Column – Smithfield’s back door is much busier than IW officials imagined

Published 8:12 pm Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Most country folks tend to use their back doors as their front doors. That’s the entrance nearest the kitchen — the shortcut to the working part of the house. 

I don’t think Isle of Wight County officials had a new commuter route from Smithfield in mind when, back in 1975, they voted to create a shortened route from Rescue to the James River Bridge, but they certainly succeeded in doing so. Today, the narrow Nike Park, Titus Creek and Smiths Neck roads between Smithfield and Carrollton Boulevard near the JRB have become some of the county’s more heavily traveled — and congested — two-lane highways.

It all started, as so many things in Isle of Wight do, with a developer’s wish to rearrange things for the benefit of future development. Tidewater Virginia Properties, which owned what would become Eagle Harbor on the north side of the Route 17 approach to the JRB, wanted to eliminate a section of a lightly used secondary road that ran through its holdings.

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The company asked the county to abandon the road and offered to give a section of land that would connect Route 669 (now Smiths Neck Road) with Route 17 (now Carrollton Boulevard).

Battery Park resident O.A. Spady, who was at the time the Newport District’s supervisor, championed the change that would construct a one-mile stretch of road connecting the road from Rescue with the bridge highway. Residents of the Rescue area lobbied for the road, saying it would make their daily commutes to Newport News much quicker.

Not everybody thought it was a great idea. VDOT’s resident engineer at the time, Richard Coates, warned that it would open a “back door” from Smithfield. He noted that what are now Benns Church, Brewer’s Neck and Carrollton boulevards were being four-laned to handle future traffic, and said opening a winding secondary alternative would create headaches if many people began using it.

Spady thought that was unlikely. Because of the improvements on the major highways, “I don’t think that’s a legitimate concern,” though he acknowledged some traffic increase on the back roads “is possible.”

It certainly was. Within a month of the new connector’s opening, the daily traffic count was 700 cars and climbing.

Coates, asked about use of the new “back door,” acknowledged that motorists “seem to be really using it.” Coates continued to urge motorists not to turn the secondary roads into a major connector route, but rather to use the much-improved four-lane roads for trips to the JRB.

Motorists ignored the plea. They found the roughly one-mile shorter distance from Church Street to the JRB using the back roads to be quite appealing.

The traffic count didn’t explode overnight, but it did increase steadily, driven by new rooftops as both Isle of Wight and Smithfield embraced new housing developments in and around Smithfield. 

By 2001, there were 4,400 vehicles using Smiths Neck Road each day, and by 2023, that had grown to 11,700. 

To add a bit of perspective to that count, consider that the four-lane, divided highway known as Benns Church Boulevard that connects Benn’s Church with the Suffolk city line has roughly the same count — 11,600. Courthouse Highway coming into Smithfield has a count of only 9,800 cars per day. 

Carrollton resident Warren White wrote a letter to the editor of this paper last week that predicted Nike Park Road would soon have to be four-laned to handle the increase in traffic. He also predicted the county would find its decision to build a wooden bike trail bridge alongside the two-lane Fulgham’s Creek Bridge somewhat shortsighted. He lamented that the bridge hadn’t been rebuilt to accommodate future auto traffic as well as bicycles and pedestrians.

I’m guessing Mr. White’s predictions are going to be far more on target than were those 50 years ago that traffic along this “back door” route wouldn’t amount to much.


John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is