Traversing The Four Mile Creek Trail

By Trevor Buckley

On a recent, warm Sunday afternoon in October, a diverse spectrum of people could be found cycling, running, and power-walking through the Four Mile Creek section of the Virginia Capital Trail. A dad trailed closely behind his young daughter on a bike as they zipped up a hill. An older gentleman jogged on a wooden bridge that spanned a wetland. Spandex-clad weekend warriors whooshed by on an eastward trek. Two women, carrying on a conversation, strode energetically down the path.

This lively scene speaks to the success of the Virginia Capital Trail project as a popular destination among visitors both local and from afar—neighborhood residents who exercise here regularly and cyclists loaded with saddle bags on cross-country journeys. The Four Mile Creek section was the final piece of what is a 52-mile-long multiuse trail connecting Virginia’s capital, Richmond, with its historic colonial capitals of Williamsburg and Jamestown.

Located nine miles east of the Capital Trail starting point in downtown Richmond, the Four Mile Creek section of the trail opened in October 2015. The Four Mile Section, the only portion of the trail that diverges away from an otherwise parallel route along historic Route 5, a state-designated Scenic Byway, entailed a number of design challenges along its 3.5-mile span. The successful design and construction of this leg of the trail forms an excellent case study in how strong cooperation among the members of a project team enabled deft navigation of engineering and permitting challenges to deliver a completed project on schedule, in time for Richmond’s hosting of the UCI Road World Championships in Fall 2015.

Project Team And Scope
The Four Mile Creek section is also known as the Park Phase of the Capital Trail project, as the trail connects two Henrico County parks—Dorey and Four Mile Creek. The project was awarded by the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) through VDOT’s Design-Build program. George Nice and Sons, Inc., a regional contractor based in Williamsburg, led the design-build team and partnered with multidisciplinary firm Timmons Group, based in Richmond. In addition to design and construction, the team was responsible for easement acquisitions. Timmons Group provided an array of services, including civil and transportation engineering, environmental assessment and permitting, and landscape architecture. Liberty Engineering of Virginia Beach served as a sub-consultant for the design of several bridges along the trail.

The Park Phase diversion off the Route 5 alignment was planned all along to avoid an interchange with Interstate 295 and the potential hazards that a trail crossing could pose. What was originally intended to be a tighter path around the interchange following the interstate evolved into a more complicated right-of-way effort after an adjacent subdivision pushed back against the proposed crossing. Instead, a wider berth was taken through farm fields, a future area slated for development, a different existing subdivision, other private property, and then the two county parks. This route involved additional right-of-way and environmental and cultural-resource planning than first envisioned, adding to the level of complexity and the challenge that makes this project unique.

The design team completed right-of-way and construction plans for the eight- to 10-foot wide trail, which included stormwater management and drainage design, hydrologic testing for six bridge locations, traffic management, utility conflicts and resolution, and trailhead design (a plaza, site furnishings, and plantings). Environmental permitting covered a host of factors: perennial stream and resource protection area (RPA) determinations, endangered- and threatened-species surveys, Virginia Water Protection permitting and compliance monitoring, Spill Prevention Control and Contamination plan preparation, and Water Quality Impact Assessment for RPA impacts. In addition, the project required the 4(f) permitting process for archaeological resources as the western portion of the trail section traverses Civil War battlefield sites.

Synergy With Local Parks Department
The Four Mile Creek trail project benefited a great deal from the coordination between the project team and the county. The Department of Recreation and Parks was eager to work with the project team on providing access for the trail through the two county parks, as this achieved a long-term goal of connecting the parks by way of an underpass beneath I-295 (using an existing highway bridge over Four Mile Creek). During the development of the trail, Henrico County secured a federal Transportation Alternatives Program (TAP) grant to fund the creation of a 0.4-mile long connection from Dorey Park’s main access road to the Capital Trail. In addition, the contractor cleared and graded a construction access route to the Capital Trail from Dorey Park that would be used later as an approximate alignment for the county’s connector trail.

Trail users and park users can now benefit from the amenities at each park, particularly at Dorey Park, which has a wide variety of recreational facilities and the Dorey Welcome Center. Four Mile Creek is a mostly passive greenspace, but the Capital Trail project enlarged an existing parking lot and transformed it into a trailhead and parking area for trail visitors that is conveniently located on Route 5 near the I-295 interchange.

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Bridges
The trail is largely a 10-foot wide asphalt surface through fields and forest; there are timber bridges spanning four wetland and floodplain areas and one set of Civil War earthworks with significant archaeological deposits. To reduce construction costs (bridges are more expensive than the typical trail section) and permitting requirements from floodplain and wetland encroachment, the design team created an alignment and designed bridges that will avoid grading into the environmentally sensitive areas and instead span from bank to bank along the shortest feasible routes. The bridge design involved challenging hydraulic analysis to demonstrate that the bridge pylons within the floodplain would neither slow flow, causing flooding upstream, or quicken it, hastening erosion downstream.

