The Smart Road

The Smart Road, also sometimes called the Smart Highway, is a 2.2-mile-long 2-lane highway completed in 2002 near Blacksburg, Virginia, home of Virginia Tech (VPI&SU), and the highway is being used as a transportation research facility for highway and bridge research as well as for vehicular systems research and for Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) research. The Smart Road is a joint project of the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT), the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI), and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). This initial highway section was built on a 4-lane right-of-way with the intention that it would be a research facility not usable by public traffic, but that the highway would eventually be extended and completed as a 5.7-mile-long, 4-lane limited-access highway linking Interstate 81 and Blacksburg, Virginia, usable by standard public traffic of automobiles, trucks and buses. The Smart Road has two main purposes: 1) to provide a direct route for motorists between I-81 and Blacksburg, and 2) to offer researchers and product developers a state-of-the-art research lab for testing new transportation technologies.

The 5.7-mile-long Blacksburg-Roanoke Connector.

The northernmost 2.2 miles has been built as the current Smart Road testbed.

Groundbreaking took place in July, 1997, construction on the first 1.7-mile segment of the road was completed in December 1999, and the second 0.5-mile segment, including the high-level bridge over Wilson Creek, was completed in May 2002.

Upon unanimous action of the 2001 General Assembly of Virginia, the Smart Road was named the Gordon C. Willis Sr. Smart Road. In the late 1980s, Willis chaired a private organization called the University Connection, whose members promoted links between Roanoke and Virginia Tech. Many links were philosophical, but one emerged as physical: the construction of a connecting road between Blacksburg and Interstate 81. That proposal became the Smart Road.

Excerpts from Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (in blue text):

"The Virginia Smart Road"

The Smart Road in southwest Virginia is a unique, state-of-the-art, full-scale research facility for pavement research and evaluation of Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) concepts and products. The construction of the Smart Road project has been made possible through a cooperative effort of several federal and state organizations, including Virginia's Center for Innovative Technology, VDOT, the Virginia Transportation Research Council (VTRC), the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), and Virginia Tech. A project of the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT), VTTI, and the FHWA, the Smart Road is the first facility of its kind to be built from the ground up with its infrastructure incorporated into the roadway.

The Smart Road is currently a 2.2-mile, two-lane road with a banked turn-around at one end and a slower speed turn-around at the other end. The latest phase of construction was completed in May 2001 and includes a 667-yard bridge (the highest in Virginia at 171 feet) and several hundred yards more of concrete pavement. When completed, the Smart Road will be a 6-mile connector highway between Blacksburg and I-81 in southwest Virginia, with the first 2 miles designated as a controlled test facility. This connection will serve an important role in the I-81/I-73 transportation corridor. After construction, provisions will be made to route traffic around controlled test zones on the Smart Road to allow for ongoing testing.

Research Capabilities and Technology of the Smart Road

The Smart Road’s unique capabilities and technology make it an ideal location for transportation research and safety and human factors evaluation. Since the Smart Road is closed to “live” traffic, a variety of different scenarios can be created for testing purposes in relative safety. For example, objects of differing size, contrast, and reflectivity can be placed on the road, either on the shoulder or in the lane of travel, to determine the driver’s ability to detect them under a wide range of conditions.

See: The Virginia Smart Road, by VTTI.

Our research capabilities include:
• All-weather testing facility that produces rain, snow, ice, and fog.
• Variable lighting section that allows a multitude of visibility conditions to be created on demand
• Advanced communications system that includes a wireless LAN interfaced with a fiberoptic backbone.
• In-pavement sensors that provide data regarding pavement performance under real loading conditions.
• UV-sensitive pavement markers and striping.
• Experimental pavement sections that include flexible pavement test sections and continuously reinforced rigid pavement.

Current plans are to add an at-grade intersection to the Smart Road so that its features will allow intersection-related research. This intersection will not connect to any public road at any time in the future, it will be for testing purposes only.

