The road to improving Route 33 is paved with good intentions (if not gold)

Tristan Miller’s Mercury Topaz sits on U.S. Route 33 after it was crushed between two cars in a November 2016 accident. (Photo courtesy of Tristan Miller)

By Jessica Kronzer, contributor

Even Brad Reed, a Virginia Department of Transportation project manager, said driving U.S. Route 33 during rush hour between Harrisonburg and Elkton is a different experience than traveling during the weekend. 

“Speeds tend to be high, traffic volumes are high, congestion is at its highest,” Reed said. “It’s very much a commuter roadway during those mornings and evenings, weekdays. And it can be a rather intimidating roadway when what you’re used to experiencing in the area are lower volume, less congested roadways.”

Aside from Interstate 81, he said it’s the most stressful roadway in the area. Now, the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) is making suggestions to alleviate congestion and address safety issues on a 13-mile section of U.S. 33 between Harrisonburg and Elkton. The stretch proved to have more crashes than expected: 550 crashes in the five-year period from 2015 to 2019.

But, even with loads of public input, approving and paying for the suggested upgrades could be as much as a decade away and would fall to local communities to pay for. 

But, based on the interest VDOT received from two surveys this year about U.S. 33, it’s clearly struck a nerve with people who drive that corridor. The first U.S. 33 survey VDOT launched in February received more responses than any other VDOT corridor survey in the Staunton district. Reed said many comments “mirrored” the issues VDOT observed “through traffic operations analysis and crash history review.” 

A recent follow-up survey, available from Sept. 27 to Oct. 22, gave respondents the chance to provide feedback on proposed changes to Route 33. The survey listed 10 intersections with recommendations to improve the intersections’ safety and mobility. 

Respondents ranked the solutions on a five-star scale, five being the most favorable, and ranked the priority of that intersection. 

An intersection being a high priority for respondents does not mean people approve of VDOT’s proposed recommendations for the area, Reed said. 

Study reveals priority intersections

While the survey found the top issues for drivers was congestion, safety was a close second. 

Many respondents said distracted driving led to traffic problems in that corridor. 

“Behavioral issues are difficult to address through engineering solutions. We can do our best to come up with something that reduces conflict points at an intersection,” Reed said. “But we can’t take a cell phone out of someone’s hand.”

A potential remedy, Reef said, could be additional law enforcement. Other high priority issues were speeding, sudden stops/rear end crashes and a lack of left-turn lanes. 

Some spots on the corridor garnered more comments than others: 15% of comments focused on congestion at the intersection of Route 276 and Crosskeys Road — which respondents rated the second highest priority to address. 

But the proposal for that intersection was particularly controversial: converting it to what’s called a “restricted crossing U-Turn intersection.” 

The change would require people trying to make a left off of the minor street — in this case Crosskeys Road and Indian Trail Road — to make a right turn onto Route 33, then make a U-Turn at another light to return to the same intersection. 

On average, it received 2.57 stars and Reed said the department considers any rating below a three as not well supported. Reed said 53% of responses rated the idea at one or two stars. 

“Eliminating this left turn would create an excessive clog at the new Uturn planned and would add significant delay to our commutes,” a commenter said, according to a VDOT presentation.

He said others were concerned about the safety of U-Turns in general. 

Reed said this scenario illustrates the drawback of having an online survey instead of an in-person meeting because he couldn’t justify the reason for converting the left-turn lane. 

An aim for safety

Accounting for all three intersections, Reed said a restricted crossing U-Turn intersection would reduce crashes by 35% and would reduce traffic by nearly two minutes in the year 2040. 

The top spot respondents cited as having safety issues was the intersection at Penn Laird, which is near Massanutten Produce. The Citizen reported on Tristan Miller’s car accident in that area. A distracted driver rear ended Miller’s car and he sustained injuries including a traumatic brain injury that put him into a coma for three weeks.

Another point Reed said may not have come through in the online survey is that the recommendations are based on what conditions will be like 20 years from now because many of the projects require large federal grants and years of time to complete. 

“There’s a substantial amount of traffic forecasted to be added on the corridor as development occurs, particularly outside the city in the county’s urban development area,” Reed said. “This particular intersection, really just its operations, degrade substantially into the future.” 

Not doing anything could further exacerbate problems created by future development in areas including the intersection of Crosskeys Road at Indian Trail Road. 

Some intersections’ recommendations were well supported, such as the intersection of Rockingham Pike, where Reed said VDOT is recommending offset left-turn lanes and adjusting the flashing arrows. 

Another popular suggestion was improving the turn lane by adding another approach lane on McGaheysville Road. There was a positive response to the idea of adding turn lanes and not re-sorting any movements on Resort Drive as well. 

Next step: find the money 

Reed said Harrisonburg and Rockingham County could seek funding for intersection improvements outside of their local government through several means. 

One typical approach is to apply for a grant through a program called SMART scale. The next cycle of applications open in March and close in June. 

While Harrisonburg would be impacted by changes to Route 33, Reed said Rockingham County would be the primary entity to seek funding through the state or other programs. 

What the localities or county does with these recommendations is out of VDOT’s hands, as some ideas might not pan out because of factors including lack of funding. 

And Reed said even if localities ask for funding for these projects, drivers won’t see major alterations on the ground for eight to 10 years.

Other proposed recommendations involving smaller-scale maintenance, such as signs or changes to crossovers, could happen in the next one-to-three years.

What Reed said isn’t likely affordable would be to widen the corridor. 

“That may not even necessarily address all of the issues, because we have safety issues and operational issues,” Reed said. “So we’re trying to tackle both of those with some targeted, much more cost effective solutions, relative to wholesale widening, to maintain efficient operations on the corridor and try to reduce future crashes.”

Lots of responses

This fall’s follow-up survey drew 916 responses, including those who ranked their preferences for certain solutions as well as 465 typed comments. 

This response is more typical as compared to the overwhelmingly high number of responses on the study’s initial survey in February, Reed said. 

Still, Reed said the online survey garnered more feedback than an in-person meeting, which might have 30 people share their perspective — at most. 

“This is exceptionally high quality feedback,” Reed said. “And I’d say we’re quite happy.”

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