It’s Not A Roundabout But Traffic Flows Smoothly At New Intersection

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New intersection turning left into the airport.
New intersection turning left into the airport.

by Valerie Garner

It took seven years of negotiations with city councils, administrators, the airport commission, VDOT, city engineers, and local merchants but finally there is relief for motorists navigating oddly constructed access roads out of Town Square Shopping Center and into the Roanoke Regional Airport.

After all the wrangling between the various entities it took less than a year for Roanoke’s Branch and Associates to complete the intersection. The process involved giving a little here and a little there and ultimately all parties gave a little land and money including Sam’s, Kroger’s and Kimco Realty.

Originally the intersection was slated to be a roundabout. On May 4, 2009 City Council was ready to give the go-ahead for a “roundabout.” Then it stalled with the realization that connecting one way to Aviation Drive would require closure of Thirlane Road. The closing of Thirlane was quickly dismissed by local businesses.

But the Airport Commission kept pushing for a two-lane roundabout. Mark Jamison, the city’s traffic engineer thought residents who were not accustom to a roundabout would be confused. He feared traffic would queue up back into Sam’s and Kroger’s with everyone using the outside lane for fear of missing one of five exits.

In a September 2008 joint meeting with the Airport Commission members “Fuzzy” Minnix said, “don’t sell the Virginia drivers short … we’re as smart as the French, aren’t we?”

This brought to mind a scene from the movie European Vacation where Clark Griswald drives his family endlessly around England’s busy Lambeth Bridge roundabout for hours, unable to maneuver his way out.

The Airport Commission in 2008 brought in a roundabout consultant trying to sell the idea while promoting its safety aspect. An attractive landscaped roundabout for Roanoke visitors would be an added bonus. Chairman  Jay Turner, Jr. stressed that the airport was the gateway to Roanoke and needed to be “easy to use, easily marked, and aesthetically pleasing.”

Granger MacFarlane haggled with then City Manager Darlene Burcham asking her “what are you expecting … money or land?” Burcham replied, “whatever you are willing to put on the table.”

On Monday all the years of indecision were over. “The nice thing about this project is that it is funded from a lot of different sources … the people that are affected want it,” said Salem’s VDOT district administrator, Richard Caywood.

The total cost of the project was $2 million with $1,032,000 coming from VDOT. The city’s portion of the cost was $722,000. Kroger’s, Sam’s and the airport supplied the rest.

Caywood explained that from a common-sense standpoint the intersection is not only fixing the airport entrance and exit from Town Square but it is solving the traffic backup at Rutgers onto Hershberger and the congested ramp where motorists try to make a left to get to Valley View Mall. It is a two for one traffic solution.

“The whole area circulates better,” he said.

This is especially true during the holidays. This holiday will be different if people remember that the new intersection is there. Traffic was heavy at the intersection during Monday’s press conference as Mayor David Bowers spoke over motor noise while standing in the overflow airport parking lot.

After the press conference Caywood said that the Elm Avenue exit redesign would start with some fieldwork at the end of 2012. They have the “design/build” firm selected from three finalists but he was not ready to announce the successful bidder. Actual construction of the $40 to $50 million part stimulus funded project won’t begin until 2013.

At the same time construction will begin on the Valley View Interchange. “These two projects will definitely overlap,” said Caywood. There will be some impact to traffic flow especially as the ramps at Hershberger Road are connected to the new ramps at Valley View that will create four lanes between the two interchanges. “There are not many interchanges around that connect like this,” said Caywood.