HAMPTON, Va. (WAVY) — This time next year, drivers who use the two Interstate 64 eastbound on-ramps closest to the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel may be forced to find another way during the afternoon rush.
On Wednesday night, Hampton City Council voted 6-1 to support an idea from the Virginia Department of Transportation that’ll close both the on-ramps coming from Mallory Street and Settlers Landing Road from 3-6 p.m. daily until the HRBT expansion project is completed.
VDOT officials hope closing the ramps will deter drivers from unnecessarily interrupting the flow of traffic on the highway as two major parts of the expansion project begin to ramp up. In City Hall, the hope is city streets will be less clogged with drivers just looking to avoid the delays.
Hampton City Council’s blessing gives VDOT the go-ahead to submit an application for the temporary ramp closures with the Federal Highway Administration who will have the final say.
City Manager Mary Bunting said if the FHWA signs off on the plan, closures wouldn’t occur before mid-2022. However, that’s only if they don’t find another option that works better for the community and keeps the ramps open.
Heavy traffic heading east on I-64 is one of the major reasons behind the HRBT expansion. Most afternoons, traffic moves well below the speed limit from N. King Street to Norfolk.
In an effort to avoid the delays, many drivers openly admit they get off the interstate and use city streets until they re-enter the highway at either Settlers Landing Road or Mallory Street.
Robert Dax Belleza, who works for the U.S. Army out of Ft. Eustis, said he and his co-workers take one of those routes daily on their way home to Virginia Beach.
“We do save a lot of time, absolutely,” Belleza said.
Many other drivers think the same way. Traffic going to the Mallory Street on-ramp often backs up east toward the Phoebus business district, and west and north on Franklin Boulevard, Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, and even Emancipation Drive.
The result: clogged traffic at both Hampton University and the Hampton VA Medical Center.
A homeowner who spoke in front of City Council said for the Settlers Landing Road on-ramp, the traffic makes it impossible to access driveways on Woodland Road.
Joseph Griffith, who is a Phoebus neighborhood commissioner, said the historic community is sick of it. He cited a survey the neighborhood conducted that found 85% of residents and business owners support the ramp closures.
He said increased traffic isn’t helpful for the small businesses, as most drivers are simply cutting through. Rather, he said it hinders customers from coming and creates safety hazards when cars stack up in front of the fire station.
“I know it’s not going to be pleasant for everybody,” Griffith said. “But we need to move ahead with this.”
However, some citizens are concerned about the move and say the gates could affect Hampton VA Medical Center staff and veterans, as well as historically underserved people.
“The impact will be a detriment to the Veterans that serve our country and our employees,” said Dr. Taquisa Simmons, executive director from the Hampton VA Medical Center. “Over 300 cars exit our buildings from 4-5 p.m. through that ramp.”
Others from the VA feared veterans would put off appointments to avoid having to wind their way through the city to get home.
Hampton Pubic Works Director Jason Mitchell said their studies show an average of 111 cars exit through the two ramps between the hours of 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. each day from the VA hospital.
He said VDOT is currently looking at a study to see where cars would go if the closure went into place.
“It can determine what vehicles would impact the LaSalle (Avenue) exit, what vehicles may impact the Coliseum exit,” Mitchell said. He expects the study to be completed by the end of the year.
Councilman Steve Brown cast the lone vote against the resolution, saying that the study should be complete before they make their decision.
However, Councilwoman Chris Snead said they had to move forward with the process now.
“I’m frustrated with people trying to get ahead,” Snead said, defending her vote.
The city is still exploring other options with Hampton VA and Hampton University such as a pilot program that would limit who could enter Emancipation Drive and Martin Luther King Boulevard.
“Allowing them to check that a driver either has an HU decal, a VA medical center decal or is on the way to an appointment. If not, that person doesn’t get through and gets turned away,” Mayor Donnie Tuck said. “Hopefully it allows them to get quicker access of their property.”
He said the city has explored many options instead of the ramp closures, but most would call for additional manpower to enforce that the city just doesn’t have.
“We don’t see our way out of it, other than to close the ramps,” Tuck said.