Afternoon Rush to Get New Ramp, And Relief

By Eric M. Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 29, 2006

A new ramp that is expected to dramatically improve the afternoon commute through the Springfield interchange is scheduled to open one week from today, project officials said yesterday.

The ramp, leading from the outer loop of the Capital Beltway to Interstate 95 south, is not the biggest, longest or most dramatic of the more than 50 ramps that are part of the project. But it is expected to provide an easy merge for the 3,000 vehicles an hour that cram through during the afternoon rush, heading from offices in the Tysons Corner area to houses in Prince William and Stafford counties and points beyond.

The existing ramp forces outer loop drivers to move to the left at the end of the ramp to get onto I-95 at the same spot that drivers coming south on Interstate 395 must move to the right to exit in Springfield.

The new ramp is designed to end the "lane dancing" that made the merging area one of the most accident-prone spots in the interchange, said Steve Titunik, spokesman for the project. The existing merging area also regularly clogs with cars, causing backups on the Beltway.

"The first issue is safety," Virginia Transportation Secretary Pierce R. Homer said. "Anyone who's tried to cross three lanes of traffic at dusk at the end of the day knows what I mean. People will feel this right away."

The ramp is another step toward the project's aim of separating local and through traffic as vehicles progress through one of the East Coast's biggest interchanges. At the confluence of I-95, I-395 and I-495, the goal of the refashioned Mixing Bowl is to provide drivers on each highway with a separate route 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, and the project is expected to finish on schedule by summer. 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.

The transformation of Tysons Corner into a regional jobs and economic center along with rapid residential development in the I-95 corridor have dramatically increased traffic heading from the outer loop to I-95 south. Traffic in the afternoon rush has tripled in that direction, from 1,000 vehicles an hour in the 1970s to more than 3,000 an hour today, according to the Virginia Department of Transportation.

VDOT had hoped to open the ramp by the day before Thanksgiving, but officials decided to postpone the work until this week. Yesterday, officials pushed it back again, to Dec. 6, because they haven't finished laying asphalt and adding other final touches, Titunik said.

In a matter of months, there will be a separate ramp for traffic heading from the outer loop to exits in the Springfield area. But project engineers need to work in the area of the local ramp for the next six months, so those drivers will also use the new ramp and a temporary exit.

The opening of the ramp will also end a dangerous shortcut that some drivers have used to get around traffic jams. Titunik said drivers coming from the Pentagon and the District on I-395 should take Exit 1A to I-95 south. But some drivers have taken Exit 1B and then cut to the left to get onto I-95 south. After the new ramp is open, he said, there will be no way to get onto I-95 south from Exit 1B.

"People used to play the Indy 500 sometimes," Titunik said. "It was a cute trick for those who tried to get around traffic. But now if they try it, they will be forced to exit."

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