By Nick Miroff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 30, 2008
With so much construction in the Gainesville area, it's tough to picture how and when a fix might come for one of the region's worst traffic bottlenecks.
The Virginia Department of Transportation has been widening Interstate 66 through the Gainesville area by adding two lanes in each direction, one for HOV traffic. But when that is completed in August 2010, the real heavy-equipment makeover -- the Gainesville interchange -- will be just getting started.
The $223 million project will add bridges, ramps and safety upgrades to reengineer an antiquated traffic pattern overrun with cars and commerce. Demolition work begins next month, but the area's commuters will need much patience, because the VDOT's completion target for the project is March 2015, with the final construction phase slated to begin in 2011.
But if all goes as planned, drivers will be rewarded with a vastly improved driving experience. Gone will be the three traffic lights that clog northbound and southbound traffic on Route 29. And with an elevated roadway to carry vehicles above the train tracks, a major safety hazard and commuter chokepoint will disappear.
"We're trying to separate traffic and eliminate all the weaving and stopping," said project manager Avtar Singh.
Like the larger and more expensive Springfield interchange project, the Gainesville version aims to disentangle traffic with carefully routed ramps and bridges. Linton Hall Road at Route 29 will partly resemble the intersection of routes 28 and 29 in Centreville, Singh said, where motorists may exit the main roadway onto ramps.
In the new configuration, drivers who exit I-66 heading south will have two options: go straight on Route 29 or follow a ramp to the elevated intersection with Linton Hall Road. There, drivers may turn left to the Virginia Gateway shopping center or right onto Gallerher Road to continue west on Route 55. And by routing Route 55 traffic onto Gallerher Road, the VDOT can eliminate the intersection of routes 55 and 29 and its stop light.
The project will not only reshape the area's traffic pattern, it will also alter the face of Gainesville's businesses, as the interchange project has required the VDOT to go on a massive land-buying spree. The agency is spending $95.5 million to relocate utility lines and buy land on 55 parcels. The VDOT will have to demolish 38 buildings to make room for the new concrete and asphalt, forcing the relocation of 45 businesses, including two 7-Elevens, a Raceway gas station, a Wendy's restaurant and a SunTrust bank.
That's one reason why the project will take so long. An average of 46,000 vehicles per day use Route 29 through the Gainesville area, according to a 2005 VDOT survey, and 15,500 use Linton Hall Road.
The VDOT will need to build a detour system before construction of the permanent interchange can begin -- meaning the agency will essentially need to build the interchange twice.
"When you're building a brand-new highway, it's not an issue, but when you have to maintain traffic, it adds significantly to the cost," said state Transportation Secretary Pierce R. Homer.
Homer said the rail element of the project is extremely important, as rail lines carry more freight and the Virginia Railway Express looks to extend its Manassas line 11 miles to Haymarket.
Although the completion date is halfway into the next decade, the VDOT has pushed up the project to begin three years ahead of schedule.
"We've still got a long way to go, but the results will be very beneficial," Supervisor John T. Stirrup Jr. (R-Gainesville) said.
Residents have already put up with a lot of construction, Stirrup said, and they face several more years of orange cones and ugly equipment.
"But with each phase of the project," he said, "it's going to ease their commutes and their travel time. Ultimately, when we finish, it'll have significant impact on their quality of life."