Celebrating Mixing Bowl's Big Makeover

(Photos By Richard A. Lipski -- The Washington Post)
By Eric M. Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 18, 2007

At 4 a.m. June 2, 1999, a truck carrying 20 tons of explosive powder for fireworks overturned in the middle of the Springfield interchange. From there, at the nexus of Interstate 95, I-395 and the Capital Beltway, the region's highways began to clog, one set of brake lights at a time, until cars were sitting hood to trunk on virtually the entire Beltway.

Caught in the jam with tens of thousands of commuters was Venita Cooper, whose husband, Wesley, was racing her to the hospital. Her contractions were quickening. Near I-95 in College Park, their car came to a complete stop.

But the baby didn't. Minutes later, Raina Alexis Cooper, an eight-pound beauty, was born in the front passenger's seat.

"I thought we had left early enough," Wesley Cooper recalled.

Also in its infancy that day was construction of the most ambitious road project in Virginia history: a complete revamping of the Springfield interchange that would add dozens of ramps and bridges to separate three freeways from one another, cut down on accidents and prevent a single accident from paralyzing the region.

Eight years and $676 million later, the project will be dedicated today in a ceremony featuring Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) and other local and state officials. Although some drivers remain confused by the new jumble of exits and ramps, by and large, traffic flows more smoothly and less dangerously than before. Transportation officials, police and commuters say the mission has largely been accomplished.

"The biggest way in which the project has changed my commute has been making some of the route transitions very easy. Ramps that had tight 270-degree turns have been replaced with higher-speed, gradually curving ramps," said Bryan DiFrancesco, who commutes between Springfield and the District.

Contrary to most highway dedications, Virginia officials dare not close a single lane today. The celebration will take place on the roof of a nearby parking garage.

"When we started construction in 1999, we promised to finish the project in mid-2007, and I am proud to say we kept that promise," said David Ekern, commissioner of the Virginia Department of Transportation. Ekern is the fourth VDOT head to oversee the massive project.

It did not start so auspiciously. The project began in 1994 with a budget of $241 million. By 2002, it had nearly tripled, to $676 million, and a federal audit found that VDOT had underestimated costs and mismanaged funds. As recently as two years ago, the project was months behind schedule, and managers predicted that it would not be completed on time.

But VDOT officials pressured the primary contractor, including issuing a formal default letter, and work was put back on schedule without adding costs.

"My biggest challenge was time,'' said Larry Cloyed, VDOT's top manager for the project. "I was fairly confident about the budget."

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