Untangling Washington's Worst Interchange
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, January 3, 1999; Page A1
The Washington area's most harrowing interstate crossroads is about to get better. But first, it will get a lot worse.
The Springfield interchange, that treacherous Northern Virginia junction where the Capital Beltway and Shirley Highway come together in an infuriating asphalt knot, soon will undergo a massive untangling. The renovation is expected to cost at least $350 million – nearly twice what it cost to build the entire Beltway 35 years ago – and create eight years of exasperation for commuters.
Drivers know it as the Mixing Bowl, a crossing overwhelmed by 375,000 cars a day. It's the spot where four of the region's heaviest streams of traffic rush together in a fury of bobbing and weaving and last-second lane changes. Highway engineers and police know it as the area's most dangerous stretch of blacktop, where long-haul truckers, confused tourists and short-fused commuters battle for highway position.
In a few weeks, Virginia's Department of Transportation will begin to replace the Mixing Bowl with one of the most complex interchanges in the nation. Fifteen miles south of Washington, it will be a monument to highway engineering, with 30 ramps, 50 bridges and 41 miles of roadway. In some places, it will be 24 lanes wide.
Some preliminary work has been done; construction crews are scheduled to begin the heavy lifting by March. The first stages involve rebuilding the junction of Shirley Highway and Route 644, just south of the main Springfield interchange.
The new interchange will have separate roadways for express, local and car-pool traffic. Highway engineers have long wanted to divide the traffic at Springfield, a key interchange for commuters in the region's growing southern suburbs and for trucks carrying goods up and down the East Coast.
Engineers believe separating that traffic would eliminate much of the lane changing that now occurs. Some drivers who enter the interchange now have less than 1,000 yards of roadway in which to cross up to five lanes to get to their exits, a situation that leads to delays and accidents as well as frayed nerves.
In blueprints, the new interchange looks like an utterly impassable labyrinth of curving exits and 100-foot-high, double-decker ramps. But engineers say that getting through the new interchange will be relatively simple: Drivers will be directed by scores of signs to the proper lane long before they enter the area, and ultimately will be deposited on the right road without weaving through other traffic.
"When people look at the artist's rendition, there's usually a collective gasp because of all the ramps," said Fairfax County Supervisor T. Dana Kauffman (D-Lee). "Once it's built and you're in your car, it'll be more a sigh of relief."
Maybe so. But for the next several years, this key link in the region's transportation network will be disrupted by construction that could add at least a half-hour each way to commutes that already are among the nation's longest.
Closing the Springfield interchange or diverting traffic to other roads during construction isn't an option, transportation planners say. For commuters who live south of Washington – and those traveling through the area along Interstate 95 – there simply aren't many alternative routes. And so the massive project will proceed around the thousands of cars and trucks that speed through the area each day.
Critics of the project acknowledge that the current crossroads is a monstrous bottleneck, but they say that the region should do more to encourage people to use other forms of transit. They also believe that the bigger interchange may just invite more congestion to Springfield.
"We think the project is overkill," said Stewart Schwartz of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, which often opposes highway construction as a sop to developers. "We wonder if these big, huge interstate projects are the best way to solve the problem. It's starting to look like Los Angeles here on the Potomac."
Schwartz predicted that the project will encourage even more development south and west of the city, which in turn will pump even more cars onto the region's clogged roads.
Doubts about the project also have been raised by the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance, which typically advocates highway-building but suggests that the money being spent on a new Mixing Bowl could better be spent improving other roads.
"It doesn't create any more capacity," alliance spokesman Bob Chase said of the new interchange. "When you get through, the same bottlenecks you face today will be waiting for you."
But state transportation officials say the Springfield interchange is past due for an overhaul and would have been rebuilt sooner if money had been available.
"Obviously, it's one of the most congested interchanges on the whole Beltway and, in terms of its safety, it's also what we consider to be a high-accident-prone location," said Tom Farley, regional administrator for VDOT. "This interchange is number one on our list."
Long Drive for a Good Cause
Washington-bound commuters from Stafford, Prince William and southern Fairfax counties already spend up to three hours in their cars each day, battling some of the region's most clogged roads. Most use Shirley Highway, the north-south thoroughfare designated as I-95 south of the Springfield interchange and I-395 north of it.
The segment just south of the interchange is the busiest stretch of roadway in Virginia, VDOT says. I-395 in Arlington ranks second.
The Springfield interchange has more accidents than does any other area of road in Virginia or elsewhere on the Beltway. An analysis of I-95 and the Beltway by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that the Mixing Bowl was the site of more crashes than any other spot – 179 over two years – and that the number of ramp accidents was more than double that of any other Beltway interchange.
For many commuters in the I-95 corridor, spending long hours on such roads is the price of the suburban lifestyle they want for their families – affordable homes, big yards, good schools.
They are people who have become hardened to the commuting experience here, acutely aware of how even a minor accident can tie up traffic and keep them from getting home before the children go to bed.
Ask any of them about the Springfield interchange, and almost without fail, they grimace. Everyone has a story.
There are the ramps that force cars to merge into the left lanes of Shirley Highway, where traffic is moving fastest. There are the points where three roadways come together, leading to games of "chicken" between cars and trucks weaving across lanes at vastly different speeds.
Merge, weave, crash. Anyone who's been traveling through the Springfield interchange for long has either seen it happen or at least seen a collision narrowly avoided.
Like Morecock, many commuters who live south of Springfield welcome the idea of a new interchange and aren't much fazed by the idea that its construction could force them to spend hundreds more hours on the road each year. They have dealt with construction on key roads in their growing suburbs and figure the Springfield project is just one more step toward a better commute.
