Little Relief For Choked Secondary Roads in Va.

Traffic on Route 1 near Fort Belvoir frequently clogs. A plan to widen nearby Rolling Road, which has stop-and-go traffic, from two to four lanes was scratched.
Traffic on Route 1 near Fort Belvoir frequently clogs. A plan to widen nearby Rolling Road, which has stop-and-go traffic, from two to four lanes was scratched. (By Richard A. Lipski -- The Washington Post)
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By Eric M. Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 5, 2008

Winding, shoulderless Rolling Road looks like a two-lane country road. But the Newington street has become a major artery, connecting Interstate 95, Route 1, the Fairfax County Parkway and what will soon be a much larger Fort Belvoir.

Thoroughfares like Rolling Road are the blood vessels that connect suburbia, the secondary roads that carry commuters to interstates, residents to supermarkets and children to school. They include Braddock Road in Fairfax County, Colesville Road in Montgomery, and even such larger highways as routes 7 and 50. They are the roads that Washington area residents traverse every day, sometimes several times a day.

Just months ago, Northern Virginia residents and elected officials were expecting hundreds of millions of dollars in improvements to such roads. Now, because of budget cuts and state lawmakers' failure to reach a deal on regional transportation funding, drivers can expect only more misery.

The Virginia Department of Transportation recently announced a 51 percent cut in the region's road-building program. Dozens of projects have been eliminated or postponed indefinitely. And rising maintenance costs are eating away at what little remains.

"My youngest child is going to celebrate his fifth birthday sitting at a traffic light," said McLean resident Julie Hyams, who frequently uses Route 123, which had a key interchange cut from the state transportation budget. "Now the money that was allotted for improvement has gone 'poof,' and the roads are only going to get worse."

Without improvements, Beltway-type backups will soon reach suburban back yards as roads fail to keep up with the region's growth. Cars will continue to wait through four or five traffic signals to make a simple turn. Buses will fall further behind schedule. Even non-commuters will be affected: When feeder roads become crammed, drivers with an eye on the clock start taking shortcuts through neighborhoods, turning quiet streets into major commuter arteries.

"That is as accurate as it is painful," said Pierce R. Homer, Virginia's transportation secretary. The cuts mean that the $43 million Route 7 bypass job in Loudoun County, a 1.8-mile widening project that was fully funded last year, is $18 million short. So drivers will continue to crawl along in four lanes instead of the planned six. The road is rated F by the state, reflecting its stop-and-go conditions. The widening would have brought it up to a C, which means a stable flow of traffic during peak periods.

Leesburg resident William Bethke drives the bypass every day to get to a park-and-ride lot in Herndon, where he catches a Fairfax Connector bus for the 20-minute ride to the West Falls Church Metro station and on to his job in Crystal City. In the 3 1/2 years Bethke has been traveling the bypass bottleneck, the trip has gone from 10 or 15 minutes to 20 or 30 minutes.

But he doesn't think widening the road will solve its long-term problems.

"Those who now avoid it would then use it, and in three years we'll be back to where we are," he said.

Last year, the state announced plans to spend $376 million on Northern Virginia roads other than interstates over the next six years. The revised plan estimates spending $184 million over six years, according to VDOT. The money is targeted at the region's many roads that by VDOT standards are failing.

That cut means the outdated signalized intersection of routes 1 and 123 in Prince William County, where there are major backups during the morning and afternoon commute, will not be improved until after 2014. The intersection sits near Interstate 95, where a widening will soon send dozens more vehicles through it.

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