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Finishing I-95 express lanes means more traffic delays

The southbound traffic is okay, but northbound traffic is jammed through the I-95 work zone, even off-peak on a weekday. (Robert Thomson/The Washington Post)

Construction of the 95 Express Lanes is 80 percent done, but at certain times of the week, drivers still find the work zone 100 percent annoying.

During the project’s final six months of planned work, drivers on 29 miles of Interstate 95/395 in Northern Virginia will continue to encounter frequent lane closings anywhere along the highway, and sometimes full closings in the reversible HOV lanes in the center of the roadway.

As any major project approaches completion, drivers write to me and say, “It looks done. Why can’t they open it.” That’s how they’ll see this one, too. Much of the heavy lifting, such as the construction flyover ramps that will take traffic to and from the express lanes, is done. Areas that last summer were just big piles of dirt are now paved overpasses.

There is still plenty of paving to do, but a lot of the remaining work is unique to the creation of high occupancy-toll lanes. Crews must install the tolling gantries, camera monitors, lane control gates, electronic signs and the wiring that links everything together. They also need to test the system to make sure it will accurately measure traffic flow, adjust the tolls accordingly and apply those tolls correctly to the E-ZPass accounts of the motorists who choose to use the lanes starting early next year.

If your goal is simply to enjoy a summer getaway weekend with a minimum amount of time devoted to getting there, this lengthy process of fine-tuning will be agonizing. The Virginia Department of Transportation and its private partners, Transurban and Fluor, say 950 tolling and traffic management devices will be deployed along the corridor. Among the most disruptive parts of that work is the installation of sign structures and gantries that span an entire portion of roadway, requiring that all lanes be temporarily shut. (Such closings are scheduled only for overnight times of light traffic, but they’re still disruptive.)

Besides the high-tech stuff to prepare for the HOT lanes operation, some of the remaining work is typical of any project, but just adds to the timeline: Crew still must do the final paving and lane markings, complete work on overpasses and install guardrails and sound walls.

Susan Shaw, director of VDOT’s Megaprojects office, which works to limit the impact on travelers, said the construction hours recently were adjusted to try to ease traffic. But drivers still will be slowed through the summer and fall.

This week, VDOT made an adjustment in the reversible lane pattern to try to accommodate the summertime traffic pattern and ease congestion on the interstate’s southbound side: The reversible lanes now close to northbound traffic by 10 a.m. each weekday and reopen for southbound traffic by noon.

There’s no sure-shot way around these delays for commuters and getaway traffic. If you are commuting solo by car, check the informative Web site to see if the informal carpooling system known as slugging can work for you. VDOT lists other travel options, including bus, rail and vanpool on this Web page.

The alternative routes that travelers most frequently mention are these: To the west, Routes 28 or 29 to Route 17, rejoining I-95 north of Fredericksburg. To the east, Route 301, crossing the Potomac River via the Nice Bridge (toll) and linking to I-95 south of Fredericksburg. Drivers could link up with I-95 south of Fredericksburg via Route 207.

Those I-95 alternatives add miles for many travelers, and don’t necessarily save time. They may simply be less grueling than traveling through the I-95/395 construction zone, which is one of the longest in the nation.

At the end of the July 4 weekend last Sunday, northbound traffic on I-95 was very heavy, but so was the northbound traffic on Route 301 approaching the Nice Bridge.

See more tips on avoiding summer bottlenecks.