Interstate paved way for county’s growth
One of the most significant advancements in the history of Henrico County barely registered in the mind of Henrico’s top executive at the time, was little more than an afterthought to most county residents and came about thanks in part to one of Virginia’s most storied collegiate rivalries.
Without it, many of the elements that have defined Henrico County for decades – and some that have county officials excited about the future – would not exist.
Today, it is a routine part of daily life for more than 100,000 commuters – an access point that in many ways serves as the lifeblood of a county.
It is Interstate 64, a highway whose alignment through western Henrico was far from a certainty more than 50 years ago, when state officials began considering where to locate it. Their decision to send it through the county ranks No. 9 on the Henrico Citizen’s list of the most significant moments in Henrico’s 400-year history.
Taking a position
Bill LaVecchia had just arrived in Henrico County as a planner in 1959, bringing with him a year of experience as an engineer and assistant manager of Athens, Tenn., and four years of service as the town manager of Blacksburg, Va., where he had attended college at Virginia Polytechnic Institute.
Among the last major endeavors he undertook in Blacksburg was to urge the Virginia State Highway Commission to choose an alignment for the planned Interstate 81 that would bring it closer to Blacksburg, instead of through nearby Christiansburg. The commission was charged with designing routes for the interstates being built in Virginia as part of the Federal Highway Act of 1956, which authorized the construction of more than 40,000 miles of interstate highways in the nation.
LaVecchia’s argument – perhaps hindered by the lukewarm support for it offered by then-VPI president Walter Newman – wasn’t enough to sway the commission, which chose to send I-81 through Christiansburg instead.
Little did LaVecchia realize at the time that the case would prove to be an important learning experience.
When he arrived in Henrico, the same commission was charged with selecting a path for the next leg of Interstate 64. (Portions of the highway already had been constructed east of Richmond, and a stretch that cut through eastern Henrico to Laburnum Avenue recently had been completed.) The commission was considering whether to build the next phase along a southern path – through Chesterfield County, Lynchburg and Roanoke – or a northern one, through western Henrico and Charlottesville.
Although the original plans for the interstate showed it crossing through Henrico, there was a late push by some who favored the southern path. LaVecchia, fresh off the Blacksburg battle, found himself squarely in the midst of a similar one in his new home.
“Lo and behold, it looked like we’re going through the same argument,” LaVecchia recalled. “I went to our county manager, Ed Beck, and asked him what was our position. He said, ‘Well, we don’t have a position.’ I said, ‘You don’t have a position on where an interstate highway is going?’”
Beck theorized that were the interstate to cut a path through Henrico, it would serve as the local version of the Great Wall of China – a divisive, intrusive road that would sever neighborhood streets and choke off familiar travel patterns. He was not alone in his assumption. The interstate system still was very new, and many Americans hadn’t traveled on an interstate yet. Fewer still had the foresight to comprehend how the roads might forever change a region in the decades to come.
“It just didn’t mean much to anybody,” LaVecchia recalled, “because that was mostly country. The interstate didn’t mean much to the average person in Henrico County. I think maybe a lot like Mr. Beck, they just thought it was this great big road that was going to cut through and block their streets.”
But LaVecchia ultimately convinced Beck that I-64 would be an important addition for the county, and for the second time in several years, he went before the commission to argue for his favored path for an interstate. When he finished his comments, one board member looked at him quizzically and said, “You seem awfully familiar to me – have you appeared here on this subject before?”
“What you are recalling is the I-81 case,” LaVecchia told the commissioner, who replied, “Oh – did you win or lose?”
‘It could go either way’
From LaVecchia’s standpoint, the commission did not have a solid opinion one way or the other. “It was sort of like, well, it could go either way as far as they were concerned,” he recalled.
But Chesterfield County didn’t push for the interstate to be routed through its borders. The county, still a fledgling from a governmental standpoint, had very little in the way of planning or public works departments at the time.
On a larger scale, there was a battle underway in the General Assembly between members with ties to Charlottesville – and the University of Virginia – and those with ties to Roanoke and Blacksburg – and Virginia Tech. The former group favored a northern path through Charlottesville; the latter supported a southern path through Chesterfield.
Though the southern route seemed to make the most sense generally, the fact that more politicians had UVA connections ultimately may have helped sway the commission’s decision in favor of the northern route, according to University of Richmond economics professor George Hoffer, a Henrico resident since 1950.
“Interstate 64 is the unheralded hero of Henrico’s growth in the latter third of the past century,” Hoffer said. “Logically, the highway should have taken the southern route through Chesterfield, Route 460, Lynchburg and Roanoke. But it didn’t because the UVA crowd won out.
“Henricoans have got to thank the long-gone politicians who were UVA-centric in the late ‘50s. We clearly were the winners as the result of that decision.”
Henrico is one of two Virginia counties that maintain their own roads, and officials wisely used that power to construct roads such as Glenside Drive, Parham Road and Laburnum Avenue that ultimately would shuttle commuters in the county to and from the new interstate, Hoffer said.
“The county had the foresight of building major arterials to access 64,” Hoffer said. “Virtually all the differential growth between Henrico and Chesterfield is due to I-64.”
The 64 question
At its busiest section in Henrico County – a two-mile stretch near Glenside Drive and West Broad Street – I-64 served an average of 109,000 cars a day in 2009, the most recent year for which VDOT data is available. Daily traffic for the other Henrico portions of I-64 west of I-95 ranged between 54,000 to 96,000, according to VDOT.
“I don’t think you can overemphasize the impact that it’s had on Henrico over time and also going forward,” said Gary McLaren, the executive director of the Henrico County Economic Development Authority. “There’s an old saying in real estate, that it’s location, location, location, and that really means access, access, access.”
Henrico prides itself on its residential-to-commercial property ratio of roughly 70 percent to 30 percent. (By comparison, Chesterfield is closer to 80 percent residential and 20 percent commercial.) The larger corporate tax base provides a solid base of revenue that helps fund the governmental services required by residents and businesses and also helps keep residential taxes low.
The existence of I-64 “absolutely” has contributed to that ratio in the half-century since the interstate began to take shape, McLaren said. I-64 opened the West End to residents of Richmond and Hanover as well, Hoffer said, and set in motion the retail bonanza in the county that today accounts for more than 40 percent of all retail sales in the metro Richmond region. It also set the stage for the Innsbrook Corporate Center and rapid hotel growth in the West End.
So how would the county look today had I-64 been built through Chesterfield instead?
“I think it would look much different,” McLaren said. “It would tend to be much more residential and have less of a business base. We wouldn’t be able to enjoy the lower tax rate we enjoy today.”
Without an interstate to carry traffic through western Henrico, Hoffer theorized that West Broad Street would have taken on a major arterial look (expanded to serve more traffic, but perhaps hopelessly gridlocked anyway). Lacking I-64, the county might have had to fund and construct a lesser road to serve the same purpose, LaVecchia said – though it may not have been able to afford such a luxury.
Though Henrico has benefitted substantially from the presence of I-64, Lynchburg lost out on an opportunity it may have deserved, Hoffer said. The northern alignment not only isolated Lynchburg, which today is one of the largest cities in the nation without interstate access, but it also robbed Virginia of more federally funded interstate mileage, Hoffer said. That’s because I-64, as constructed, runs with I-81 for some 30 miles or so, whereas the two highways would have been separate had I-64 taken the southern route.
“I’ve thought that for 20, 25 years that the major difference between Henrico and Chesterfield is that the UVA legislators won,” Hoffer said. “Virginia as a commonwealth was a loser, but Henrico became the real winner.”
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Feb. 16, 2017Click here to read the print edition.
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