Other commuters say that they have heard how the work at Springfield could dramatically alter their lives for much of the next decade, but that it doesn't yet seem real.
"We are in denial," said Alicia Knight, 38, another of the thousands of Stafford residents who pass through the Springfield interchange twice a day. "Oh, my God, the next 10 years! The whole thought of it is too big to contemplate. We'll worry about it later. That's how we've been dealing with it."
That attitude sends shudders through VDOT, where officials worry about how commuters will react once they realize just how much the Springfield project will affect them.
Transportation planners say that in order for traffic not to get any worse at Springfield during the morning and evening rush, they must persuade at least 2,500 drivers to find another way to get to and from work. Otherwise, planners say, delays caused by narrowed lanes and work crews could add an hour or more to a commuter's round trip each day.
The commuting misery is likely to be compounded by other highway projects planned for the Washington area in the next several years, including the repaving of Interstate 66, the widening of the Beltway and the building of a new Woodrow Wilson Bridge eight miles east of Springfield, a $1.8 billion project scheduled to begin within three years.
But officials' early efforts to encourage more commuters south of Springfield to stop driving alone and join car pools – or take Metro and Virginia Railway Express trains – have been largely fruitless. Many commuters travel to suburban destinations that are poorly served by ride-sharing networks and public transportation; others need their vehicles during work hours.
Virginia transportation officials acknowledge they've been slow to develop incentive programs to get commuters out of their cars, such as bus and rail fare breaks and new park-and-ride lots for those meeting car pools or boarding buses.
Under Virginia law, local and state officials could not begin work on such initiatives until the state firmed up funding for the Springfield project in late 1997. So no subsidy programs or additional parking lots will be in place before construction delays begin at Springfield.
When parts of I-66 were being rebuilt from 1994 to 1996, the state gave commuters vouchers for cut-rate fares on buses run by local governments. That option is more complicated this time, because three private bus companies operate along I-95, and officials have yet to decide whether to subsidize fares.
Transportation planners continue to discuss additional park-and-ride lots along I-95 in Stafford. But the soonest any new lot could open is in two years, state officials said.
"We should have started the process three years ago," said Charlene T. Robey, the state official in charge of encouraging alternative ways of commuting. "Within 60 days of traffic cones going up . . . we'll begin to feel the impact, and the options to help deal with it won't be up and running."
Meanwhile, most commuters in the corridor remain attached to their cars and don't seem motivated to use other ways of getting to work. Robey, who managed a state survey of commuters on I-95, said participants seemed unconcerned that the length of their daily commutes could significantly increase.
"They're extremely willing to put up with stuff," she said, "and that's extremely scary."
Good Design for Wrong Job
The original Springfield interchange, built in the early 1960s, was never meant to handle the traffic it carries now. It was intended to be a simple junction of the Beltway with I-95, which was supposed to run straight through Washington.
But neighborhood protests in the city blocked officials from carving I-95 through it. The quick solution: Designate part of the Capital Beltway – the section between Springfield and College Park – as I-95.
Now, more than three decades later, cars and trucks traveling along the East Coast's main north-south artery continue to be funneled through the ordinary exit ramps at Springfield, routinely causing backups several miles long.
"This interchange was designed right for what it was supposed to do," said Shiva K. Pant, who retired last month after 20 years as Fairfax County's transportation director. "It was never supposed to handle all the traffic it handles now. Traffic going from Florida to New York was never supposed to go through it."
The interchange already had become perilous by 1971, when it was handling 150,000 cars a day – less than half the current volume. Planners realized they had to do something to straighten the sharply curving ramps and redesign the roadway so that motorists wouldn't have to change lanes so much.
The Mixing Bowl was modified three times, including the addition of a second lane on northbound I-95 for exiting onto the Beltway. But these proved to be only temporary remedies. Traffic continued to increase, fostered largely by the rapid growth of communities along I-95 south of the Beltway.
The number of vehicles going through the Mixing Bowl each day is projected to increase by 185,000 by 2015 – up 50 percent from the current traffic load. The new interchange should be able to handle it, but planners figure it will reach capacity by 2020, about a dozen years after the project is due to be finished.
For now, state and local officials are concerned that the Springfield project, along with the other work on major thoroughfares across Northern Virginia, could back up traffic to the point that it chokes the region's booming economy.
Businesses are fretting that years of road construction could cut off their customers and sever their supply routes, and many are worried that the projects could undermine expansion plans by high-tech firms that have become an increasingly important force in Virginia's economy.
VDOT, trying to complete the project in less than the scheduled eight years, has offered a $10 million bonus to the contractor – the heftiest such incentive in the department's history – if it finishes the first two stages of construction nine months ahead of the contract deadline of June 1, 2002. Similar incentives are likely for future phases of the project, officials say.
Once the interchange is built, its success may depend on $35 million worth of signs designed to steer drivers through the maze of roadways. Suspended over virtually every strand of the interchange will be signs – 167 green-and-white signs and 20 electronic variable-message boards – directing drivers into the lanes that will take them where they want to go.
Drivers now must make split-second decisions once they are in the interchange. The new arrangement will provide them with at least three warnings that their exit is coming up: the first two miles before the exit, another a mile later, and finally an angled arrow pointing to the exit itself. The design is supposed to be foolproof.
"But it's not forgiving," said sign consultant Jamie Lebegern. Drivers who choose the wrong exit, she said, will have to go several miles past Springfield before they can turn around – and make another run at the king of Washington's interchanges.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company