Tangled Up and Blue No More

Among other changes, the new portion of the project will move drivers from northbound Interstate 95 to the Capital Beltway's inner loop.
Among other changes, the new portion of the project will move drivers from northbound Interstate 95 to the Capital Beltway's inner loop. (Photos By Robert A. Reeder -- The Washington Post)
By Nick Miroff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 23, 2006

The last major bridge of the Springfield interchange project is set to open in the pre-dawn hours tomorrow, providing one of the final links in an eight-year, $676 million effort to untangle one of the region's most congested and dangerous traffic spots.

A two-lane ramp will carry drivers from the northbound lanes of Interstate 95 to the inner loop of the Capital Beltway, and motorists heading for Tysons Corner will separate from highway traffic a half-mile south of where they split off now -- part of the project's effort to reroute the more than 430,000 vehicles that pass through the junction's bridges, offramps and elevated ramps each day.

As with other project ramps and bridges, the new configuration is expected to decrease accidents caused by last-minute merging. "Motorists going to Tysons and the Pentagon will say goodbye to each other earlier and have a better ride in the morning," project spokesman Steven M. Titunik said.

The span will be open to motorists by 5 a.m. tomorrow, if not earlier, Titunik said, and signs are in place to orient drivers to the switch. Officials will keep the old looping Tysons exit open until early Saturday morning to give motorists another option if they miss the ramp to the new bridge.

At the confluence of I-95, Interstate 395 and Interstate 495, the goal of the refashioned Mixing Bowl is to provide drivers on each highway with routes through the area. The old interchange forced commuters, truckers and other travelers through a gantlet of sudden exits and rapid merges that led to an average of three accidents a day and chronic congestion.

Construction on the interchange has continued almost on schedule since it began in 1999. A ramp connecting the outer loop to the southbound lanes of I-95 remains unfinished, as do a handful of other minor projects. The entire project is expected to finish on schedule by next summer, and when it is complete, the Mixing Bowl will have more than 50 ramps and overpasses, and I-95 in that area will total 24 lanes.

In addition to the inner loop bridge, project engineers plan to open a ramp off Commerce Street tomorrow morning that will enable motorists from Franconia Road to merge onto the inner loop. A bridge that takes drivers from I-95 north to the outer loop opened this year.

Virginia Secretary of Transportation Pierce R. Homer called the project one of the "best-managed" in the country. Wider, smoother spans will improve driver visibility and safety, he said, and commutes will shorten.

"It substantially improves one of the worst bottlenecks in the region and arguably one of the worst on the East Coast," Homer said. Still, he cautioned the project would not be an end-all solution to the backups that have long made "Springfield interchange" interchangeable with gridlock.

"The project is simply keeping up with growing demand," Homer said. "It is not solving congestion. And it underscores how long it takes and how much money it costs to do these types of transportation improvements."

The new three-quarter-mile span is expected to carry 1,800 vehicles an hour during the peak morning hours of 6 to 9 and 2,200 an hour during the 3:30 to 6 evening rush.

More congestion might come sooner than planners expected. One variable not factored into the initial plans of project engineers was the impact of the more than 22,000 military jobs scheduled to be moved to Fort Belvoir and Quantico Marine Corps Base by 2011 as part of the Pentagon's planned Base Realignment and Closure process. Many of the workers who commute to Crystal City and the Pentagon would probably be channeled onto the Beltway, I-95 and I-395, increasing strain on the new structure.

"Having invested hundreds of millions of dollars in untying a Gordian knot, I don't want to see the Army boldly retie it at the southern end," said Fairfax Supervisor T. Dana Kauffman (D), whose Lee District includes the interchange.

"We're on the cusp of finally seeing this project come to a close," he said. "But it seems like we have the potential sequel if the Army doesn't step up and provide transportation improvements to go with all their moves."

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