Construction to Lengthen Some Commutes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 3, 1999; Page A21
For Jeff Lewis, the 110-mile round-trip commute from his Stafford County home to work in Landover has seemed a small price to pay for the quiet suburban life he and his wife chose for their family 40 miles south of Washington.
The neighbors are friendly, the schools are good and there's plenty of running room for the Lewises' two boys, ages 3 and 6.
Now Virginia transportation officials are telling Lewis that soon, he'll be spending less time with his family and more time behind the wheel.
His commute which takes 55 minutes to two hours each way, depending on traffic could be up to a half-hour longer each way after the $350 million rebuilding of the Springfield interchange begins in March.
That's the doomsday scenario being described to tens of thousands of commuters who live south of Springfield in the Interstate 95 corridor. Officials are urging motorists to use buses, commuter rail or car pools to ease traffic during the estimated eight years of construction.
Officials say that if they can get 2,500 cars off Interstate 95 at rush hour during the construction, traffic will continue to move at its current snail's pace. But if they fail and state officials admit they have lagged in coming up with programs to get commuters out of theirs cars there could be traffic slowdowns that not only extend commutes but also create hours of increased congestion throughout Northern Virginia every day.
So far, the warnings haven't made much of an impression.
"I believe they're exaggerating the consequences to encourage people to make alternative plans," said Lewis, a 44-year-old union executive. "They're trying to . . . scare people."
Lewis, though, is quick to add that if the warnings do prove accurate, there will be widespread outrage, with many people seeing the tangled traffic as an example of poor state planning. "Basically," he said, the state would be "stealing two hours a day from my family. Whoever is Virginia governor when this hits, well, it'll be bad."
Many commuters share Lewis's skepticism. They typically respond with a shrug and say that road construction is nothing new in their rapidly developing communities. They say they will deal with the Springfield project simply by leaving for work earlier.
That kind of blase attitude, which has emerged in state-sponsored commuter surveys, alarms transportation officials.
"I've never before seen focus groups where the group didn't quite get it," said Charlene T. Robey, who is heading up state efforts to get cars off the road during the Springfield project. "We asked them, 'How much time do you spend with your children?' And many don't have more than an hour. So we said, 'Suppose we take an hour of that time in delay.' That's when it finally dawned on them what was going to happen. Then they got angry."
But for now, few residents in the I-95 corridor say they will make significant changes in their commuting habits.
"We're used to the long commute," said Roland Johnson, 41, a structural engineer who lives in Stafford and works in downtown Washington.
Many of the commuters who will be most affected by the project moved to Washington's outer suburbs for affordable housing and a lifestyle they say was unattainable in more expensive, closer-in communities.
"There's a point that we make the trade-off between travel time and location," said Clifford Winston, a Brookings Institution economist who wrote "Alternate Route," a book about urban transportation. "Those people that have the highest premium on their time try to avoid situations where they're vulnerable to inconvenience. Those people who live farther out have already made trade-offs."
Transportation planners speculate that Prince William and Stafford commuters aren't focusing on the coming hassles because they have benefited from other recent road improvements. Wider secondary roads and new car-pool lanes on I-95 south of the Occoquan River have shortened commutes by up to 30 minutes.
So, some commuters think that the Springfield project will simply put things back to the way they were before those improvements.
"I was here 10 years ago, when you had to leave at 5:15 a.m. to make it to Crystal City by 7:30. You used to spend an hour just getting to I-95. Now local roads are much better," said Debbie Ware, 37, of Westridge in Prince William County.
Moving or changing jobs to be closer to work is not an option many people would consider, but a few said they had already made such adjustments to avoid traffic hassles.
"I've already made the decision to take a lesser salary and work to the south, in Dumfries," said George Biedenbender, 43, of Dale City, a government support contractor.
"I'm doing permanent night shifts, just to avoid traffic," said Donna Helvak, 44, of Dale City, a nurse at Washington Hospital Center. "And I've never been late."
Closer to Washington, many commuters are not so tolerant of the prospect of disruption. Even if they can find other ways to work around Springfield, they face the prospect of more traffic on secondary roads and convoys of dump trucks rumbling through their neighborhoods.
"I'd almost rather put up with the danger for another 10 years," said Pete Flemming, a 45-year-old naval architect from Springfield, "than have this huge project."
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