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McAuliffe hoping to lock in federal grant for big road, rail projects

The Interstate 95 merge for the southbound regular lanes and express lanes in Stafford County often creates a bottleneck. (Win Mcnamee/Getty Images)
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Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) said Wednesday that he hopes to hear very soon that the federal government will grant as much as $200 million to the commonwealth to advance the Atlantic Gateway transportation projects. The projects include an extension of the 95 Express Lanes south to Fredericksburg, a new Interstate 95 bridge over the Rappahannock River and a fix for the aging Long Bridge over the Potomac River, as well as other rail improvements in Northern Virginia.

“I think we’ll know in the next few days,” McAuliffe said during his “Ask the Governor” show on WTOP radio. McAuliffe was buoyant in describing the potential impact of this set of transportation projects, not only on travel along the I-95 corridor in Northern Virginia but also on long-range travel through the southeastern United States.

A portion of what overall would amount to more than $1 billion in state, federal and private investment would help lay the groundwork for high-speed rail through the Southeast by allowing Virginia to acquire CSX’s S Line, an abandoned rail route between Petersburg and the North Carolina border.

Virginia officials unveil ‘Atlantic Gateway’

But projects located within Northern Virginia would be enough to tantalize commuters who use VRE or who are worrying about the highway congestion they will encounter on vacation trips south of the District. Falling under the umbrella of Atlantic Gateway projects is the plan to extend the 95 Express Lanes north to the area around the Pentagon while making improvements to the Eads Street interchange used by Pentagon traffic.

On the southern side of the 95 Express Lanes, the Virginia Department of Transportation has been planning an extension of about two miles to ease a notorious bottleneck where the southbound express lanes merge with the regular lanes of I-95. The Atlantic Gateway program includes an extension of the express lanes all the way south to Fredericksburg. The program also includes construction of a new bridge over the Rappahannock River and other highway improvements designed to ease southbound travel.

On the rails in Northern Virginia, the program would add a fourth track to the line between the Potomac River and Alexandria, easing a bottleneck for both freight and passenger rail service, benefiting VRE and Amtrak riders. A third track would be added to the line for about eight miles between the Franconia-Springfield VRE station and the Occoquan River.

The program also would accelerate the long-discussed reconstruction of the Long Bridge, the crucial rail link over the Potomac.

McAuliffe this month has been touting his administration’s accomplishments — or pending accomplishments — on transportation in Northern Virginia. In addition to describing the Atlantic Gateway program, he reminded radio listeners about plans to add high-occupancy toll lanes to I-66 inside and outside the Beltway. The HOT lanes inside the Beltway are scheduled to begin operating at rush hours next summer. The ones outside the Beltway, part of a much more complex construction project, could open in late 2020.

It was only on the future of cross-Potomac traffic at the American Legion Bridge that he was unable to report any progress. The governor took a call from Rob Whitfield, a Reston resident whose voice is familiar to just about anyone who has been to a meeting about a transportation project in Northern Virginia. Whitfield, who was driving on the west side of the Beltway, asked McAuliffe whether the state had made progress in teaming up with the Maryland state government on cross-Potomac traffic improvements.

McAuliffe had none to report. “I am worried to death about it,” the governor said about the condition and the traffic capacity of the Legion Bridge. “We need a new bridge.” McAuliffe also expressed his continued support for a new river crossing farther to the west.

The governor bemoaned the fact that the 495 Express Lanes, the HOT lanes along the west side of the Beltway, deliver traffic into a bottleneck at the Legion Bridge. “We’ve got these beautiful express lanes, and then they come down, and you’re stuck,” he said.

But the Potomac River is “100 percent in Maryland territory,” McAuliffe concluded. “I can’t tell another jurisdiction what to do.”