Daniel Nissley Jr., 51, of Calverton, hauls milk for a living, and his travels often take him through the intersection where combined Routes 15 and 29 meet Route 17 in southern Fauquier County.

"It's a hazardous crossing," he said Monday, and he should know.

Only hours before, at about 1 a.m., he was headed south on Route 15/29 for a delivery in North Carolina when his tractor-trailer was struck almost broadside in the Route 17 intersection by a tractor-trailer driven by Steven Townsend, 23, of Glen Allen, Va.

The crash killed Townsend's passenger, Terry Fleming, 22, also of Glen Allen, and seriously injured Townsend, who was flown to Inova Fairfax Hospital, where he was listed in critical condition late Tuesday, authorities said.

Nissley walked away with cuts and bruises, but the wreck totaled his rig and spilled some of the 45,000 pounds of milk he was carrying.

Townsend was hauling meat for the Richmond branch of Empire Beef Co.; a supervisor there said he was headed for Pittsburgh. That would have required him to turn north onto Route 15/29 from Route 17. For north-turning traffic, there is a right-turn-only lane with a yield sign, making it unnecessary to proceed into the intersection.

Virginia State Police spokeswoman Lucy Caldwell said the accident remains under investigation. Once the traffic report is filed, Virginia Department of Transportation officials said they will review it to see if anything short term can be done to lessen the danger where four-lane Route 17 meets four-lane Route 15/29.

But more permanent relief won't come to the intersection for years, in 2005, when construction on a $14 million interchange is scheduled to begin.

The so-called Opal intersection--with a gas station, a convenience store, a couple of fast-food restaurants and a gun shop--has occupied local and state transportation planners for some time. Supervisor David C. Mangum (R-Lee) said construction has been delayed several times by a political debate over whether improvements "would invite more development here."

Both the traffic and the debate have intensified as the county grows. "You have a lot of people traveling there that are not local, and you have a lot of people coming through there because of the construction on [Interstate] 95," said Bob Moore, a VDOT engineer. "It's just a busy stretch of road."

According to state figures, traffic at the crossroads increased from an average of 21,860 vehicles a day in 1990 to 35,930 a day in 1997, the last year for which figures were available. Tractor-trailers made up about 12 percent of the traffic in 1997, compared with a statewide average of 5 percent on primary highways, according to VDOT statistician Jeff Hores.

That volume has translated into accidents, Mangum said. According to state figures and not including Monday's wreck, there were 132 accidents at the intersection from 1990 through June 1998. Of those, four resulted in fatalities, 59 in injuries and 69 in property damage only.

But the intersection's accident rate, which reached a peak of 3.23 accidents per million vehicles in 1991, has dropped to 0.76 accidents per million, less than the state average of about 1 accident per million, Hores said.

Moore attributes much of the decrease to the addition of a left-turn lane from Route 29 onto southbound Route 17 in 1991 and the addition of a strobe light to the traffic signals in 1996.

Those gains in safety could be offset by greater volume, some say.

"If the rate of traffic increases, you can only expect more strain on that intersection," said William H. Armstrong, chairman of the Fauquier County Transportation Committee, comprised of citizens and local elected officials.

The new interchange was proposed in 1996, and its location was approved in 1997 by the Commonwealth Transportation Board. Now, said VDOT spokesman Jim Jennings, surveying and property acquisition are being completed and state funds are being allocated incrementally; the 70 percent funding required for the project to start won't be reached until 2005.

The new interchange would send southbound Route 29 traffic onto an elevated ramp that would cross left, or eastward, over the current roadway. The westbound traffic on Route 17, merging with the northbound traffic on Routes 15 and 29, would travel via an extended turn lane, according to current plans.

CAPTION: Collision of two tractor-trailers Monday where Routes 17 and 15/29 meet has renewed concerns about the intersection.