backup on 220

Southbound traffic on U.S. 220 in the Tanglewood area at 3:39 p.m. on Thursday. The queues get even longer around evening rush hour.

Have you taken a rush-hour ride south of Roanoke down U.S. 220 recently? If so, you deserve some sympathy. The evening backups southbound have been growing longer and longer.

Jeff and Rita Krasnow, who live in southern Roanoke County, are among the drivers who’ve noticed. On May 30, they drove north into town around dinnertime and passed Valley Avenue. That’s the traffic signal/intersection where Lowe’s and Home Deport stand on opposite sides of the highway.

“We noticed that shortly before 6 [p.m.] the southbound traffic was backed up 95 percent of the way to Wonju Avenue,” Jeff Krasnow wrote me in an email. The distance is roughly 1.5 miles. When we later talked, Krasnow confirmed there was no accident in the southbound lanes that could have been responsible.

He added that as of late, he also regularly sees southbound traffic backed up beyond the Tanglewood overpass between 2 and 4 p.m.

“I am no traffic expert but it seems to me that adjusting the light sequence [on 220] could significantly reduce this problem,” Krasnow said.

Thursday, I went out there to look for myself. At 3:39 p.m., traffic on 220 southbound was backed up from the Valley Avenue signal almost to Electric Road. Past that signal, the traffic flowed smoothly. It seemed like the bottleneck was the Valley Avenue light.

On Friday, I contacted the city of Roanoke and the Virginia Department of Transportation to find out what’s going on.

“We certainly hear about that issue periodically,” said Mark Jamison, Roanoke’s transportation manager. “Clearly there’s some capacity issues on 220.” He referred further questions to VDOT, which is responsible for the signalization.

VDOT is aware as well, said Jason Bond, the agency’s Salem district spokesman. In fact, VDOT spent $422,000 this year for what engineers hoped would be a fix.

Those changes came in February, when the agency installed something Bond called “an adaptive signal system.” That involves cameras and computers linked to three signals: Valley Avenue, Crossbow Circle (at the Kohl’s entrance) and Old Rocky Mount Road (near Outback Steakhouse).

Call it traffic-flow management via artificial intelligence, if you will.

“It detects vehicles and spacing. It collects that data. The signals are all linked together in real time,” Bond said. “It does adapt to the real-time conditions.”

But it hasn’t solved the problem, Krasnow said. If anything, southbound backups seem worse since February.

Ken King, the Salem District engineer, said the issue is complicated, but it boils down to a capacity problem — there’s too much traffic on U.S. 220. In part, backups are caused by the signal at Valley Avenue, by new traffic heading to and from the development on Slate Hill, and by “choke-point” signals on Electric Road near Tanglewood Mall that prevent drivers from easily exiting the highway.

Bond said the agency is undertaking additional actions that in the longer term could bring significant improvements.

First, there’s a study now underway called the Route 220 Arterial Preservation Plan. Its emphasis is on traffic signals, and it will examine each one along U.S. 220 between Electric Road and Virginia’s border with North Carolina. That’s a distance of just under 65 miles.

It could result in changing traffic patterns at problem signals, Bond said, or adding acceleration lanes in particular areas “to see if it could increase the efficiency of the intersections.” The study will wrap up in late summer or early fall, Bond said.

But additional lanes on the stretch between Electric Road and Old Rocky Mount Road are problematic because there are a number of businesses close to the highway on both sides of the road.

VDOT will hold a public meeting for the Route 220 Arterial Preservation Plan later in the summer, Bond said. He couldn’t give me a date because it hasn’t been formally scheduled.

Second, VDOT’s working with Roanoke County planners on a “smart-scale” application to reconfigure the interchange at Electric Road and U.S. 220, Bond said. One item they’re considering is a “diverging diamond” interchange, Bond added.

The Roanoke Valley sports one of those now, where Valley View Boulevard crosses over Interstate 581 near Valley View Mall. It seems to work. Another diverging diamond interchange opened in December in the New River Valley, along U.S. 460 at the Southgate Road entrance to Virginia Tech.

VDOT calls this kind of interchange “an innovative design that crosses traffic to the left side of the road” and increases safety while moving “a higher volume of vehicles without increasing the number of lanes.”

The application for that is due Aug. 1, Bond said. The earliest it could conceivably be added to VDOT’s six-year plan is July 1, 2019. Even then, however, money for the project likely wouldn’t come until later.

“It would likely be funded further out because the six-year program is full right now,” Bond noted.

And that portends more years of backups in the Tanglewood area. It sounds like we better get used to them — or plan some detours during the evening rush.

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Dan Casey knows a little bit about a lot of things but not a heck of a lot about most things. That doesn't keep him from writing about them, however. So keep him honest!

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