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."
Another challenge was to keep traffic flowing along with the concrete. Mixing Bowl commuters have suffered through eight years of jams, detours, bumpy pavement, temporary striping and unexpected merges.
To help, officials added 5,000 park-and-ride spaces, created a vanpool program and increased safety patrols to clear breakdowns. Commuters praised VDOT for keeping them informed at a storefront office in the Springfield Mall and on the project's Web site.
The project has been more than a blur of orange safety cones and dump trucks to some drivers. To them, it was a ballet of cranes and steel girders that crossed into the realm of beauty.
"I will miss it," said Beth Rado, a federal worker and amateur photographer who moved to Springfield in 1999, when work was just beginning. Co-workers said her timing was awful.
"In fact, it was the perfect time," she said. "It has been a great opportunity."
During the past eight years, Rado has taken hundreds of photographs during her daily commute. Her portfolio includes dramatic shots of unfinished bridges, snow-covered ramps and sun-dappled support structures. For some shots, she pulled over to the side of the road or climbed on top of construction trailers. A collection of her photographs is at http://www.flickr.com/photos/betts/.
"I like the strength and beauty of the piers and the graceful swoops of ramps through the sky," she said. "Giant highway constructions embody our culture's fascination with speed, enormity and rapacious change. They are monuments to the things we value."
She even embraced the delays, truly setting her apart from other commuters. "Stopped-dead traffic jams are terrific for photos," she said.
The Springfield interchange began innocently enough. It was built in the 1960s as a simple interchange between I-95 and the Beltway. But then the route for I-95, originally planned to go through the District, shifted to the part of the Beltway between Springfield and College Park. Because of the route change, all traffic on I-95, one of the country's busiest highways, was exiting at Springfield through roads ill-equipped for the task.
The interchange was obsolete by the early 1970s, when it carried 150,000 vehicles a day -- about a third of the 430,000 vehicles a day that use it now. A series of improvements did little to ease congestion or the dangerous merges. In fact, the merges are what gave the Mixing Bowl its name. The interchange is where the three major highways "mix" together.
The daily interplay between commuters and vacationers, local residents and long-distance truckers, the confused and the confident made driving through Springfield a white-knuckle experience. Drivers were forced to make split-second decisions and cross several lanes to make their exits. Chronic backups made rear-end collisions a near-daily occurrence.
A study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that the Mixing Bowl was the site of 179 crashes in 1993 to 1994, more than any other spot on I-95 and more than double any other Beltway interchange.
With the interchange's completion, VDOT will turn to unknotting some of Northern Virginia's growing bottlenecks, including the interchange of Interstate 66 and Route 29 in Gainesville and I-66 inside the Beltway.
VDOT's Cloyed said the Springfield project unfolded from the outside-in. First, approaches from the Beltway, I-95 and I-395 were rebuilt. Then it was a matter of tying them all together in the middle.
That turned out to be harder than anticipated. Problems with the primary contractor for the final phase, Archer Western Contractors Ltd., led to delays, conflicts and eventually the issuance of a formal default letter.
Negotiations and a management shake-up put the job back on track. VDOT offered incentives and allowed the contractor to make up hours on weekends and through additional weeknight closures, Cloyed said.
Today, Cloyed will be on the roof of the parking deck looking at his baby.
That other baby, Raina Cooper, is now a bright-eyed 8-year-old who lives with her family in a new house in Clinton. The Coopers frequently drive through the Mixing Bowl.
In the family room, Raina flashed a wide smile when asked her nickname.
"It's '95,' " she said, "because I was born on the Beltway."