Over the past three decades, one of the narratives in this part of the state has been the desire to draw the Roanoke and New River valleys closer together.
If it were possible to move Christiansburg Mountain, some people surely would.
Instead, we’ve seen a series of efforts to bring the two valleys closer together, at least economically, on the very sound theory that we should be promoting the region as Roanoke-Blacksburg in the same way that there is Raleigh-Durham.
Reduced to the bare essentials, the thinking is this: The Roanoke Valley has the population center and the airport; the New River Valley has, well, Virginia Tech.
So that’s where the original impetus for the so-called “smart road” came from back in 1986, when it was intended as a shorter route between Roanoke and Blacksburg.
Since then we’ve had the Virginia Tech Foundation acquire the Hotel Roanoke and the creation of the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine and Research Institute, both of which gave Tech a bigger presence in Roanoke.
The airport is now the Roanoke-Blacksburg Regional Airport and the organization for the technology community is the Roanoke-Blacksburg Technology Council. Some business leaders would like to go further, and merge the two valley’s economic development organizations into a single entity (which seems a much heavier lift, given the politics involved) to do more energetic marketing of the “Roanoke-Blacksburg” market.
All this is what community leaders are doing. Meanwhile, every day, thousands of ordinary people “vote with their feet,” to use the phrase popularized by Ronald Reagan.
In this case, the foot that is applied to the accelerator.
The Census Bureau recently released new statistics on commuting patterns, and they tell us a lot about how the economy in this part of the state really works.
More people from the New River Valley commute to the Roanoke Valley every day than the other way around. That’s not surprising, but perhaps the trend lines are.
Since 2002, the number of people commuting from New River to Roanoke has declined by 8 percent, or 806 people. Twelve years ago, 10,031 people commuted every day from New River to Roanoke. Now, 9,225 do. Whether that’s a big change or just statistical noise, well, you can decide for yourself. But consider this:
Since 2002, the number of people commuting from Roanoke to New River has increased by nearly 59 percent, or 1,856 people – to 5,004. Put together, that would seem to suggest one thing: The New River Valley now has a more vibrant job market than it did.
Here’s a telling number. Let’s look at job growth in each valley since the last recession. Employment bottomed out in the New River Valley in January 2010. Since then, the number of jobs there has grown by 13.4 percent. By contrast, employment in the Roanoke Valley bottomed out in February 2010 and since then has grown at a rate of 8.4 percent.
The Roanoke Valley has added more jobs, but the New River Valley has grown at a faster rate.
In any case, this much is clear: The difference between the number of commuters headed north on Interstate 81 each morning and the number headed south is narrowing. There’s still a big difference, but not as big as before.
A dozen years ago, there were 10,031 people from the New River Valley commuting to Roanoke and 3,148 headed the other way. Now it’s 9,225 headed to Roanoke and 5,004 headed to New River.
If that rate of change continues, then by 2026 the figures will be almost even.
Of course, there’s never any guarantee that the universe will continue on as it has – the economy is being disrupted almost daily. Still, as a thought experiment, what does that tell us about the future of the region?
And, of course, there’s the population trend we’ve been watching for some time now: Montgomery County is almost as big as Roanoke (the city, not the whole Roanoke Valley). At some point – perhaps in the 2020 census, perhaps a little after – Montgomery County will become the most populous locality west of the Blue Ridge.
There’s another Venn diagram we need to draw, though, and it’s one that doesn’t get nearly as much attention as the Roanoke-Blacksburg one. That’s the Roanoke-Lynchburg one.
More people commute from Lynchburg to Roanoke than commute from New River to Roanoke – 13,316 from Lynchburg vs. 9,225 from New River. Just as the New River commuters have declined over the years, so, too, have the Lynchburg commuters – down 809, or 5.7 percent, since 2002.
Meanwhile, the number of people commuting from Roanoke to Lynchburg has increased – up 572, or 15.6 percent in the same time. That’s nowhere close to the rate-of-increase of those headed to New River, but it’s an increase, nonetheless.
Of course, there are still a lot more people headed to Roanoke than to Lynchburg – 13,316 Lynchburgers come here for work every day, while 4,227 Roanokers go there. Still, it’s useful to point out this: Almost as many people commute from Roanoke to Lynchburg as commute from Roanoke to New River.
The trendline, though, is toward New River. A dozen years ago, more people from Roanoke drove to Lynchburg to work than drove to New River. At some point between 2005 and 2010 that switched. And, as we’ve seen, that Roanoke-to-New River traffic is increasing at a much faster rate than the Roanoke-to-Lynchburg traffic.
For those promoting a Roanoke-Blacksburg market, these trends are “the facts on the ground.” There are thousands of economic links every day between the two valleys, and they’re growing.
On the other hand, perhaps Roanoke shouldn’t blindly close its eyes toward the metro area to our east. If and when Roanoke thinks of Lynchburg at all, it’s usually as a competitor. Its airport sometimes boasts lower fares than ours, so we lose air traffic there. And, of course, there was the famous boast last year from the Hill City’s vice mayor when the Commonwealth Games moved to Liberty University: “You got Lynchburged.” Still, it’s hard to ignore the everyday economic facts borne out in these commuting patterns.
Here’s the big one, though: If fewer people from both Lynchburg and New River are commuting here, and more people are now commuting there, perhaps that’s a pretty clear sign that those communities now have more jobs – or that maybe the Roanoke Valley needs more.