How can you tell that one of the biggest road projects in the United States is under construction right around the corner?
For Kimberly Budnick, it's not the traffic backups on nearby roads or the clamor of jackhammers outside her window. For Budnick, the clue came when she arrived home from work one day last month and glanced toward the large stand of oak trees that had cast shadows onto her back yard.
Instead of trees, Budnick was looking straight at Springfield's Robert E. Lee High School. The 24 mature oak trees that separated her town house community from the school were the latest casualties of the "Mixing Bowl" project--felled as part of the ripple effect when a road on the other side of the school was slated for widening.
Despite months of planning for what officials knew would be disruption on roadways as the eight-year, $350 million project unfolds, businesses and residents of the area around the Springfield interchange are beginning to feel the pain in a way that is no longer merely imagined.
Orange cones are constricting traffic on local roads every day; about 50 homes have been demolished to make way for roads; commuters are cutting through neighborhoods to avoid construction zones; and road crews are racing to put up new signs to help drivers make sense of changing patterns.
And within the next month, all of the northbound lanes of Interstate 95 will jog to the right just south of the interchange to make room for construction work in the center of the roadway. Officials say the effect will be a significant traffic slowdown.
But for Budnick, whose Springfield Square homeowners association held a meeting last night about the trees, losing them was an unexpected indignity.
"We all left for work on a Thursday morning. There was no indication whatsoever that any construction was coming," the 35-year-old Justice Department employee said. "We came home, and it was all knocked down."
Officials fear the community is in for more.
"There's been an initial shock," said Fairfax County Supervisor Elaine N. McConnell (R-Springfield). "It's just beginning."
Virginia Department of Transportation officials say they are trying to anticipate disruptions. Several months ago, they bought hundreds of pairs of earplugs in the event that noisy nighttime construction bothered the guests at nearby hotels. So far, hotels haven't had to distribute the earplugs.
But state transportation officials predict disruptions from construction. Already they are responding to about 100 e-mails a week and have set up a question-and-answer store in Springfield Mall that has seen 15,000 "customers" since it opened last spring.
"We don't want there to be any surprises to any neighborhoods," said agency spokeswoman Joan Morris.
Tell that to Springfield Square homeowners.
As part of the new interchange, Franconia Road is being widened, cutting into Lee High School's baseball diamond. Finding a new home for the baseball field forced the relocation of a parking lot to where the tennis courts are now. School officials then decided to put the new courts where the oak trees stood on the rear of the school's property.
Last month, contractors for the Virginia Department of Transportation cut down the trees.
"The relocation of the tennis courts was a trickledown effect from the road widening," said David Watkins, a top facilities official for the school system.
Neighbors say they feel cheated out of a chance to participate in that decision-making, and their county supervisor, T. Dana Kauffman (D-Lee), agrees.
"I think the most important error [officials] committed, a significant, egregious error, was that they did not notify the Springfield Square community," Kauffman said.
The school system and the transportation department each blame the other for not informing the community before work began.
Meanwhile, a dozen cherry tree saplings were planted in Springfield Square last month, part of a county tree-planting program with a goal of "2000 trees by 2000." The irony is not lost on neighbors.
"The county is giving us trees," Budnick said. "And now they are taking other ones."
CAPTION: Kimberly Budnick, of Springfield, looks out over the empty lot behind her house where 24 oak trees had stood. The trees are a casualty of the "Mixing Bowl" project, which is expected to take eight years and cost $350 million.