- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 7, 2005

For thousands of commuters, the morning trek up Interstate 95 in Northern Virginia comes to a familiar bottleneck from Route 123 to the Fairfax County Parkway.

But the six-year, $286.4 billion transportation bill approved by Congress before the August recess could provide some relief for weary motorists.

The legislation includes $12.8 million in federal money to widen the three-lane stretch of highway. It is just one example of billions of dollars in highway and public transportation improvements for the Washington region, which ranks among the nation’s worst for traffic congestion.

Those who study regional traffic problems are relieved to see an end to two years of political gridlock that has stalled the legislation for road improvements. But when the roads are built in five years, they warn, traffic is likely to be much worse.

“If people are under the impression that in five to 10 years it will be a major improvement, they will be disappointed,” said Stephen Fuller, co-director of George Mason University’s Center for Regional Analysis. “Just look at the Springfield Interchange project. By the time that gets done after 10 years of construction, the increased demand will have erased the benefit.”

Still, Mr. Fuller and AAA Mid-Atlantic spokesman John Townsend are applauding the increase in transportation dollars — particularly for public transit, which they say could help take more cars off the roads.

For instance, the federal bill authorizes a Metrorail line to Washington Dulles International Airport and money for new rail cars, transit centers in Silver Spring and Falls Church and the study of a new Purple Line in Maryland to link Bethesda and Silver Spring.

“Metro money is critical because there are no new alignments for highways,” Mr. Fuller said. “Other than finishing the Fairfax County Parkway, there is no place to put new roads [in Northern Virginia]. Anything that takes cars off highways and gives commuters options is a benefit.”

Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, Maryland Democrat, said $900 million in the six-year bill is for public transportation in his state alone. Congress also set aside $5 million to improve the Branch Avenue Metro station access road and $15 million for the Route 4 and Suitland Parkway interchange, which is expected to help improve access to military bases in Southern Maryland.

The biggest new road project in suburban Maryland will be $18 million to help design and engineer the Intercounty Connector, which would link Interstate 270 in Montgomery to I-95 Prince George’s County outside the Capital Beltway.

In the District, most of the federal money — $123 million — is slated to rehabilitate the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge on South Capitol Street, said the office of Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat and the District’s nonvoting representative in Congress.

Officials said Northern Virginia has $33.6 million to improve the Interstate 66/Route 29 Interchange in Gainesville, $27.6 million to widen I-66 inside the Beltway, $5 million to widen Route 17 in Stafford County and $8 million to help with congestion on Route 50 at Gilbert’s Corner in Loudoun County.

“It’s at friction points — intersections that don’t work, a lane that needs to be added,” Mr. Fuller said. He characterizes this long-awaited infusion of federal cash as “nickels and dimes” — but adds that every bit helps.

“Some would argue it’s a drop in the bucket, but I would argue it’s a good beginning,” Mr. Townsend said. “Hopefully, local politicians would also be inspired to step up to the plate.”

In most cases, the federal money must be matched by state or local dollars to get the projects moving.

Mr. Fuller looks to drivers, not politicians, for the next wave of real traffic improvements. He predicts that shifts in behavior — people going into the office earlier or later, carpooling or telecommuting — will help the most.

“Employers will make changes as they see increased absenteeism, tardiness and more people who are tired,” he said.

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