- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 19, 2007

On time? Yes. On budget? That’s debatable.

Whatever the answer, Virginia yesterday celebrated completion of the eight-year, $676 million Springfield Interchange construction project with its 30 ramps, 41 miles of roadway, 50 bridges and 24 lanes at its widest.

The project was designed to untangle one of the worst bottlenecks on the East Coast — where Interstate 95 merges with the Capital Beltway and Interstate 395.

Virginia officials touted the project’s completion as “on time and on budget.” But the “on budget” part ignores the fact that the original cost estimate in 1999 was just $350 million.

In fact, transportation officials revised cost estimates four times from 1999 to 2002, prompting a federal investigation and demands for an overhaul of operations at the Virginia Department of Transportation.

Finally, in 2002, the new administration of Gov. Mark Warner pegged the cost at $676 million and promised it would hold to that amount.

Despite some skepticism — the investigation requested by Rep. James P. Moran, Virginia Democrat, concluded in November 2002 that the project’s costs would reach $1 billion and stretch well beyond 2007 — the project did indeed remain on time and on budget from 2002 on.

The state’s estimate that the project would be completed by 2007 remained consistent going back to the start of construction in 1999.

Gov. Timothy M. Kaine said yesterday at a ribbon-cutting ceremony on the roof of a nearby parking garage that VDOT “had a little bit of a malaise” in the late 1990s “where on-time and on-budget performances were really pretty embarrassing.”

Mr. Kaine said that has now changed and the project’s completion “is a victory for the notion that in a tough political climate, we can still get things done.”

“We can still do big projects,” he said.

Each day, more than 430,000 vehicles pass through the interchange, known to all as the Mixing Bowl.

The project’s biggest advantage is the elimination of the merging and weaving onto tiny cloverleafs that slowed traffic and caused many accidents, project manager Larry Cloyed said. The new interchange separates and segregates traffic much earlier.

Now, for instance, if there is gridlock on southbound I-95 during the afternoon rush hour, backups on the Beltway from commuters trying to merge onto I-95 are largely confined to the massive overpass connecting the roads. Traffic that seeks to continue on the Beltway beyond I-95 can flow freely.

By some estimates, traffic flow through the interchange has improved by what seems like only marginal amounts — 30 to 40 seconds on average.

But Mr. Cloyed said that amount is significant when multiplied by hundreds of thousands of vehicles. Traffic accidents that can result in massive rush-hour backups — the interchange had been the most dangerous spot on the 64-mile Capital Beltway, according to one study — also have been reduced significantly, and vehicles can more safely merge onto highways now that they are able to maintain speed through the interchange.

Of course, accidents and delays still occur. After yesterday’s ceremony concluded, Virginia Transportation Secretary Pierce R. Homer grabbed the microphone to warn the several hundred in attendance that a major accident had stymied traffic on I-95, and to expect delays leaving the ceremony.

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