Some Headway Against Gridlock
Wednesday, January 11, 2006
The governor, the soon-to-be governor, a couple of congressmen, some other politicians and many traffic engineers stood with smiles on faces and scissors in hands for a ribbon-cutting yesterday at a bridge in Springfield designed to ease the traffic jam that drivers were fighting some 80 feet below.
It was a rare scene of triumph over traffic, but one that Virginia and Maryland leaders plan to repeat several times in 2006, which they expect to be a breakthrough year for the region's most expensive and ambitious highway projects.
In Springfield, the mess of merges in the Mixing Bowl will be largely untangled in 2006 with the opening of three bridges that connect Interstate 95 and the Capital Beltway. Virginia officials said they plan to open the new bridge, which will carry drivers from I-95 north to the Beltway's outer loop, in time for next Wednesday's morning rush. The old merge lanes will close within a day or two of the bridge opening.
A short drive to the east, at the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, a six-lane span, nearly 20 years in the planning and making, is scheduled to open in June. A second six-lane span, part of the $2.43 billion project, is scheduled to open in 2008.
Across the Potomac River, Maryland leaders are confident that they will break ground this year on a suburban highway planned for more than a half-century.
They are awaiting a final decision by the federal government before they can complete plans for the $2.4 billion intercounty connector, which would link the I-270 corridor in western Montgomery County with the I-95 corridor in Prince George's County. State officials said they expect approval in the spring and plan to have their own ribbon cutting by year's end.
The highway changes -- and plans by Metro to add 110 new rail cars to its crowded lines -- come after years in which there were few major improvements to the region's transportation network even as the number of travelers grew rapidly.
"It's perfect timing and not a second too soon," said John Townsend, a spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic. "Those things will be godsends, but more important is the symbolism behind it all, that we as motorists are not satisfied with the status quo."
The most dramatic difference for commuters is likely to be in Springfield, where the Mixing Bowl project aims to unravel one of the most infamous bottlenecks on the East Coast. More than 430,000 cars and trucks merge there daily.
By the time the $676 million project is finished in 2007, eight years after it began and at nearly three times its original scope and projected cost, the interchange will have more than 50 ramps and overpasses, and I-95 in that area will total 24 lanes.
It's not the prettiest thing in the world. With 39 of the bridges and ramps built, the area has turned into a jumble of giant, looping bridges of concrete and steel that soar as much as 10 stories above the ground and look like tentacles of a mutant octopus.
But officials said what the interchange lacks in beauty it will more than make up for in time saved for commuters who now suffer through long and regular backups at almost all times of day and night.