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Crash Mars Start of Interchange Work

By Alice Reid and Alan Sipress
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, April 7, 1999; Page B1

The first lane closure of the Springfield interchange project was less than two hours old Monday night when three tractor-trailer trucks collided in an accident police said was caused by a motorist trying to use a recently closed exit ramp.

The three rigs, traveling north on Interstate 95 just south of Route 644, collided when the first and second slowed to avoid the car, which was trying to navigate among construction cones. The third rig plowed into the rear of the second, which slammed into the first, police said.

The pileup shut northbound I-95 for two hours, backing up traffic for two miles, police said.

"We certainly hope that's not indicative of things to come in the Springfield area," said Lucy Caldwell, spokeswoman for the Virginia State Police.

The truck collision, which injured two of the drivers, marred an otherwise smooth first 24 hours in the eight-year, $400 million project to make over the Springfield interchange, known as the "mixing bowl." By the time rush hour began yesterday morning, the trucks had been cleared, the closed lane reopened.

"It was pretty much a normal traffic morning," said Steve Kuciemba, chief of SmarTraveler, a traffic information service.

The long-planned overnight construction work began at 9:30 p.m. Monday and continued until 5 a.m. yesterday.

In the overnight truck accident, police charged the driver of the third truck, James Walker, 32, of Hazelwood, Mo., with reckless driving. State police also are investigating the role of the motorist who drove through the cones.

"We're not finished with the person," Caldwell said. "That's what caused it all: a car not reading the signs that the ramp was closed or who chose to ignore them."

Although yesterday's commute was relatively trouble-free, that is not expected to continue. Drivers could see added congestion by early June, when workers begin reconstructing the Amherst Avenue bridge across the entire expanse of I-95. Motorists will occasionally encounter late-night road closures as steel bridge beams are erected, and they will begin to see shoulders blocked and some daytime and nighttime lane closures.

The Virginia Department of Transportation has promised to keep all travel lanes open during rush hours, but officials say they must divert 2,500 motorists from the interchange during peak periods either by sharing rides or finding other routes or commuting times could lengthen by up to half an hour each way.

Engineers say the interchange reconstruction, planned for seven years, is crucial to safety. The intersection of Shirley Highway and the Capital Beltway carries 375,000 vehicles a day, and statistics show it is the Beltway's most dangerous spot.

There are signs that the first day of construction got commuters' attention. Fairfax County's Rideshare commuter-aid program saw a 50 percent increase in the number of callers yesterday, said Dorothy Cousineau, who runs the program.

"Sixty people called, and they were asking, basically, 'What can I do?'" Cousineau said. "It's beginning to register on them that there aren't many alternative roadways."

State officials announced that they will spend a maximum of $28 million on efforts to help drivers get through and around the project during the next eight years. And they said they are behind schedule.

More than $9 million in funds to build about 1,900 parking spaces in lots strung along I-95 has yet to be identified, although Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R) has pledged that the lots will be built.

Intersection improvements in the Springfield area designed to alleviate congestion on secondary roads are just arriving on the drawing boards, and several are at least two years from completion.

Yesterday, some Fairfax officials expressed frustration at the time it is taking to make improvements.

"Whatever we can do to get this time chopped down, we're for it," said Fairfax Supervisor T. Dana Kauffman (D-Lee), whose district includes the interchange.

Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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