Roads vote helped county shape its destiny

Parham Road is one of the county’s first main secondary roads.
Nearly 80 years ago, in one of the most important elections in Henrico County’s history, voters cast their ballots without electing anyone to office.

But their decision that day – one that passed by a margin of 1,842 votes to 1,132 – helped change the course of Henrico’s future by making it unique among nearly all other Virginia localities in one very critical way.

The vote authorized Henrico to opt out of the newly created state-operated road maintenance program, which was implemented in 1932 as part of the Byrd Act to relieve localities of such maintenance duties. At the time, nearly all Virginia localities opted to give up the control of their secondary road systems to the state. But Henrico voters did not, and the county’s landscape today is due in large part to their decision – even if they may not have been able to predict that at the time.

“I don’t think anybody could have foreseen how important it would be 70, 80 years later,” said Harvey Hinson, a longtime Henrico administrator who retired as a deputy county manager several years ago.

That decision ranks No. 8 on the Henrico Citizen’s list of the most significant events in Henrico’s 400-year history.

Today, the county’s Public Works department maintains more than 1,300 miles of county roadways (all roads in the county that do not carry a route number) with quarterly payments of about $3 million apiece from the state. Arlington County is the only other in Virginia that opted out of the state program in 1932 and has remained out.

So while other counties must present their roadway requests to VDOT officials and convince them of their needs – a process that is subject to state studies and funding and one that typically takes years – Henrico has no such bureaucratic tape to cut through. It can decide how to spend its money immediately.

By eliminating that state influence, Henrico gave itself a head start on development – and a competitive advantage over other localities, according to University of Richmond economics professor George Hoffer.

“What it did is that it gave us the flexibility that virtually no other county in Virginia had, to avoid the bureaucracy – and, if you had people with some foresight – the ability to put the resources where they could do the most good,” said Hoffer, a local transportation expert and a Henrico resident since 1950.

A prime example of the impact that flexibility provided Henrico occurred in the mid-1990s, when Motorola and Siemens were seeking a location to build a giant semiconductor facility. The companies sought a quick turnaround time for their project but required a significant site with infrastructure in place.

Henrico’s Elko Tract in Sandston satisfied their requirements but was miles from utility connections and had no roads. Constructing parkways and running water and sewer lines across empty fields and through wooded acres might have taken several years to complete through VDOT and other state agencies – too long for the companies. But since Henrico could control those elements, time was not an issue. The county spent $43 million to complete the effort in less than a year, and the semiconductor facility brought several thousand new jobs with it.

“Henrico’s in a position. . . to sit down in a meeting with that prospect and begin the meeting by saying, ‘All of your questions are going to be answered in this room. You don’t have to leave here to get your questions answered,’” Hinson said. “It puts you in a whole different light with someone who you’re discussing a major investment with in your county.”

That’s the type of economic development victory county officials might not have been able to imagine in the 1930s and ‘40s. But by the time Bill LaVecchia arrived in Henrico in 1959 – rounding out a four-person planning department – county officials were starting to grasp the ways in which controlling their own roads could serve future growth.

“I think they were beginning to see how it could,” recalled LaVecchia, who spent more than three decades with the county, retiring in 1992 after eight years as county manager.

In 1959, then-County Manager Ed Beck told county administrators of his vision for Henrico.

“He said, ‘We are a bedroom county for the city of Richmond. I want us to be a county that’s standing on its own two feet,’” LaVecchia said. “So we started planning our land use plan and industrial areas based on roads that we had and roads that we were planning. Every time we put a [road] on that land use plan, we were looking for how that corridor would provide us with more commercial and industrial growth. In 1959, 1960, we were beginning to lay the framework for the county that has grown all up to the present time.

“It’s next to impossible to control where growth is going, in either a city or county. But in Henrico, since they maintain and plan and control their roads, they are able to control their own destiny pretty well. Without those roads, most of these big developments that have occurred in Henrico County just would not be able to happen.”

Among those roads are many of the most frequently traveled in the county: Parham Road, Laburnum Avenue, Glenside Drive, Hilliard Road, Ridgefield Parkway, John Rolfe Parkway, Gaskins Road, Gayton Road.

For years, Henrico officials have lobbied the General Assembly to increase the rate of reimbursement that Henrico receives for its road maintenance. State code designated that any county larger than 100 square miles that chose to maintain its own road would be paid at a lower rate than any county smaller than 100 square miles. As a result, Arlington historically has received nearly twice as much state funding per lane mile as Henrico. In the current fiscal year, Henrico receives $9,101 per lane mile – or about $12 million, divided into quarterly payments – while Arlington receives $16,121 per lane mile.

Henrico, in fact, receives less per lane mile for its entire road system – including principal roads and minor arterial roads – than the state budgets for VDOT’s maintenance of small collector roads and local streets elsewhere in the state ($10,087).

A 2008 study by the General Assembly found that designating Henrico as an urban locality would cost the state an additional $8 million annually – more money than was available in the budget.

Despite apparently being short-changed by the state for years, Henrico has managed to thrive under the system anyway.

The most recent evidence will become apparent to citizens soon, as Henrico builds a $40-million intersection for Gayton Road at I-64 in the West End. The project, funded by a bond referendum, is the latest example of the county’s ability to address a transportation issue on its own, rather than having to wait for state help.

“Being more responsive to citizens, being able to put the roads in in a timely manner and being able to control the entire scheme, have been the critical elements in this balanced growth,” Hoffer said. “All of these roads have either nipped the congestion before it started or gotten control of it in a reasonable time.”
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