plantation and the Woodlawn Baptist Church. It risks repeating the scale and sterility of the massive 10-lane expanse of pavement that already exists around historic Pohick Church to the south.

Lanes and other elements can be narrower

Even if the number of lanes grows, the highway doesn’t need to be so wide. The current proposal for the southern portion of the project, from Telegraph Road to the new Mulligan Road, is for a whopping 148 foot-wide cross-section. That’s enormous. It includes a 32-foot median reserved for future transit and overly-wide, highway-scaled lanes that are up to 14 feet across.

Several components of the highway could be a more reasonable scale without reducing the number of road lanes. Doing so would be more appropriate for the area, and would better accommodate other modes. Many arterial streets in the DC region have lanes of 11 or 12 feet wide. There is no reason why the lanes on Route 1 need to be so much wider.

It is commendable that the DoD plan designated land specifically for rapid transit in the future, but DoD and Virginia should go further. They should include transit in a dedicated right-of-way as a core component of the proposal. This could use existing buses right away. Perhaps the transit lanes could replace the new third lane of the highway in each direction.

Walking, biking, carpooling and living on post can all reduce traffic

Addressing the traffic generated by Fort Belvoir requires a comprehensive solution, including transit, bike and pedestrian access, as well as creative solutions specific to the military base.

Although it’s true that many workers will commute to the base from too far away to walk or bike, the current plan would force even those who live nearby to get in their cars. That’s a mistake.

While the plan appropriately includes a bike path and sidewalk, the width and speed of the road would discourage walking and biking. It would be so difficult and dangerous to cross such a wide road that few people would ever try. Furthermore, if the entrances to the fort are not designed with bicyclists and pedestrians in mind, it is even less likely that the paths would be used.

DoD should take advantage of Fort Belvoir’s status as a military complex to reduce traffic congestion. One way to do this would be greater use of federal transit benefits and carpooling. For example, DoD could design parking policies with strong incentives for carpooling, especially for those with regular work schedules.

Fort Belvoir should continue to maximize opportunities for soldiers and their families to live on post. The base has earned praise and awards for its “new urbanist” military housing, and should expand those communities. This would reduce single-occupant vehicle demand and allow for a reduced number of through and turn-lanes, particularly in the areas most endangered by the current plan.

Narrowing the road in this manner, while maintaining the number of through lanes, would make the road more manageable for non-automobile modes, without disrupting car traffic too much. A narrower road would be safer, would reduce the necessity to take land from historic sites, and could potentially move more people, by converting car trips to other modes.

It is important that DoD and Fairfax County consider all options before hastily widening Route 1. The changes coming to Fort Belvoir are significant, but turning a community’s main street into a through highway is not the answer.