A sign across from the Chevron gas station on Route 1 in Stafford says: "We thank God for our many blessings." Today, the two women behind the counter there are thankful for Exit 136.
"That new exit is going to make a big difference. The traffic here is horrendous, just horrendous; people honk and yell," said Tina Thornton, 33. "It's just like D.C."
"Yep, you may as well live in D.C.," said Tara Treger, 21, with a nod.
Changing that mind-set is a big part of the stated mission of Exit 136, an interchange on Interstate 95 to be dedicated at a ceremony today, weather permitting, and opened sometime before Christmas.
The interchange, near Stafford Regional Airport between the exits at Courthouse Road and Route 17, is the latest change to a rapidly changing county. A steady growth in residents -- 24 percent over the past four years -- largely from closer-in Washington suburbs, has made Stafford less rural and exurban and more suburban. Most of the newcomers commute to jobs in the District and its immediate suburbs. And though the new exit will make that commute easier, area officials have a different hope.
For Stafford, the interchange is part of an economic development strategy that officials have been crafting since the exit was approved in the early 1990s. Their goal is to give Stafford County its own economic identity by attracting defense contractors and other businesses with high-paying jobs that would lift the tax base and keep residents from having to endure the three-to-four-hour commute north. They also hope to create enough wealth to support a cultural life that would make the county the center of residents' lives.
By some yardsticks, Stafford is succeeding. Developers have built 2 million square feet of office space in the past two years, MediCorp Health System Inc. announced this summer that it would build a hospital in the county, and the recent realignment of military bases means 5,000 jobs are coming to the Quantico Marine Corps Base on the Prince William-Stafford line.
Economic development director Tim Baroody said he was elated last month when the Census Bureau released its list of communities with the highest median incomes. Stafford was 13th nationally, behind only Fairfax, Howard and Montgomery counties and the city of Falls Church in the Washington area.
"That is the kind of thing communities all over the country compete for," Baroody said.
But Stafford -- and the Fredericksburg region in general -- still faces an economic reality described yesterday by Treger, the Chevron cashier, who is planning to move to West Virginia as soon as she can find proper housing.
"There are really only a few things you can do in this area without having to commute," she said. "It's just not worth it."
Although the Census Bureau put Stafford's median annual household income in 2003 at $75,456, the average annual income of someone who works in the county is about $33,000.
The issue of economic independence has been on the table since the early 1990s.
"Stafford was developing, and we were talking about getting an airport. And it didn't make sense to build an airport without access," said Harry Lee, an engineer who has worked for the state transportation office in Fredericksburg for 49 years. "The airport was the key reason for the interchange."
The exit, the first new interstate interchange in the region since 1998, when one opened in Alexandria, will carry drivers to Route 1. For several years, it was part of a plan for a loop around the Fredericksburg area known as the Outer Connector. That plan was voted down by a regional transportation board a few years ago, but the $50 million for Exit 136 remained. Lee said it is more necessary than when it was first proposed, because the region has some of the worst traffic bottlenecks in the state -- bottlenecks that need to be resolved if Stafford is to create jobs.
Among those jams is at Routes 1 and 17, a few miles south of the new exit, and officials expect the interchange to allow people to avoid those bottlenecks.
Traffic was a key reason voters gave last month when they decided not to reelect four incumbent supervisors. "All these newcomers are anti-growth, but the growth is already here; we need to look forward," said Thurman "T." Campbell, chairman of the board that runs the Stafford Regional Airport, which opened in late 2001.
Plans are in the works to upgrade the airport -- a key to the overall Stafford strategy. The plan calls for building a terminal, more parking and covered spots for planes. The airport is just beyond the 30-mile security zone around Washington, which is important for marketing, Campbell said.
Angela Kearns is among the newcomers to Stafford. She and her husband moved from Woodbridge three years ago, and she has been working in offices along the Route 1 corridor for two years.
"Oh my gosh, it takes 40 minutes for me to drive home. And that's 15 miles," said Kearns, 26, a service dispatcher at Stafford Heating and Air. "But it's cheaper than up north. Well, it was cheaper."