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'Mixing Bowl' Project Lacks Ingredients

By Alice Reid
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 7, 1999; Page C9

With groundbreaking for the giant Springfield interchange project just weeks away, some of the work intended to keep traffic moving through the construction zone is behind schedule.

Virginia has developed strategies to encourage car-pooling and transit use while workers rebuild the interchange, known as the "mixing bowl." But efforts to widen four nearby intersections and to build park-and-ride lots are not yet on the drawing board.

Planners say the intersections need widening to accommodate the traffic expected when motorists flee the construction. The park-and-ride lots will serve commuters catching buses or sharing rides, thus reducing the number of vehicles on the highways.

Officials who represent the communities around the interchange want the state of Virginia to move faster with the promised improvements. But state officials say they must be frugal about funding "traffic management" steps. If too much money goes into keeping traffic moving, they say, there won't be enough for the bridges, car-pool lanes, and other elements of the complex project, which could take nearly eight years to complete.

"What we're trying to do is balance the money we have with the needs we have," said Dewey Litton, the Virginia Department of Transportation's design engineer for the project, explaining that the construction is planned to get it over with as quickly as possible. "To make that happen, we have to line up the money."

About $16.5 million is earmarked to cut congestion over the next four years. Last week, VDOT officials said that for the entire eight-year effort, the department is unlikely to spend more than $18 million, or about 6 percent of the project's total cost.

"Some states have spent up to 20 percent. This is the largest project that VDOT has ever done," said Fairfax Supervisor Elaine N. McConnell (R-Springfield). "It's got to be done very well."

"VDOT needs to be deathly serious about making congestion management the most important part of this project," said Fairfax County Supervisor T. Dana Kauffman (D-Lee).

The rebuilt interchange, at the point where Shirley Highway meets the Capital Beltway, will be one of the nation's largest, with more than 50 bridges and elevated ramps. At its widest point, just south of the beltway, the new roadway will be 24 lanes wide.

But during the construction, transportation planners said, traffic jams could add as much as half an hour to today's commuting times, unless about 2,500 drivers a day find alternative ways to get to work, by finding new routes or on buses or in car pools.

That level of traffic congestion is not likely to occur before the fall, planners said. Initial work, mostly on local roads and bridges linking parts of Springfield split by the highway, will have less of an impact than later projects that concentrate on the main roadway. Those will get started in the fall, when traffic builds anyway as people return from vacations.

"People won't make changes [in commuting habits] immediately. I don't think we'll see the real impacts until September," said Charlene T. Robey, a state public transit official.

VDOT has pledged to keep all traffic lanes open during peak commuting hours and on weekends. To make sure they are, VDOT will fine the builder $10,000 per lane for every 15 minutes or fraction thereof that lanes are blocked during peak hours.

But design work has not begun on the four intersections near the mixing bowl that were slated for widening a year ago.

"People are beginning to ask about them," McConnell said. "They're wanting to know when and where. It looks to the people in our area like construction on the intersections now will clash with the construction in the interchange."

VDOT officials concede they're behind and attribute the delay to cuts in staffing earlier in the decade.

"I guess it's fair to say had there been more manpower, these would have been dealt with earlier," said Litton, adding that design of the intersection projects will begin soon.

Highway officials are still discussing how to proceed with building at least six park-and-ride lots near Interstate 95 south of Springfield, including four that Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R) restored to the proposed list after VDOT officials nixed them earlier this year.

A consultant is designing those four lots, which will take 18 months to build, officials said, but the $4.7 million needed to build them hasn't been found yet.

Decisions on whether to build two more lots near Springfield are still months away.

"The state has known for years this was coming," said Prince William Supervisor Hilda M. Barg (D-Woodbridge). "This is not something that happened yesterday. If they want people to get out of their cars, they need to move now."

So far, VDOT has taken the following steps to cut traffic:

Improved bus service from Prince William County to downtown Washington via the Pentagon, including eight new runs in the morning and eight in the evening. Service will begin in July.

An additional early afternoon Virginia Railway Express train to Fredericksburg, leaving Union Station at 3:45 p.m. Service begins May 16.

An incentive program to encourage private bus companies and van pools to gather commuters going to new locations, such as Tysons Corner. The state will subsidize the cost up to $10,000 per bus or van for three months while passengers recruit others to join their ranks. The start up date has not been set.

Riders will be eligible for $10 per week fare discounts on Metrorail from Franconia/Springfield and on Connector and Metrobuses serving the station. A $10 discount will be offered on a one-week bus/rail pass good for unlimited use on Metrorail and both bus services.

Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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