For years, the problems of Northern Virginia's Route 28 have been overshadowed by those of big highways such as Interstates 66 and 495. They got all the attention — and most of the money.
The state highway and major commuter route spanning 45 miles from Fauquier to Loudoun counties passes through farming communities, a booming job hub and growing suburbs, and it's among the region's most traffic-choked.
The roadway's design, which changes from four lanes in each direction to three and two, produces unavoidable bottlenecks. Still, the southern portion of the route has for years been near the bottom of the region's transportation priorities, even as massive growth has aggravated traffic, residents and officials say. There were other, more pressing projects and limited transportation funds to address them.
Then came November, and Route 28's traffic pains were revealed to the world on the red carpet at the American Music Awards.
State Del. Danica Roem (D), who had become a national sensation, making history as the nation's first openly transgender person elected and seated in a U.S. statehouse, stood on the red carpet alongside music superstar Demi Lovato, talking about her victory, and said: "I just want to fix Route 28."
The vast majority of the millions watching the awards ceremony probably had no idea what Roem was talking about. But for the thousands of commuters who use Route 28 daily, the moment vindicated their years of complaints about excessive queuing, bumper-to-bumper traffic and interminable delays.
"That road has been backed up for 30 years," Roem said in a recent interview. Her campaign agenda centered on fixing the region's infrastructure — chiefly the state highway her mother used to commute to work.
"I remember being a kid seated in my mother's car as she was driving up to her job, near Dulles International Airport, and traffic was miserable the whole way there," Roem said.
It still is in long stretches of the corridor. Multimillion-dollar investments to widen the road and eliminate traffic lights have brought some relief in Loudoun and parts of Fairfax County, north of I-66. Those projects, including a $43 million widening completed last year, have improved travel for thousands of drivers, officials say. But areas south of I-66, particularly in fast-growing Prince William, have seen little to no improvement.
The six-mile section between Manassas Park and Centreville in western Fairfax remains one of the worst. Go a few more miles north, and you reach another choke point — this one ranked seventh worst in the region for traffic congestion in a 2016 report — and that's in a region with some of the worst traffic in the country.
Virginia Department of Transportation officials say gridlock on Route 28 is so bad that backups extend four to five miles during the afternoon rush and the peak travel for the evening commute starts as early as 2 p.m. Some stretches of the road carry as many as 140,000 vehicles daily.
"It can take half an hour to go six miles," and that's on a good day, said Mark Scheufler, a Manassas Park resident and founder of the advocacy group Fix Route 28. The good news, Scheufler said, is that there's now talk of improvements.
Some transportation advocates, including Roem, say they want to make the corridor a priority, and the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority is exploring solutions for the portion south of I-66, focusing on the challenges at the Fairfax-Prince William line. Adding lanes, as was done in Loudoun and portions of Fairfax, isn't going to be easy.
"It is a much tougher corridor when you get south of 66," said Susan Shaw, director of Mega Projects for VDOT. There's little to no right of way to widen, traffic lights would be tricky to remove, and the area is densely developed with commercial and residential uses. In the past decade, fast growth has spurred significant traffic.
It also would be expensive. Relieving traffic along just 2.2 miles of the road in Prince William could cost between $200 million and $300 million, according to a NVTA study. And any improvements would take years to complete.
"The option of simply widening the road is a lot more difficult than it would be in Fairfax and in some other areas. We are not even sure that it is possible," said Martin Nohe, chairman of the NVTA and a Prince William County supervisor whose district includes the corridor.
"If it is possible, it absolutely requires a huge amount of condemnation of commercial property, and it is crazy expensive," Nohe said. So the NVTA is studying various options to add capacity along a larger segment of the corridor.
Roem, meanwhile, is pushing for spot improvements. In her first order of business in Richmond last month, she filed legislation calling on VDOT to explore alternative intersection designs along the corridor, a precursor to getting rid of traffic signals on the highway. But that proposal died in committee last week.
More immediate changes for the corridor are in the pipeline. Fairfax County is advancing a widening project to expand the route to six — and even eight — lanes in some stretches from the Prince William line at Bull Run Bridge to the interchange at Route 29.
VDOT is remaking the I-66 interchange at Route 28, a project expected to be completed by 2022, as part of a $2.3 billion expansion of I-66 outside the Capital Beltway. The interchange work, which began late last year and is estimated to cost between $300 million and $400 million, could be a critical piece to the improvement south of the interstate in Fairfax and Prince William, officials say.
"No one will actually get to work faster if we don't first improve the interchange," Nohe said. From a morning commuter's perspective, he said, "improvements in Prince William mean nothing if you don't first have improvements in Fairfax County. And the improvements to the road in Fairfax don't mean anything unless you have the improvements at the interchange. . . . The interchange is the center of gravity for the entire corridor."
As part of the interchange project, crews will make improvements to two miles of Route 28 north of the interchange, including by eliminating four traffic lights and widening of the road, Shaw said.
The NVTA has approved $30 million for the $69 million widening project south of the interstate, in Fairfax bordering Prince William, Nohe said. The entire Route 28 corridor from Fauquier to Loudoun is looking at up to $1 billion in investments, he said. A big chunk of that money would go toward fixing the Prince William section, which has been neglected long enough, Nohe said.
"The problem has been building for 20 years. For the last 10 years, everyone has complained every day," Nohe said. "What's clear is that Route 28 is now our top priority in the county."
A recent study commissioned by the NVTA has narrowed to four the options to lessen traffic congestion in the area from Bull Run on the Fairfax County line through Manassas, Manassas Park and Prince William. And this year, the authority is starting the federal environmental review process that could lead to improvements within the next decade. That study is expected to be completed in 18 months, with recommendations implemented by 2026, Nohe said.
Widening in that stretch is estimated at $245 million and isn't likely to be a preferred option because of the impact on commercial property. Officials say two more promising options are tied to an extension of Godwin Drive — a bypass that would carry Route 28 traffic and reconnect to 28 closer to I-66. A fourth alternative would extend Euclid Avenue, a road parallel to Route 28, to Lake Drive to connect to Route 28 near Bull Run.
Any of the improvements would require coordination among the various jurisdictions. Roem says her goal is to find alternatives to traffic lights, eliminating them where possible, and to build support for other travel alternatives — including transit — for the corridor. Officials and commuters say they are at least encouraged by the momentum and the construction that is about to begin on the I-66 interchange.
"People will get more frustrated in the next few years because of all the construction that is going on," said Scheufler, the Manassas Park resident. "It will get worse before it gets better."