The construction of the Smart Road project has been made possible through a cooperative effort of several federal and state organizations, including:

History of the Smart Road

Direct excerpt (in blue text) from VDOT's webpage History of the Smart Road.
The concept for a connecting road from Blacksburg to Interstate 81 can be traced to 1985 and a proposal by the Roanoke-Virginia Tech Advisory Council. In 1986, Roanoke Mayor Noel Taylor endorsed the idea. In 1987, the Greater Blacksburg and Christiansburg-Montgomery County Chambers of Commerce asked the Virginia Department of Transportation to consider both short- and long-term solutions for traffic congestion along Route 460. That same year, Gov. Gerald Baliles’ Commission for Transportation in the 21st Century identified a new road to serve as a direct link between Virginia’s largest university and southwest Virginia’s largest city. The next year, VDOT began a study of Route 460 for possible improvements. A milestone was reached in 1989 when Roanoke County Supervisor Dick Robers suggested that the linking road be used for research on "smart" cars and highways. In 1990, Congressman Rick Boucher asked a congressional committee for funding for a demonstration project - the first smart road to be built from the ground up in the United States. In June of that year, the Commonwealth Transportation Board voted to build a new Route 460 Bypass and also directed VDOT to continue studying the feasibility of a connecting road that would incorporate transportation technology. The connector was included in VDOT’s 1991-92 Six-Year Improvement Program, and in November 1991, a Federal transportation bill provided $5.9 million for research and planning. In early 1992, a location for the Smart Road, envisioned as a series of test beds ultimately ending at I-81, was selected by the Commonwealth Transportation Board. VDOT began design, working closely with the Federal Highway Administration and Virginia Tech’s Center for Transportation Research. In 1993, the center was awarded a $3 million Federal grant for research on the Smart Road. Then, in 1994, Gov. George Allen committed state funding for building the first test bed. Virginia Tech was invited to join a consortium of companies, headed by General Motors, positioning the university as one of the country’s top transportation research institutions. Design of the Smart Road continued, assisted by a Citizens Advisory Committee. Groundbreaking took place July 8, 1997. Construction on the first 1.7-mile segment of the 5.7-mile road was completed in December 1999. The second phase of construction, including the bridge over Wilson Creek, was completed in 2002. As funds become available, the entire road to I-81 will be designed and built in a series of test beds for research into emerging transportation technology.

Route 460 Corridor Study

I have a copy of a US-460 public hearing brochure from 1989. I also have copies of part of the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) approved in 1993, for the Blacksburg-Roanoke Connector, which had its own FEIS.

Map of studied alternates from Route 460 Corridor Study Citizen Newsletter.

The Final Environmental Impact Statement includes the same map.

Large image (181 KB).


In the FEIS under Project Location, there is a map showing a Bypass Connector (Alternate 3A), a 641 Corridor (Alternate 6), and a 603 Corridor (Alternates 7 & 10). Those were in the 1989 US-460 brochure, as well as a West Side Corridor (Alternate 1) to the west of Christiansburg, and a Northern Corridor (Alternate 9) from north of Blacksburg to I-81 at Elliston. Alternate 3A was approved and built, and was completed in January 2003 as the "connect the bypasses" project, which involved 4.4 miles of freeway seamlessly  joining the US-460 Christiansburg Bypass and the US-460 Blacksburg Bypass at a cost of $125 million (opened August 2002), and one mile of freeway extending the US-460 Christiansburg Bypass to Interstate I-81 at a cost of $62 million (opened July 2001), and those costs included preliminary engineering, right-of-way acquisition, and construction. The Blacksburg Interchange on US-460 has the ramp connections to the Smart Road.

Carried forward into the Blacksburg-Roanoke Connector study, were the 641 Corridor (Alternate 6), and the 603 Corridor (Alternates 7 & 10). The 641 Corridor (Alternate 6) is the Smart Road corridor that was selected to be built, and it will cut 4.5 miles off of the modern-highway distance between Blacksburg and Roanoke.

The 603 Corridor (Alternates 7 & 10) had the same western end as Alternate 6, and the eastern ends were in the Elliston area at I-81. Alternates 7 & 10 approached I-81 at a more acute angle than did the selected route, and they were at a point of diminishing return as far as shortening the distance between Blacksburg and Roanoke, due to the acute angle. The rejected alternates were almost twice as long and with far greater environmental impacts, than was the selected alternate, and Alternates 7 & 10 would have shortened the distance between Blacksburg and Roanoke by only about an additional mile.

External Links

The Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) official website has a Smart Road webpage with links to Overview, History of the Smart Road, Smart Road Bridge Fact Sheet, Photo Gallery, Contact Names for the Smart Road, Smart Road Research Projects, Fact Sheet, and Virginia’s Tallest Bridge.
Project Summary: Virginia's Smart Road

Route 460 Bypass Projects Summary, by VDOT.

The Roanoke Times newspaper (the main regional newspaper for the Roanoke-Blacksburg area) has a whole collection of articles about the Smart Road still available on its website:
The 'Smart' Road - a reference guide.
The Smart Road - What is a Testbed?
Smart Road On-line Feature from New River Current Online of The Roanoke Times.

