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Va. Trying to Get I-95 Commuters Out of the Mix

By Alice Reid
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 12, 1998; Page A1

Commutes on Interstate 95 through the Springfield interchange are likely to get 30 to 60 minutes longer unless highway officials can persuade thousands of motorists to car-pool or take transit during a 12-year remodeling of the "mixing bowl" there.

As they prepare to begin the $320 million project early next year, Virginia officials are looking at a raft of plans -- from more buses and commuter trains to more telecommuting facilities -- designed to get commuters off the road during the construction.

If planners fail to make their case, traffic studies predict almost total gridlock at the spot where I-95, Shirley Highway and the Capital Beltway come together and 370,000 vehicles travel each day. If planners achieve their goals, daily traffic in the area will remain jammed at peak hours, but it won't get worse.

"As depressing as it sounds, the goal is to keep things as they are and not let things deteriorate any further," said Joan Morris, a spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Transportation.

Rebuilding the Springfield interchange to give local, express and car-pool traffic their own lanes -- and to end the weaving and lane changing that make it the Beltway's most dangerous spot -- is an enormous undertaking and one of the region's most expensive highway projects. The task of building more than 40 bridges and flyovers and widening I-95 to 21 lanes between the Beltway and Franconia Road will span more than a decade.

During that time, the road must remain open to traffic, say highway officials, even as bulldozers and cranes do their work. Although closing the interchange would simplify construction and shorten its duration, engineers say that is impossible because it is part of the East Coast's major north-south highway as well as a major commuter route.

The project is also likely to be underway at the same time that a $1 billion replacement for the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, 10 miles to the east, is being built.

Initial research into commuting behavior in the I-95 corridor suggests that the transportation department faces a tremendous challenge. Just before Christmas, transportation researchers began talking to groups of commuters in Fredericksburg, Woodbridge and Springfield to see what it would take to get commuters out of their cars.

The results were not encouraging.

"There's a segment of the population we're never going to get out of their cars, and we're starting to realize that it may not be a good idea to spend money on them," said Alissa Watkins, a researcher. She said the transportation department may focus on people who have had some experience with car pools or transit. "Studies show they're more likely to revert to an alternate mode," she said.

"People seemed married to their cars, and they seem willing to spend inordinate amounts of time in them," said Morris, who attended last month's focus groups. "One man said that he'd just have to get up earlier if his commute is going to stretch by 30 to 60 minutes each way. But he already gets up at 5 a.m."

Typical of many area commuters is Felton Jones, 40, a real estate agent from Stafford.

"I can't not use it," Jones said of the Springfield interchange. Taking a bus or commuter train is out of the question for his frequent trips downtown, he said, because he needs his car for work.

The transportation department may have a better chance with William Spate, 39, a Coast Guard member who commutes from Garrisonville to his post near Fort McNair, because he has car-pooled in the past. He said he would consider joining a car pool.

But taking a Virginia Railway Express commuter train is out of the question. "Their schedules are crazy," he said, adding that the railway is too far away and its fares are too high.

The alternatives to driving being considered by the department include: an increase in commuter rail service, which has been hit recently by cutbacks; more park-and-ride lots along I-95 south of Springfield to encourage commuters to van-pool to work; buses from Springfield to Alexandria and to Tysons Corner, both frequent destinations for workers; cheap fares on all the above to encourage drivers to become riders; and expanding telecommuting facilities.

And, of course, another alternative is to do nothing until commuters get so fed up with increased delays that they're more willing to try alternatives.

"Would congestion get so bad that people would do anything to avoid it?" asked Kim Daley, an engineer working on the project.

Which plans will be chosen and how much they will cost in state and federal funds is still undetermined, Morris said. The state is devoting $2 million this year to minor improvements such as adding turn lanes and synchronizing traffic signals on adjacent roads to handle expected increases in traffic once the work gets going.

Substantial transit subsidies could cost quite a bit more, highway officials say. On top of that, more state police and "incident response teams" will be hired to keep traffic moving around the inevitable accidents and breakdowns.

The need to do something about the Springfield interchange has gone virtually unquestioned since state officials decided nearly a decade ago to spend millions of dollars of Virginia's interstate funds to improve it.

According to a two-year federal study of the Beltway, the Springfield interchange is the most dangerous spot on the 64-mile highway. Most of the 179 accidents there during the two years occurred as motorists tried to enter or exit the roads, which can require drivers to cross several lanes in a short distance to get where they're going.

"VDOT has been putting Band-Aids on this problem for years," said project manager Robert Newman, of Alexandria-based HNTB Corp. "The main problem is that I-95 was originally supposed to go through Washington, and the interchange was not supposed to be such a big deal. When I-95 had to come around the Beltway, it introduced weaving that would not have taken place."

Still, there are those who wonder if the $320 million to add acres of asphalt and dozens of overpasses at Springfield couldn't be better spent on improving other area roads and relieving the region's infamous congestion -- which is second only to that of Los Angeles.

"We don't have a process to look at the area's road network and decide how best to distribute the amount of money we have," said Bob Chase, who heads the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance, a group that lobbies for more highway construction. "Is that the best expenditure of $320 million? I don't know if anyone thinks it will make that much of a long-range difference."

Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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