Metrorail line isn’t the best way to solve I-95 congestion in D.C.’s outer suburbs

Robert Thomson
Columnist January 8

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

I continue to be amused by the stories about construction on Interstate 95.

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post’s “Dr. Gridlock.” He answers travelers’ questions, listens to their complaints and shares their pain on the roads, trains and buses in the Washington region. View Archive

From 1973 to 2007, I lived in Dale City, Va., and from 1973 to 1993 used I-95 every day to get to my job. Over that period, I cannot recall any length of time when there was no construction on 95.

And with all the widening and the HOV lanes, never was there a decision to continue Metrorail down the 95 corridor. That certainly would have eased the congestion. I really don’t think that VRE was, or is, the answer.

As in the movie “Field Of Dreams,” if you build it, they will come. In 1973, traffic basically ended at Dale City. A few years later, it got to Quantico, then to Aquia, and on and on. I would guess that in 2013, traffic is heavy all the way to Fredericksburg.


The westbound Interstate 66 overpass, on the left, was still under construction in September 2010 near Tysons Corner. Below are northbound lanes of Interstate 495 and lanes to southbound I-495. (TRACY A WOODWARD/The Washington Post)

The same scenario exists on Interstate 66. Widen the road, more houses get built. Congestion there runs all the way to Front Royal nowadays. And of course, Metro ends in Vienna.

Bob Brookfield, Wardensville, W. Va.

DG: I-95 will never be done. Its twin roles as a commuter highway and the East Coast’s Main Street continue to evolve.

To the north of the District, the Maryland State Highway Administration this year will wrap up work on the lanes where I-95 and the Intercounty Connector meet. But crews will start work around the Branch Avenue interchange to improve access to the nearby Metrorail station. Maryland is also developing plans to expand the interchange that connects I-95 to the Greenbelt Metro station.

But the main activity this year will be in the section of I-95 where Brookfield used to live. In fact, that’s the scene of one of the biggest highway construction zones in the nation, stretching from the Capital Beltway 29 miles south, along I-95, to Garrisonville Road.

Last year, the project involved the most disruptive road work in the region. Although work will continue this year, the effect on traffic should diminish, wrapping up with the installation of the tolling equipment needed to create the 95 Express Lanes in the middle of the interstate.

Big as this is, it’s not the only traffic project underway in that area.

The Virginia Department of Transportation is also building auxiliary lanes and widening the shoulders along a seven-mile stretch of the interstate in Prince William County. The goals for the auxiliary lanes are to ease congestion at several choke points and reduce weaving between lanes. The widened shoulders could handle traffic in emergencies.

That project is scheduled to be done in summer 2015.

In summer 2011, VDOT completed a widening project that added a fourth lane in each direction along six miles of I-95 in Fairfax County. And, just last year, the reconstruction of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge and four nearby interchanges wrapped up.

Oh, and let’s not forget the interchange work in the Newington area designed to provide better access to Fort Belvoir North and to handle the influx of employees because of the federal base realignments.

Brookfield is right to think of I-95 as a work in progress.

But would a Metro solution calm things down?

The problem along the I-95 corridor — and along I-66 — is that there still aren’t enough potential passengers to support the type of train service represented by Metrorail.

Metrorail extensions are huge investments. The two phases of the Silver Line extension, through Fairfax and into Loudoun County, will cost nearly $6 billion to build. Then there will be the annual operating costs. One of the big challenges for the transit authority and for Fairfax and Loudoun is to figure out how to encourage people to reverse-commute.

In this particular build-it-and-they-will-come scenario, what got built was houses. People sleep in one place and, too often, work in another place far away.

So Metro hauls people in from places such as Shady Grove and Vienna in the morning and then hauls them back in the afternoon. Relatively few commuters go against that flow, so trains that carry crush loads one way are nearly empty when they go back — and they do have to go back.

The local governments that support Metro aren’t going to pay to build and operate extensions to Woodbridge along I-95 or to Centreville, Manassas and Gainesville along I-66 unless they are confident they can fill seats with people who live closer in and work farther out.

When it comes to heavy rail in the outer suburbs, the commuter-hauling task is best left to VRE and MARC, the services that add passenger cars to existing freight tracks.

When planners talk about new transit for long-distance commuting from the outer suburbs to inner job centers, they’re usually thinking of specialized lanes for buses and high-occupancy toll lanes for buses and carpoolers. They can’t carry as many people as Metrorail in these ways, but those pavement systems are much cheaper to build and operate.

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