How a Road Gets Built

Frequently asked questions about road building

Here are the major phases of the road building process. 

Many of the tasks included within each phase occur concurrently. 

Each project’s unique circumstances, requirements, risks, and complexities tailor the project development process to the individual project. 

Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) projects are reflected in the Six-Year Improvement Program (SYIP), which is updated annually. 

Public comment is solicited and welcome at many points throughout the process.

It is best to become involved as early as possible in the transportation decision-making process.

1. The Planning Phase may last from 1-24 months.

a) Often acting upon requests for road improvements from local governments, VDOT planners work with federal and other state agencies, localities, regional planning organizations and residents to develop short- and long-range plans for improving the highway system. 

How long the planning and programming process takes depends on factors relating to the significance of a recommended transportation improvement. 

Factors include the functional role of a roadway proposal (with respect to regional travel, mobility and / or access), costs and availability of revenues to pay the costs, environmental and / or economic impact, and the support of the affected agencies, regional planning organizations, jurisdictions and the public. 

Participating regional planning organizations include urbanized area Metropolitan Planning Organizations and Planning District Commissions, as well as Virginia’s non-urbanized area Planning District Commissions.

b) Virginia’s statewide long range transportation plan - VTrans -  contains strategic highway and transit goals, and top corridors of statewide significance.

c) VDOT and the Department of Rail and Public Transportation develop a long-range Surface Transportation Plan (STP) that identifies recommendations based on state transportation need-based assessments and the plans of metropolitan areas’ Constrained Long Range Plans and non-metropolitan areas’ Rural Regional Long Range Plans. 

The recommendations are prioritized and provided to a Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB) citizen panel, appointed by the governor, for consideration during the annual updates to the SYIP. 

The CTB also considers projects based on technical information and the input received from government agencies, regional planning organizations, local governments and the public.

d) Factors that planners consider in making recommendations regard strategic and performance goals and related concerns, including aspects such as:

  • Development and land-use plans
  • Traffic patterns, level of service and safety needs
  • Potential build, no-build and travel mode alternatives
  • Different applicable types, number and levels of preliminary review and approval, environmental and economic impacts
  • Cost and revenue estimates

e) During planning, Virginia examines operational and safety improvements known as Strategically Targeted Affordable Roadway Solutions. 

This program evaluates potential applications of less expensive and relatively quick responses for meeting situational congestion and / or safety needs. 

VDOT staff employs traffic management tools and new technology to maximize use of existing facilities.

2. The Scoping Phase may last between 1-8 months, depending on project complexity and includes: 

  • Confirming the project purpose and need
  • Initiating the environmental review process which identifies if the State Environmental Review Process is required
  • Determining the level of environmental document (if required) and the need for water quality permits
  • Identifying stakeholders
  • Establishing the project team
  • Holding the initial scoping team meeting
  • Performing the survey
  • Developing the initial design
  • Considering context sensitive solutions
  • Evaluating public involvement strategies

a) The initial step is to refining project goals and objectives, determine the location and / or the typical section of a roadway.

This is based on anticipated traffic volume, the roadway's functional classification (arterial, collector, local), and terrain (level, mountainous, rolling).

b) VDOT environmental experts in fields such as biology, noise, air quality, archaeology, architecture and wildlife identify environmental requirements and issues to address in the planning, development, construction and maintenance of the highway system.

3. The Preliminary Design Phase may range from 1-18 months and includes:

  • Design of roadway, structures and bridges
  • Traffic control devices / intelligent transportation systems and landscaping
  • Determining right of way and utility impacts
  • Performing "constructability" and work zone reviews
  • Completing the environmental document for the National Environmental Policy Act.
  • Holding the public hearing team meeting and public hearing
  • Obtaining design approval

a) A preliminary design is prepared and reviewed by all stakeholders in the project, such as affected property owners and local governments.

b) Sometimes when offering two or more possible proposals, VDOT conducts information meetings and / or public hearings to involve citizens before making a final decision on the location of the roadway. We offer details such as:

  • Right of way width
  • Type of intersections and interchanges
  • Materials needed

Information meetings and public hearings are advertised in newspapers and other media, and citizens have 10 days to offer comments or documents about the proposed location and / or design after the information meeting or public hearing.

c) The CTB must approve the location and major design features before final design and right of way acquisition can begin.

4. The Detailed Design Phase may last between 1-12 months and includes: 

  • Design of roadway, structures and bridges, traffic control devices / intelligent transportation systems and landscaping
  • Determining right of way and utility impacts
  • Developing erosion and sedimentation / hydraulic plans
  • Performing utility design
  • Holding the utility field inspection
  • Authorizing right of way (total takes)
  • Performing "constructability" and work zone reviews
  • Holding the field inspection team meeting

After design approval, VDOT's right of way and utilities office issues a "Notice to Proceed," authorizing its agents to begin negotiations with landowners. 

To develop a purchase offer of what VDOT considers to be fair market value for parcels valued at $10,000 or less, a negotiator prepares a Basic Acquisition Report.

For other parcels, a licensed appraiser does an appraisal. 

If an owner rejects VDOT's offer and an amicable agreement cannot be reached, VDOT can acquire property through eminent domain, a provision in state law that authorizes the state to acquire private property for public use. 

Between the initiation of the eminent domain proceedings and litigation, VDOT tries to reach a settlement with property owners.

5. The Final Design and Right of Way Acquisition Phase may range from 1-24 months and includes: 

  • Finalizing the design of roadways, structures and bridges, traffic control devices / intelligent transportation systems and landscaping
  • Finalizing right of way and utility impacts, erosion and sedimentation plans and utility design
  • Obtaining environmental permits
  • Holding the utility field inspection
  • Authorizing right of way and utilities (partial takes)
  • Performing "constructability," work zone, and maintenance of traffic / transportation management plan reviews
  • Holding the pre-advertisement conference team meeting.

a) When relocation is necessary, VDOT does its best to ensure owners and tenants are moved to desirable locations with as little inconvenience as possible. 

VDOT assistance includes providing information about available housing and help with assessing whether a new residence meets state and federal guidelines. 

Homeowners and renters who have occupied the property for at least 90 days before negotiations began might be eligible for financial compensation. 

If comparable housing is not available within compensation limits, there might be options under a "last resort" housing program. 

VDOT will pay reasonable moving expenses up to 50 miles.

b) A business, farm or non-profit organization can be reimbursed for moving costs up to 50 miles, and, in some instances, for loss of tangible personal property and the expense of seeking a replacement site.

c) Utility companies are contacted about relocating water, sewer, gas, electric and phone lines, and all necessary permits and authorizations are obtained before work begins.

6. The Advertisement Phase may last from 1-5 months and includes: Finalizing plans, specifications, and estimates, completing the biddability review, securing environmental and right of way certifications, verifying funding and obtaining environmental permits.

7. The Construction Phase may range from 1 to over 36 months.

a) Based upon an engineering estimate of what will be required to build a road, VDOT invites contractors to bid on a project, and the commonwealth awards a contract to the lowest qualified bidder, stipulating cost and length of time for completion.

b) Overseeing every step of the work, VDOT inspects for quality, conformity to project requirements and environmental protection.

c) VDOT inspectors manage traffic flow through the project, keeping affected property owners informed and ensuring that work zone safety guidelines are met.

d) Once a project is completed, a road is opened only after a satisfactory inspection. Completion delays can occur due to:

  • Inclement weather
  • Late delivery of materials
  • Unforeseen discoveries such as underground utilities or unstable soil

Page last modified: March 25, 2023