Grading
Just south of the earthworks is a related Civil War battlefield site and an actively farmed area that the trail crosses. Here, the design team needed to coordinate with VDOT for a design waiver on maximum grade in order to contend with the existing drainage regime. The grade of the field had allowed for sheet flow across the site; to prevent ponding, the trail bed was elevated above existing grade and underlain with culverts to allow runoff to pass between the two sides.

Right-Of-Way
Connecting the two existing legs of the Varina Phase of the Capital Trail near I-295 required coordination with several different property owners and, as previously mentioned, a diversion of the original alignment. The trail right-of-way is typically 16 feet along the Four Mile Creek section. While this posed additional requirements for construction access (see below), a positive outcome was that the trail was directed through Dorey Park, providing a connection from Dorey Park to the County’s Four Mile Creek Park. The project team worked successfully with the landowner of a future subdivision to locate the trail on a rather direct path through the proposed development in a way that was favorable to the developer.

One drawback or quirk in the trail design is a small portion—a tenth of a mile—on the western side of the Four Mile Creek section where the trail route is directed onto Kinvan Road, a rural residential street. The dedicated multiuse trail ends at the street where visitors then must turn 90 degrees, travel down the street along a striped lane, and then reconnect with the trail.

Utilities
The trail needed to cross several utility easements, including gas, county sewer (a long-distance, 60-inch gravity pipe to a nearby water-treatment facility), and large electrical-transmission lines and towers. Each of these utilities required close coordination with the respective company or authority to site the trail an appropriate distance away from infrastructure (e.g., minimum distances from transmission towers) and so not to hinder maintenance access.

Construction Access
The trail alignment was not easy to access in some places, particularly along the portion of the trail in the two parks where there was no connection to existing roads or trails. Fortunately, the utility coordination and presence of easements did provide for some strategic access points. Ironically, construction access was gained through the neighborhood that had opposed the project by way of utility easements. Another access point was directly off I-295 to a remote part of the trail in Four Mile Creek Park. VDOT coordinated retaining some of these access points for emergency and maintenance access in perpetuity; in fact, the access off of I-295 remains as a gravel lane with lockable gates.

Spirit Of Cooperation
Chris Kiefer, Group Leader of the Transportation Practice at Timmons Group and the design manager on the Four Mile Creek project, reports that “everything was done in a spirit of cooperation between VDOT, the county, the contractor, and the design team.” Good communication among all involved parties, including community constituents, contributed to a smooth process over the approximately year-and-a-half-long project.

The VDOT Design-Build Program requires innovation on the part of the project team; that in turn requires cooperation on the part of the team members to find viable solutions to design challenges that go beyond the original schematic design. In the case of this project, the team worked to reduce wetland impacts as described earlier, reworking the trail alignment and bridge design from an earlier iteration that would have been more intrusive. This type of diversion from the design puts a burden on the team to incorporate additional survey and permitting and altering of the original alignment to achieve the aim of innovation. The team led by George Nice and Sons met the design innovation goals and project schedule in spite of these deviations.

The result is a safe and scenic (almost entirely) off-road experience for visitors to the trail, with parking, amenities, and well-planned and environmentally sensitive crossings. Al Azzarone, Capital Projects Manager and parks planning supervisor for Henrico County, reports that another TAP grant has been secured to extend the trail connector northward to the rest of Dorey Park and Darbytown Road. The success of the Capital Trail as a destination continues to spur further connectivity between regional recreational facilities and any new amenities.

Virginia Capital Trail Web Map Application
The Technology Division at Timmons Group has also had a hand in the success of the Virginia Capital Trail. The geospatial technology team worked with the Virginia Capital Trail Foundation, a nonprofit that works to enhance, promote, and advocate for the continued development of the Virginia Capital Trail, to create an interactive digital map. This web application created with ESRI technologies debuted at the same time that the trail was completed. The map shows the location of specific points of interest along the trail, including trailheads, parking availability, picnic areas, restrooms, and emergency stops, as well as status updates on open and closed portions of the trail. Timmons Group works on ongoing maintenance and updates to the site.

Trevor Buckley is a landscape planner with Timmons Group, a multidisciplinary engineering and technology firm headquartered in Richmond, Va. The landscape architecture practice at Timmons Group works on a wide array of public and private sector projects in Virginia, Maryland, Washington, D.C., and North Carolina, including municipal and state parks and recreation facilities. Reach Trevor at trevor.buckley@timmons.com.
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For more information:
Virginia Capital Trail Foundation https://www.virginiacapitaltrail.org/

Trail Map (web map application): http://vctf.maps.arcgis.com/apps/MapSeries/index.html?appid=e6e8a7a48ace4906880857508845a4be

VDOT Capital Trail Website:  http://www.virginiadot.org/projects/newcaptrail_welcome.asp

Terrain 360: https://www.terrain360.com/map/virginia-capital-trail