Virginia’s top transportation official on Sept. 30 declined the Rappahannock County Board of Supervisors’ appeal that he reconsider reducing the speed limit on a U.S. Route 211 corridor in Sperryville near an entrance to Shenandoah National Park that’s been home to more than two dozen crashes in recent years.
The response arrived just weeks after the supervisors sent to his office a letter requesting that he and other state officials rethink the findings of a July speed study that concluded reductions to the speed limit and changes to lanes were both unnecessary along the stretch of road.
Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) Commissioner Stephen Brich noted in his letter, obtained by the Rappahannock News, that the agency is required by state law to only change posted speed limits when an engineering investigation recommends doing so. VDOT has conducted four studies along the same stretch of road since 1999, but no changes were ever recommended.
Just days before Brich corresponded with the Board of Supervisors, another serious crash transpired on Sept. 26 close to the corridor when a driver was traveling west on Route 211 and attempted to make a left turn onto Route 522, colliding with another driver, according to the Virginia State Police. While one of the vehicles was flipped upside down as a result of the collision, nobody was injured and speed was said to not be a cause.
“VDOT shares the County's desires for a safe and efficient gateway to the Village of Sperryville, as well as the Shenandoah National Park,” Brich wrote, but wouldn’t authorize reducing the corridor’s speed limit from 45 mph to 35 mph and marking the segment of the road a no passing zone between restaurants Off the Grid and Sperryville Trading Cafe and Market as the supervisors requested.
The commissioner reiterated the July study’s findings that most of the crashes along the segment over the past five years haven’t been related to speed, and that the agency’s analysis shows most travel was at or just above the posted 45 mph limit, “which further supports the posted speed,” he wrote.
Of the 27 total crashes recorded within the study segment over the past five years, only five were found to be the result of drivers exceeding the posted speed limit, according to the study. Of those, two involved DUI drivers. Many of the other collisions involved drivers crashing off-road or into wild animals. Crashes in recent years have resulted in two fatalities and seven injuries, though the study doesn’t indicate their severity.
As for the no passing zone, Brich said that available sight distance for the zone along Route 211 between Off the Grid and Sperryville Trading exceeds the minimum requirements in both directions. He noted that the study found within the past five years, only two crashes happened in the passing zone, with neither deemed related to passing.
“Removing passing zones that have ample passing distance, as well as adequate sight distance, often encourages unsafe maneuvers such as passing in no passing zones,” Brich wrote. “VDOT has observed risky behaviors of illegal passing along this segment of Route 211 while conducting our engineering investigations. The Culpeper District Traffic Engineering team will continue to monitor this segment of Route 211, as has been done since 2000, for any operational changes.”
The demand for changes along the corridor has become practically a consensus among the Board of Supervisors, with Piedmont Supervisor Christine Smith, whose district is located within the segment, Hampton Supervisor Keir Whitson and Chair Wakefield District Supervisor Debbie Donehey all vocally in opposition to VDOTs rulings.
Some are concerned that the autumn “leaf season,” where visitors come to the national park in droves to admire the vibrant foliage, is upon us, creating an increased sense of urgency surrounding the matter, while VDOT representatives maintain that their data doesn’t seem to indicate an uptick in crashes during the fall months.
Residents and businesses owners in the area have also demanded that VDOT take steps to reduce the speed, citing anecdotal sightings of near misses that have made them concerned with the posted limit.
The supervisors had hoped appealing the study’s findings would apply the necessary pressure on VDOT to amend its decision, much like when the agency changed its ruling on whether to prohibit truck traffic on Ben Venue Road in Flint Hill. But now that VDOT emphatically denied the appeal, the supervisors have fewer tools left in their kit to get changes made.
“I do not know what we’re going to do and where we’re going to go next,” Whitson said. “It’s a maddening bureaucratic process when, on the one hand, VDOT is so quick to react to local issues and to solve problems, then on a big question like speed reductions in a village that has increasing commercial activity, they seem to go out of their way to find reasons not to make a change.”
On Tuesday, Smith asked the Rappahannock County Public Safety Committee to have its chair, Sean Polster, write a letter to VDOT on behalf of the body asking the agency to reconsider the findings in an effort to apply further pressure. The action was approved unanimously.
The Board of Supervisors are also considering installing digital speed display signs along the corridor that will ping drivers’ speeds for them to see in real-time in hopes that it will encourage some to slow down.
The signs will also be equipped to collect data that can provide long-term speed metrics, rather than the much smaller sample VDOT collects when conducting speed studies over the course of just a few days. Members hope that data collected independently could be leveraged with the agency for it to potentially budge.
“I understand where [the commissioner] is coming from, and those are the guidelines that VDOT abides by … It’s a challenging area because there is a large amount of traffic that flows through that very small corridor,” Smith said. “We just want to stay on top of it and continue to furnish information to VDOT as things become available.” She asked that the body seek public feedback on the signs at its November meeting.
The Board of Supervisors on Monday also voted to pursue grant money to conduct additional independent speed studies in both Sperryville and Flint Hill. Donehey hopes those studies, if done, could reveal potential information that VDOT didn’t uncover.
“It’s in [the commissioner’s] purview to make a statement like that until proven otherwise,” Donehey said. “I just hope it doesn’t take a death or a much more serious accident to get their attention.”