Excellence in Highway Design 2002 - The Smart Road Bridge, Christiansburg, Virginia, by Federal Highway Administration.

Smart Road Bridge, Near Blacksburg, VA, Receives CRSI Award, presented with a 2002 Design Award from the Concrete Reinforced Steel Insitute (CRSI) for the Smart Road Bridge, by American Segmental Bridge Institute.

Virginia's Smart Road: An ITS Research Facility, David D. Clarke, Virginia Tech Transportation Institute.

US Route 460 Bypass, Virginia, by Earth Tech.

US 460 Construction and U.S. 460 Bypass Construction, by Bruce Harper of Blacksburg, Virginia. This website has detailed maps of several of the new US-460 interchanges, and it has lots of photos of the construction of the US-460 bypass projects, and several aerial photo renderings of several of the interchanges. This is the "connect the bypasses" project, which involved 4.4 miles of freeway seamlessly  joining the US-460 Christiansburg Bypass and the US-460 Blacksburg Bypass. Bruce's page for Virginia Highways.

Smart Road Leads to R&D, by Stuart Englert, from Plants Sites & Parks magazine, December 1998/January 1999.

Smart Road Pavement Research Site, by Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.

Vecellio & Grogan Builds Phase One Of Nation's First Hi-Tech "Smart Road" In Virginia, April 2000, Vecellio & Grogan.

'Smart Road' Leads to Safety, by Peter Barnes, February 18, 2002, TechTV Inc.

Smart Road Up and Running, from Virginia Tech President's Report 1999-2000, of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. Excerpt (in blue text):
The first section of Virginia's Smart Road opened for business in March with researchers already conducting more than 100 projects. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) added to that workload in June when it picked the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute to head a consortium for a multimillion-dollar advanced safety research contract.

Virginia's Smart Road Becomes Reality, 24 June 2000,

Virginia's 'Smart Road' is a Laboratory on Pavement, August 25, 2000, Cable News Network. Excerpt (in blue text):
BLACKSBURG, Virginia (CNN) -- It's only two miles long, doesn't go anywhere and cannot be found on any map, but a state-of-the-art road in Virginia may be one of the most important stretches of highway found anywhere. "It's the only real highway test-bed in the world. It's the only facility that can make its own weather," said Ray Pethtel, the associate director of Virginia Tech Transportation Institute. When the roadbed was being built, 12 different types of surfaces were laid to test durability and traction in rain and snow. Imbedded in the road are sensors the size of small pizzas and a magnet strip which help monitor the movement of cars. The "smart road," which so far has cost $17 million in state and federal funds, is also unique in its ability to provide a variety of test conditions on demand, such as rain, snow or fog. Engineers use the road to test vehicles, drivers, signs and pavement.

Marshall Concrete Wise to Smart Road, Concrete Products, November 1, 2000.

Who Says We Can't Control the Weather?-The Virginia DOT Can, AASHTO Success Stories.

Virginia Tech's Very Smart Road, by Susan C. Hegger, PRISM Online - October 2000.

I-73 In Virginia,, Sandor Gulyas. Includes some Smart Road photos and a map of the interchange where the Smart Road joins US-460 at Blacksburg.

Intelligent Interstate, by Christie Schweinsberg, Ward's Auto World, July 1, 2003.

The Smart Highway, by Tod Newcombe, Government Technology magazine, June 2000.

Virginia's "Smart Road" Opens, Public Roads magazine, July/August 2000. Scroll 2/3 the way down the webpage. Excerpt (in blue text):
The world's first all-weather road test facility built especially for scientific research in the transportation field opened on March 23 in Blacksburg, VA. The facility, known as the "Smart Road," is the result of a partnership between the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT), Virginia Tech's Transportation Institute, and FHWA. VDOT owns the land on which the facility was built; Virginia Tech operates the facility. FHWA participated in the design and funding of an experimental highway lighting system.

HITEC and Center for Transportation Research Sign MOU to Advance Innovation, Intelligent Transportation, from the Civil Engineering Research Foundation (CERF).

Intelligent Transportation Society of America, Washington, D.C.

Intelligent Transportation Society of Virginia.

Copyright © 1999-2004 by Scott Kozel. All rights reserved. Reproduction, reuse, or distribution without permission is prohibited.

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By Scott M. Kozel, Roads to the Future

(Created 5-15-1999, updated 2-19-2004)