Like thousands of other commuters in Northern Virginia, Carl Peterson and John Powell were angry. Week after week, year after year they sat in traffic backups on I-95 going from their homes in Prince William County to their office at Mitre Corp. in Tysons Corner.
One day last February after a particularly dreadful trip, the two systems engineers decided something had to be done. Over lunch they mapped out a plan of attack.
Less than a year later, the Federal Highway Administration is expected to approve a temporary High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lane from Springfield to Woodbridge, in large part because of their efforts. The temporary lane could open as early as November 1985, state officials said.
"It's a victory for these guys," said Prince William County transportation chief John Schofield. "The wheels of bureaucracy usually turn awfully slow, but this has gone from an idea to green lights all the way to Washington just since March," Schofield said. "It's a story of two guys who got fed up and did something about it."
What Peterson and Powell did was to suggest to Gov. Charles S. Robb a plan to "borrow" one lane from the three less-traveled southbound lanes to use for traffic headed toward Washington during morning rush hours, separate it with a concrete barrier and to designate it exclusively for cars with two or more persons (HOV-2) between Woodbridge and Springfield. In the evening during rush hours, a lane would be "borrowed" from the three northbound lanes for use by HOV vehicles headed south. The two men also sent along to the governor a petition signed by 1,500 other "Forgotten Commuters."
The men tagged their informal group the "Forgotten Commuters" because "we sat in that traffic in Prince William and watched work being done on the Beltway to the District, watched them resurface the Woodrow Wilson Bridge and watched them start building the Dulles Access Road and we just felt, well, forgotten," said Peterson.
Robb, after responding to the letter, sent it to the Virginia Department of Highways and Transportation where it was carefully studied. The state already had plans for a long-term solution to the problem -- adding a permanent fourth lane on both north and southbound I-95 -- but implementation was years away (1990) and had a $96 million price tag.
After the letter and petition were forwarded to the state highway department, Peterson said he and Powell were invited to present their proposal at a department allocation meeting in Richmond. "They were so responsive," Peterson said, "and although they said the chances for a temporary solution were probably low, we tried to convince them that there were relatively inexpensive ways to solve the problem. We were delighted they agreed with us."
While the state highway department's present plan for the temporary HOV lane differs from what Powell and Peterson originally presented, state planning engineer R.C. Lockwood said: "They Peterson and Powell provided the catalyst for our solution. They presented themselves very well with a legitimate concern in a reasonable way."
The state plan includes strengthening and widening the shoulder of I-95 and narrowing by one foot the three existing lanes on both sides of the corridor between Springfield and Woodbridge to create a fourth lane for about seven miles. The $4.7 million project does not include a concrete barrier, part of Powell and Peterson's original proposal, which is considered a safety hazard by federal highway officials, Lockwood said.
Lockwood sent the plan to the federal divisional office in Richmond with a "high recommendation," where it was approved and sent to the federal regional office in Baltimore, which also approved it, Lockwood said. Ron Heinz, chief of the federal highway design department, said last week that his office has approved the concept and will send it back to the state by the end of this month.
Heinz's office is wrestling with the fact that the state has recommended a high-occupancy vehicle rate of two people per vehicle while the federal office in Baltimore recommends four. "That is one issue that has not been fully resolved," Heinz said. "We have to decide which is operationally feasible and safest for the commuter."
The interstate between Woodbridge and Springfield is called "Crisis Corridor," according to state principal engineer John Nesselrodt. The proposal is acceptable Nesselrodt said, because it will fit in with the final solution in 1990.
Powell and Peterson don't feel their job is done. They are still continuing their efforts to help create a group of Northern Virginia commuters that would advise the governor and the highway commission on commuters' views and are looking for ways to change Virginia's highway-funding allocation statutes.
Reflecting on the success of helping to find a solution to his own problem, Peterson said, "maybe there are safe, sensible, interim solutions to other problems. It's always worth a try."