In Mixing Bowl, Va. Sees Recipe for Success

By Eric M. Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 19, 2007

Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) dedicated the new Springfield interchange yesterday, hailing the $676 million mega-project as a symbol of a management turnaround at the Virginia Department of Transportation.

Shortly after noon, Kaine and other state and local officials stepped in front of cameras and cut a red-and-gold ribbon connected to two orange traffic barrels. In order to avoid adding any more traffic delays to the eight-year project, the ceremony was held safely away from moving vehicles, on the roof of a nearby parking garage.

"The Springfield Interchange Project is a stellar example of what the commonwealth and the community can achieve together," Kaine said. "It is greatly improving the quality of life for nearly half a million motorists a day."

The interchange is where interstates 95 and 395 meet the Capital Beltway. It is one of the busiest crossroads on the East Coast and was also one of the most dangerous, as traffic volume overwhelmed the 1960s-era ramps.

The new interchange was designed to eliminate swerving and weaving by separating local and through traffic and allowing easier and safer connections among the highways. The interchange's 50 ramps and bridges handle 430,000 vehicles a day.

Project officials hailed the interchange as "on time and under budget." But although the mid-2007 target date for completion was met, the final cost was nearly three times what was first projected. A more recent cost estimate of $676 million was ultimately met.

Kaine said the project's success contrasts with the "malaise" that affected VDOT in the 1990s, when the department was hurt by staff reductions, poor morale and a record of not finishing on time or on budget.

In November 2002, a federal report criticized VDOT's handling of the interchange project. More than 70 percent of the state's proposed regional road projects from 1994 to 2000 were delayed or canceled, in part because of the Springfield interchange's escalating costs, the report said.

Critics compared the project to Boston's notoriously budget-busting "Big Dig."

"The old culture was afraid of bad news and risk-taking, and that's the reason nothing happened," said Transportation Secretary Pierce R. Homer. "The new culture believes in personal accountability and rewards honesty. When there's bad news -- and there's bad news in every project -- it's addressed."

VDOT Commissioner David S. Ekern said the department is "remodeling" its workforce for what will be a much busier future.

Because of additional state transportation funding approved this year, VDOT is projected to break ground on 548 projects in the next six years, compared with last year's six-year plan, which projected only 54 new projects.

Ekern said department leadership will try to anticipate problems, "not just waiting for crises to hit."

The Springfield project had an aggressive outreach program to let commuters know of closings and detours, including a storefront information office in the Springfield Mall. VDOT leaders say that effort will serve as a template as the department gears up for a series of mega-projects to be built in Northern Virginia during the next decade.

In addition to new VDOT spending, the projects include an expansion of Metrorail to Tysons Corner, new toll lanes on the median of the Capital Beltway in Virginia, the conversion of carpool lanes on interstates 95/395 to toll lanes, and the widening of I-95 south of Springfield.

As part of the new effort, VDOT named Ronaldo T. "Nick" Nicholson, project manager for VDOT's portion of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge Project, as regional transportation program director. He will oversee efforts to minimize the effects of the many projects soon to be started.

VDOT also named Tom Fahrney as the statewide coordinator for transportation issues related to the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure.

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