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Virginia gets federal grant to uncork I-95 corridor

Virginia officials hope their Atlantic Gateway project will make this congestion on I-95 near Quantico a thing of the past. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) announced Tuesday that Virginia was awarded a federal grant of $165 million for its Atlantic Gateway program, a set of rail, highway and bridge projects meant to ease some of the worst travel bottlenecks on the East Coast.

“Winning this significant federal grant will allow Virginia to move forward on a project that will transform travel conditions and stimulate economic growth across our Commonwealth,” McAuliffe said in a statement about the grant supporting improvements in the I-95 corridor. “Our administration worked with federal, state, local and private sector parties to submit a package of transportation improvements that will have far-reaching benefits for everyone who travels the Commonwealth, whether by car, bus or train.”

The overall budget for Atlantic Gateway is $1.4 billion, a combination of the federal grant, $710 million in other public financing pulled together by the state and $565 million in private investment. Much of the spending would be on projects in Northern Virginia. These are the highlights of the program.

  • Extend the 95 Express Lanes 10 miles south to Fredericksburg to ease backups at the current southern terminus near Garrisonville Road in Stafford County.
  • Construct a new southbound bridge on I-95 across the Rappahannock River, which would help commuters and vacation traffic from the D.C. region.
  • Extend 95 Express Lanes seven miles north to the Potomac River and improve access to the Pentagon at the Eads Street interchange.
  • Add commuter parking and expand bus service in the I-95 corridor.
  • Build 14 miles of new track to ease the movement of VRE and Amtrak trains as well as freight. This rail part of Atlantic Gateway will include initial steps to rebuild the Long Bridge, the span that takes rail traffic across the Potomac River, as well as the widening of track segments in Northern Virginia.
  • Acquire the S Line, an abandoned rail corridor between the Richmond area and North Carolina. The line, now owned by CSX, could be used to extend high speed rail into the Southeast United States.

The pieces of the program have various timetables. Some, such as the northern extension of the 95 Express Lanes, have been in the works for more than a year. The express lanes work to the Pentagon area, which will replace the I-395 High Occupancy Vehicle lanes with three high-occupancy toll lanes, could be underway in 2017.

Virginia advances many transportation projects

On the south side, of the express lanes, the state has been working on a two-mile extension to get the lanes past the bottleneck at Garrisonville Road. It’s unclear what the Atlantic Gateway program’s 10-mile extension to Fredericksburg would do to that plan. State planners and the Transurban company, the state’s private partner on the express lanes, could decide that it makes less sense to create an exit two miles south of the current one when the overall goal is the 10-mile extension.

The state had asked for as much as $200 million in grants available through the U.S. Department of Transportation’s FASTLANE program. (You will love how they got that acronym. It stands for: “Fostering Advancements in Shipping and Transportation for the Long-term Achievement of National Efficiencies.”) The grant program invests in efforts to improve freight and highway mobility nationwide. All the grants given out by the DOT are subject to a 60-day period of congressional review.

Last week, when Virginia officials were eagerly anticipating a federal decision on the grant, Virginia Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne extolled the Atlantic Gateway program as greater than the sum of its parts. All those projects add up to a breakthrough for travel on the East Coast, he said.

If the program works as the planners hope, it will improve long-distance as well as local commuter rail travel, ease highway commuting times between the D.C. area and Fredericksburg, and offer more options to commuters who want to leave their cars behind.