Alexandria pushes for carpool ramp at Mark Center

February 17, 2011

A carpool ramp, short-term transportation improvements, parking restrictions and the Army's transit plan compose the best congestion solutions that Northern Virginians could hope for at the Mark Center, officials said.

Specifics would include an $80 million ramp from the High Occupancy Vehicle lanes of Interstate 395; about $20 million in short- and mid-term improvements to intersections around the Mark Center site at Seminary Road and I-395; a new residential parking permit plan; and the Army's transportation management plan, requiring almost 40 percent of the 6,400 employees to carpool or use mass transit.

This is "probably about the best we can do in terms of solutions taken all together," to deal with the traffic coming to the area in the fall, said Alexandria Vice Mayor Kerry Donley at a City Council meeting Saturday. "It is real important for us to advance the ball right now."

The council agreed to move forward with traffic studies for the ramp, to not only get the project moving, but to send a message to state legislators that passing the governor's transportation package is critical to funding the projects, Donley said.

The city and state are seeking federal funding for the projects, but because Virginia Secretary of Transportation Sean T. Connaughton said he was advancing the ramp and HOT lanes projects, he would find a way to fund them, said Tom Fahrney, Virginia Department of Transportation's coordinator for the base realignment and closure, or BRAC, process.

The HOT lanes and ramp are part of the state's plan to deal with the onslaught of federal defense employees moving to new offices in September under BRAC. About 20,000 people will move to Fort Belvoir, the Engineering Proving Grounds, Quantico and the Mark Center.

"This ramp project does not obviate the need for the short-term projects," Fahrney said.

VDOT is studying $20 million in unfunded short- and mid-term improvements to intersections along Seminary Road, Beauregard Street and Mark Center Drive.

W ithout the new ramp for carpoolers and buses, the requirement that 40 percent of employees use carpools or mass transit would not be met, Fahrney said.

The formal endorsement by the council of the reversible ramp that will connect the HOV lanes to the third tier of the Seminary Road interchange was necessary to expedite traffic studies, which will include intersections at Jordan and Howard streets, said Abi Lerner, Alexandria's deputy director of transportation.

The ramp will end at a stop light that will allow traffic to flow east and west onto Seminary Road. Construction would begin at the earliest in 2012 and end in 2014, Fahrney said.

Another ramp alignment was rejected by council. That ramp would have allowed traffic to flow only to the west, had no signal and would connect to the second level of the Seminary Road interchange. It would cost about $100 million more and would require extensive reconstruction of the Seminary Road interchange, Fahrney said.

The ramp should be built in the existing right of way, without affecting private property, wetlands or other sensitive areas, Fahrney said. VDOT would like to receive federal approval to waive extensive environmental studies, which is known as a categorical exclusion.

The exclusion would waive required federal public involvement, but VDOT "wants to involve the public" and will use Alexandria's public process instead, Fahrney said.

A few West End residents attended Saturday's meeting to give the city and state suggestions.

Nancy Jennings and Carol James said that even with the shorter-term improvements, several intersections will fail. Adding a ramp full of traffic into an already-jammed intersection will create gridlock and prompt commuters to cut through neighborhoods.

"We should not be going forward with a proposal until we can project a success," said James, a 30-year West End resident.

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