Next spring, the Pocahontas Parkway, also known as Pocahontas 895, will mark its 20th anniversary.
As it winds through part of the southeastern metro Richmond area, the highway is the route of choice for at least 17,000 motorists a day. If you’ve driven it, you know the tolls are notably high — this past summer, they hit $4.85 per two-axle vehicle, if you drive the full stretch from the main toll plaza. (Coming from Laburnum Avenue and Airport Drive in Henrico County, tolls are a bit cheaper.)
First opened to motorists May 2002, Pocahontas 895 has sweeping views as it spans the James River. Its nearly 9-mile length connects Interstate 95 and suburban areas of Chesterfield County, via Chippenham Parkway, to Interstate 295 in eastern Henrico.
As the first of ultimately many Virginia highway projects financed under the state’s Public-Private Transportation Act (passed in 1995), Pocahontas 895 is a trailblazer. But in its nearly two-decade lifespan, it has hit its share of speed bumps: early resistance, ongoing debt, multiple owners and rising tolls.
As far back as the 1980s, state transportation officials had a grand vision for this four-lane highway, which includes the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Bridge and a connector road to Richmond International Airport. It was supposed to be an official interstate, but it failed to meet the requirements.
In 1998, the Virginia Department of Transportation partnered with a private firm to build the bypass, and a nonprofit called the Pocahontas Parkway Association was formed. Under Virginia’s PPTA — created as a solution for ongoing challenges with finding money to fund large highway projects — the nonprofit issued $354 million in tax-exempt bonds, which covered the bulk of construction costs. The nonprofit also used an additional $27 million from a combination of state and federal loans.
With a projected healthy daily use of the roadway, the goal was to recoup the investments using toll revenue to cover the bonds. In the plan’s earlier days, as officials hashed out details, local opposition mounted.
Richmond officials at one point wanted an access ramp. Chesterfield officials felt that the toll structure wasn’t fair for county motorists and that the project favored Henrico drivers. Residents in Henrico’s Varina District, where the road would cut through, balked at the highway altogether, arguing that it would ruin the area’s rural character.
Pocahantas 895 has some historical lore: The land and former site of the Wilton Plantation, ultimately paved over, was required to be excavated. Archaeologists from the College of William & Mary discovered and collected thousands of 18th- and 19th-century artifacts from the former quarters used by enslaved people.
The highway opened shortly after those discoveries, with tolls initially set at $1.50. Over the years, fees would crank higher as plans to build an airport connector road rolled forward.
Australia-based Transurban came to the scene in 2006, entering into a $611 million deal with VDOT to lease the highway for 99 years and manage operations, including repaying the bond debt from the Pocahontas Parkway Association. The deal also required Transurban to build the connector road to the airport: a roughly 1.6-mile spur off the main parkway, extending to Charles City Road and Airport Drive.
Transurban borrowed as much as $150 million from a consortium of banks to finance this deal, but it lost money. The promise of new development in Henrico and more motorists for the roadway never materialized. The Great Recession sent many development projects to the back burner. Driver projections lagged. Transurban failed to make the type of profit it needed with toll revenue, and in 2014, it bailed on the deal and sold the debt to European banks.
Since then, control over the Pocahontas Parkway Association has changed hands a couple of times. Currently, the parkway is maintained by Globalvia, headquartered in Spain, according to VDOT.
The highway remains an afterthought for many area commuters.
Pre-pandemic, on the stretch between Chippenham Parkway/Route 150 and Laburnum Avenue, Pocahontas 895 averaged approximately 17,000 vehicles per day, according to VDOT. On the portion between Laburnum and I-295, the numbers dip to 6,500 to 7,800. (Looking at traffic data from last year, the daily figure is roughly the same, but the segment between Laburnum and I-295 bumps slightly.) By comparison, the Huguenot Bridge, which is a stretch of state Route 147, averages 22,000 motorists per day.
As Pocahontas 895 approaches 20, it hasn’t been a charmed life for the first highway financed under Virginia’s public-private transportation model. For its next phase of life, it’s hard to know if the ride will be bumpier or smoother — but either way, for drivers, it will take its toll.
— Lisa Vernon Sparks
Lisa Vernon Sparks is Opinions co-editor. She may be reached at: email@example.com