Twelve months into a massive three-year project to establish, expand and improve high-occupancy toll lanes between Alexandria and Stafford County, Virginia transportation officials are standing by their predictions of smoother commutes in the near future — even though the current reality is construction-related gridlock and delay.
Work on the project began last Aug. 1 and is set to be complete at the end of next year. Lanes should be open for traffic in early 2015, but drivers should see improvements as early as this fall after delays associated with road and bridge construction.
Just this month, every southbound lane of Interstate 95 at Dumfries Road in Prince William County was closed during overnight hours to lift a steel beam into place for a new bridge. Future road closures and detours are planned through the fall.
"I think the most challenging part is building while maintaining traffic," said Michelle Holland, spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Transportation. "We can't shut down 95 while we build this. We have to work in a certain time frame, the contractor has to have the right weather conditions, and the bridges are obviously complex."
Within the $1 billion public-private project are nine new bridges, including four flyover ramps for cars to seamlessly move in and out of the express lanes. Some roads along the 29-mile stretch are getting wider while others are being smoothed and repaired. Crews will install signs and toll facilities as the roadwork is completed.
Along the 14 miles between Edsall Road in Alexandria and the Prince William Parkway, crews are expanding the two existing reversible lanes to three lanes, while the six-mile stretch of HOV lanes between Prince William Parkway to Route 234 in Dumfries is being improved. Nine new miles of reversible HOV lanes are being built between Dumfries and Garrisonville Road.
And because of the roadway's narrow footprint, as well as the fact the corridor is so highly traveled, construction has and will continue to have serious effects on traffic in an area that has suffered persistent traffic backups.
The HOT lanes, or high-occupancy toll lanes, will be free for cars with three or more occupants and available for a fee for cars carrying fewer than three people.
"We can't keep building more and more roads, so why not take advantage of HOV roads?" VDOT spokeswoman Toymeika Braithwaite-Dingle said.
AAA Mid-Atlantic spokesman John B. Townsend II explained that because the project is one of the largest current construction sites in the country, "no matter what you do, it's going to have an impact on traffic in the area."
"You feel every inch of being in the most congested area of the country," Mr. Townsend said. "I-95 runs against the spine of the East Coast. Everything runs up and down from Maine to Florida, about 2,400 miles. Think about how long the road is; this is an essential fix to help alleviate traffic in one of the worst bottlenecks on the entire East Coast."
The express lane project ranks up there with the reconstruction of the Mixing Bowl in Springfield and the overhaul of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, Mr. Townsend said, based on the impact and scope of the work.
Those projects helped alleviate traffic problems for the growing area, and Mr. Townsend said he could see the benefit in the express lane work — even if it was a hassle for commuters today.
"The impact is not only what's happening right now, but in the long run it makes a tremendous difference in the nature of how the commute is going to look," Mr. Townsend said. "This project is changing the hatred of traffic to acceptance of traffic."
Still opposed by environmentalists and smart-growth advocates, the project has won a measure bipartisan support politically.
Announcing an advancement toward the project's construction start two years ago, Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Republican, said the lanes would not only stimulate the economy, but also "bring congestion relief and new travel choices to Northern Virginians."
Rep. Gerald E. Connolly, a Democrat who represents Northern Virginia, said initially he heard mixed feelings from his constituents about the project, but opinions have swayed in favor of the work which relieves "the horror of the commute on 95."
"This is not the be-all and the end-all. We've got to be creating lots of other solutions," he said, referencing transit extensions, additional capacity on the Virginia Railway Express commuter line, retrofitting existing roads and bridges, straightening bottlenecks, and adding interchanges. "Sometimes even modest improvements at a bottleneck can make a dent in the commuting pattern."
But not everyone is so sure the express lane project was the best solution.
Whether the effect on traffic will be a positive one is what Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, is worried about.
"It's a huge expensive experiment," Mr. Schwartz said of the project. "We're still upset [the Virginia Department of Transportation] never considered other options such as maintaining the current and additional extended lanes solely for HOV and express lanes."
"We're unsure what this will do to a very successful slugging system," he said of the widely used but unofficial method of commuters hitching rides from other commuters at roadside meeting sites to meet the HOV requirements. "Whether it will cause slugging and carpooling to decline in the corridor" no one knows.
The coalition is also concerned that workers in the area might just consider working closer to home, or from home, given the rapidly expanding region.
"It becomes a never-ending cycle. At a time when tax dollars are stretched so thing, people are locating housing closer to jobs, closer to high-capacity transit," Mr. Schwartz said. "To us, so much about this project mirrors what VDOT has done all along: Start from the conclusion and work backward. The VDOT approach is that sprawl is inevitable and you have to have the capacity to handle traffic that results. To us, their approach is like digging a hole in the sand at the beach. There's always more sand."
But VDOT officials say they do realize there's a limit on how much they can increase capacity on existing roadways. If the department had decided to expand the lanes, that would have required more time and money to take up more rights-of-way and purchase of private property.
"The amount of housing development along the 95 corridor is feeding the beast of the job market in the D.C. area," VDOT spokesman Steven Titunik said. "VDOT has to keep up with it. We will never win the battle of better lifestyle for commuters and motorists if we keep expanding. You can't build your way out of congestion."
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