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10-mile extension of 95 Express Lanes in Virginia unlikely to open next year

The project is entangled in a contractual dispute over soil conditions

Aerial view of a new overpass and other construction along Interstate 95, near Stafford High School, as part of the 95 Express Lanes extension to Fredericksburg, Va. (DC Aerial Photos Inc/Transurban)
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A 10-mile extension of the 95 Express Lanes in Northern Virginia is behind schedule as the project is entangled in a contractual dispute over soil conditions that has slowed construction.

Work on the $565 million project to bring high-occupancy toll lanes to Fredericksburg began in 2019 and was expected to be finished in October 2022. But officials with the Virginia Department of Transportation and toll operator Transurban said the roadway expansion will take longer to complete.

Transurban and its contractor, a joint venture between Branch Civil and Flatiron Construction (BFJV), are in a binding arbitration process to settle a dispute over costs and the project’s timeline, according to VDOT, which provides oversight of the project.

BFJV has contested that geologic conditions in the construction zone have affected its ability to keep the project on schedule, VDOT said. At a hearing in October, an arbitrator ruled that BFJV is entitled to an adjustment of the price and more time to complete the project because of the soil conditions.

“A second arbitration hearing is expected to occur in January 2022 to resolve the level of relief to which the BFJV is entitled,” VDOT said in a statement. The agency said Transurban and BFJV have agreed to abide by the outcome without further litigation.

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Construction has continued while the dispute moves through arbitration, Transurban said. It declined to say how much more time or money it will need to build the lanes. Attempts to reach the BFJV group were unsuccessful.

Transurban is extending the reversible 95 Express Lanes from Route 610 to Route 17 near Fredericksburg. The project is expected to deliver another milestone in the state’s vision to create a network of more than 90 miles of HOT lanes in Northern Virginia.

Several other projects are in the works along the route as part of an expansion of the interstate that aims to reduce gridlock in a section that carries an average of 150,000 vehicles daily. The new toll lanes will connect to a newly opened three-lane crossing over the Rappahannock River that doubled capacity along southbound Interstate 95. Another bridge over the Rappahannock is under construction to create the same capacity for the northbound lanes, which is scheduled to open in 2024.

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That project is just south of where crews are working on the 10-mile extension. It should help to ease congestion created when the express lanes end and traffic merges into the general travel lanes.

North of the project zone, Transurban is advancing a plan for a new reversible ramp — a $50 million project — connecting the 95 Express Lanes at Opitz Boulevard to enhance access to the Potomac Mills shopping center. Groundbreaking is expected this summer, with completion in 2024. And VDOT is building a new southbound auxiliary lane, a $30 million project, on I-95 in Woodbridge to address a traffic bottleneck at the Occoquan Bridge.

Virginia transportation officials say the Fredericksburg extension will increase lane capacity — by 66 percent in the peak direction — along one of the most congested stretches of I-95. When the lanes open, carpoolers will be allowed to ride free. Solo drivers can use the lanes at a cost. Even those who choose not to pay can benefit, officials said, because having more people in the toll lanes should relieve congestion in the general lanes.

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Construction since June 2019 has created additional traffic headaches for drivers in the corridor, although lighter traffic volumes during the coronavirus pandemic helped to minimize the effects.

The project is more than 50 percent complete, with the second of two major bridge reconstructions scheduled to start in the spring, said Transurban spokeswoman Tanya Sheres. Crews have put in more than 900,000 work-hours on the job, while removing more than 750,000 cubic yards of dirt, she said.

Sheres said the area has a highly plastic clay and silt material that require a different approach to construction. Transurban and its contractor are working to determine the amount of clay in the area and trying to understand the impact. Transurban and VDOT said adjustments to the project timeline and cost should be determined at the arbitration hearing next month.

“The construction of mega-infrastructure projects is complex and always comes with challenges,” Sheres said in an email. “Our Virginia Express Lanes network along the 95, 495 and 395 corridors were all delivered on-time and on-budget, and we continue to bring that depth of experience and commitment to” the Fredericksburg extension.

Transurban also operates the 495 Express Lanes and is working on a three-mile extension to the American Legion Bridge.

VDOT officials said they have facilitated meetings to identify construction options that minimize schedule delays.

“VDOT will continue in its oversight role to ensure the project is delivered safely and built to contract standards,” the agency said. “We are ready to help clear obstacles to mitigate schedule delays to bring congestion relief for the region and all Virginians as quickly as possible.”