"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.)
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.
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!
...preferably in that order.
three routes were considered in 1889 for the proposed highway connecting Aqueduct Bridge to Mount Vernon
Source: US Army Corps of Engineers, Capital Engineers: The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the Development of Washington, D.C. 1790-2004 (p.129)
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 there is oyster shells. On the Coastal Plain, there are few rock "exposures" for development as quarry sites, unlike the basalt at the surface in different locations within the Triassic basins. People walking on the green at Colonial Williamsburg, between the Magazine and the old James City County courthouse, will observe that oyster shells were a common surfacing material in the new capital of the colony. A century after Jamestown was started, the most-common material used for surfacing a road was still oyster shells.
Some sort of hard surface is necessary for roads built on the Coastal Plain. Rainwater is trapped by lenses of clay within the sediments; the Cretaceous sediments are not just sandy particles that drain quickly. Wagon wheels cut deeply into the soft ground, and muddy roads after rainstorms can quickly become impassible if not surfaced with some sort of hard material.
Road quality affected Civil War battles. 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. The roads degraded quickly into muddy quagmires, after passage of a few wagons and heavy cannons, slowing his march up the Peninsula.
Few large battles were fought in Virginia between November-May, because generals normally waited for the roads to dry out. In January 1863, General Burnside planned a rare winter offensive, trying to convince President Lincoln that he was agressive enough to be retained as commander of the Army of the Potomac despite the disastrous failure a month earlier at Fredericksburg.
January rains, the pounding of soldiers' feet, and the weight of artillery pulled by horses quickly converted Stafford County roads into mudpits. Triple teams of mules, and 150 men pulling ropes to move loads, were not able to overcome the weather and road conditions. Confederates south of the Rappahannock River posted signs saying "Burnside stuck in the mud," the attack was cancelled before fighting started, and the Mud March went into the history books.1
in the 1800's, only a few Virginia roads such as the Valley Turnpike had a rock surface that was good enough to allow travel after a rain (and thus worth the cost of a toll)
Source: National Park Service, The Valley Turnpike Company
during the Civil War, planks were removed from Long Bridge over the Potomac River (parallel to the railroad bridge) to prevent Confederate raids into Washington
Source: The Photographic History of the Civil War, Political Objectives - Washington (p.123)
this 1862 bridge across the Chickahominy River indicates the quality of quickly-constructed river crossings during wartime
Source: The Photographic History of the Civil War, The Retrograde Crossing (p.320)
In Virginia, Midlothian Turnpike (US 60) in Chesterfield County is reputed to be the first paved road in the state, way back on 1807. The Little River Turnpike, connecting Alexandria to the base of the Blue Ridge in Loudoun County, was another early road to get a hard surface.2
Physical geography shaped where the first animal paths, and then trails, and then roads were constructed. Physical geography still constrains transportation choices. Gaps through the mountains and narrow spots in rivers affect the cost of constructing/widening roads. Narrow valleys with many curves require low speed limits on two-lane highways in the Appalachian Plateau, in contrast to narrow-but-straight two-lane highways on the Coastal Plain.
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.
two tunnels were included in the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel design, to ensure Navy warships would always have access to and from Hampton Roads
Source: National Archives, A starboard view of the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS ABRAHAM LINCOLN (CVN 72) underway. The LINCOLN has just passed the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and Tunnel (1990)
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.3
Lynchburg was bypassed by both I-85 and I-64
Source: Federal Highway Administration, National Highway System - Virginia
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)
farmers carried agricultural products to markets over dirt roads and occasionally rock-covered turnpikes, and Virginia pursued a pay-as-you-go fiscal strategy that delayed paving key roads in rural areas until the 1950's
Source: Library of Congress, Sixth Street market, Richmond, VA (1908)
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)
route of proposed toll road for upgrading US 460
Source: U.S. Route 460 Corridor Improvements Project
the Federal government requires communities with at least 50,000 people to coordinate transportation planning through Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPO's), and with Transportation Management Area's (TMA's) for communities with at least over 200,000 people
Source: Federal Highway Administration, HEPGIS