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A Slowdown in the Fast Lanes

Paul Stilp, on I-66, also gets caught in traffic on I-70 and I-95.
Paul Stilp, on I-66, also gets caught in traffic on I-70 and I-95. (By Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)

Frederick County has grown by nearly half since 1990, from about 150,000 to almost 218,000. Growth around Fredericksburg has been even more extreme. In 1990, the population of the city and surrounding Stafford and Spotsylvania counties totaled about 137,000, compared with about 247,000 last year.

They have become the social, cultural and entertainment hubs of their areas, drawing people by the tens of thousands to shops, restaurants and other activities. And both have road systems built for the days well before any of that came to be.

The main traffic problem around Fredericksburg is caused by the Rappahannock River, which separates all those residents from shops and services. There are only two bridges to get across the river -- on I-95 and Route 1. Route 1 would be the logical local alternative, except that there is an intersection on the Stafford County side that is too small for local traffic and has daily backups that rival anything Tysons Corner has to offer.

"Even if you come almost to a stop on 95, you can still make it along 95 quicker than along Route 1," said David E. Ogle, Fredericksburg district administrator for the Virginia Department of Transportation. "As this area has continued to grow, those crossings of the Rappahannock just haven't been able to keep pace with the growth."

Ogle said traffic counts tell him all he needs to know about how the problem has grown in his region. In 1990, 50,000 vehicles a day drove on I-95 south of Fredericksburg, 71,000 in the areas immediately around the city and 77,000 just north of it. That's exactly what he would expect: increasingly more cars on parts of the highway that are closer to heavily populated Northern Virginia.

But by 1998, those counts showed that traffic was bulging around Fredericksburg: There were 72,000 vehicles a day south of town, 122,000 around it and 110,000 north of it. By last year, the numbers had grown again: 104,000 vehicles south of Fredericksburg, 143,000 around it and 122,000 north of it.

"The local traffic using [I-95] as their river crossing is what I would attribute the majority of that difference to," Ogle said.

The Frederick area doesn't have a bridge problem, but it is straining under its own difficulty managing new residents. Many of them converge on Frederick at nights and on weekends, but many also leave for outlet malls and other shopping in Hagerstown, Md., about a 20-mile drive northwest on I-70. The result is a constant flow of locals going back and forth on the interstate, in addition to daily commuters, truck traffic and weekend vacationers.

"Frederick to Hagerstown is pretty much bumper-to-bumper," said Jim Gugel, chief of comprehensive planning for Frederick County. "It's our equivalent of beach traffic on Route 50."

Gugel said drivers are constantly -- and mostly unsuccessfully -- looking for alternatives. "There's a lot of jumping between the interstate or going through town," he said. "There have been times when practically the entire city has been gridlocked."

Although their recent pasts are similar, the futures of Frederick and Fredericksburg are likely to be very different, at least where traffic is concerned.

There are no additional river crossings or expansions planned for the Rappahannock. Ogle said the region's main hope lies in a private proposal to build a toll road between Washington and Massaponax, south of Fredericksburg. That proposal is one of two being considered by the state for toll lanes on I-95, but even if state leaders choose it, there's no guarantee that section of the highway will be built anytime soon.

"Realistically, before you see any actual road built out there, you're talking about 10 years," Ogle said.

Drivers around Frederick might be a bit luckier. Maryland officials are progressing on several fixes on I-70, including a number of interchange upgrades that are expected to ease merges and the highway's intersection with I-270. State officials also said they plan to widen I-70 to three lanes through Frederick but don't yet have the funds to do it.

Transportation experts said no amount of road construction will fix the problem. "It's a fairly common phenomenon in rapidly suburbanizing areas," said Hani S. Mahmassani, director of the Maryland Transportation Initiative at the University of Maryland. He said the only real solution is that the "areas really need to try to control growth."

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