The executive director of the Nissan Pavilion in Gainesville is urging state transportation officials to quickly carry out plans to relocate Lee Highway onto a bridge over the railroad tracks where a freight train slammed into a sport-utility vehicle caught in concert traffic.
Wilson Rogers said the state was neglecting drivers' safety by failing to provide adequate funding for the work, which is part of a wider project to rebuild the Interstate 66 interchange with Lee Highway.
Five people suffered minor injuries at the railroad crossing Friday evening when a Norfolk Southern train traveling about 12 miles an hour crashed into the SUV, which had stopped on the tracks crossing Lee Highway near the Interstate 66 interchange. The SUV then plowed into six other cars, police said.
"That may be the most dangerous railroad crossing I've ever seen on a highway," Rogers said. "I'm surprised we don't have more accidents at that at-grade crossing than we have."
Prince William County officials have expressed disappointment in recent weeks that the state has delayed funding for several road projects. Supervisor Edgar S. Wilbourn III (R-Gainesville) said a recent decision by the Commonwealth Transportation Board could delay the Lee Highway work for up to two years.
A task force set up by Wilbourn is still grappling with the best design for the project. He said the state's current plan for Lee Highway could create new safety hazards by forcing traffic onto side streets.
The thorny debate over how to rebuild the interchange--and eliminate the railroad crossing--is further complicated by the heavy traffic pumped onto roads by concerts at the Nissan Pavilion. The incident Friday occurred when about 8,000 cars were crowding onto the site before a concert by Bob Dylan and Paul Simon.
Before the amphitheater opened in 1995, the developers agreed to road improvements--including a new ramp on I-66--that county and state transportation officials said would be sufficient to handle the traffic. But pavilion officials and government agencies quickly realized that they had underestimated the problem.
"Ever since the Nissan Pavilion was built, we've been playing catch-up," said Joan Morris, spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Transportation. "We're committed to working with the county to get the interchange designed and built."
Before the 1998 season, officials introduced a new route to the center designed to keep traffic from backing up on I-66 before concerts. They also made Wellington Road one-way after concerts, adding a second lane for departing cars.
"It's much better," Rogers said. "We're unloading traffic quickly, but we still have bottlenecks."
He said the only way to ease traffic further would be for the state to proceed with plans to improve the Gainesville interchange and widen Wellington Road to four lanes.
Still, police investigating the accident said congestion should not be blamed for the crash.
"People shouldn't stop on railroad tracks, ever. That has nothing to do with traffic," said Sgt. Kim Chinn, spokeswoman for the Prince William County police.