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Interchange Phases Cause Backups, Headaches

Commuters heading east on I-495 during evening rush hour are familiar with traffic backups all the way back to the Braddock Road exit going toward the interchange. With construction stepping up on Phases IV and V on the interchange project, bridge pylons are going up, lanes are shifting, and the backup on I-495 is getting worse.

Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) spokesperson Joan Morris goes right through that stretch on a daily basis on her way to the VDOT office near the Dulles corridor.

"I am crossing the mixing bowl every day. At the height of rush hour, that's tough," she said of that stretch of highway. "The far left lane was for through traffic. They've really taken a lane away from us," she said.

April Lanier is a senior at Mountain View High School in Centreville but lives in Springfield. She's noticed the change as well. She gets on the highway at Braddock Road.

"Getting on 95, there was a lot of traffic. It hasn't been happening that long," she said.

Phases IV and V (four and five) were originally together as one but were divided into separate phases for bidding purposes. Phase IV is now the eastern side of the interchange, and Phase V is west. Another overpass is being constructed as part of Phase V from I-495 east to I-395 north, and this has led to the reduction in lanes.

<mh>Traffic Backup

<bt>The ramp from I-95 north to I-495 east has undergone a change as well, resulting in backups stretching down to Lorton. The exit ramp has been adjusted to one lane running alongside I-495/95 east instead of merging with the highway earlier. That means the entire east coast through traffic from Florida to New York is funneled through one lane. Project communications director Steve Titunik explained that it was always one lane, but the traffic used to merge onto the highway earlier, not creating such a big problem.

"It was always one lane," Titunik said, noting that the problem will be remedied on Jan. 23, barring any inclement weather, when a second lane opens and they re-stripe a portion of the highway.

"The ramp to the outer loop will get better," he said.

The move was initially done right before Christmas, exacerbating the problem. Titunik got some e-mails from disgruntled motorists, he said.

<mh>More Construction

<bt>A 120-foot-high overpass handling traffic coming from I-495 west to I-95 south is going up as part of phase IV, as well. It has a reputation already.

"The monster ramp is going to be open," Morris said.

The bridge piers that are up so far are on VDOT property in the highway median, so the construction did not require much lane closure, but soon the piers south of I-495 will cause more headaches. There is less room down there for the trucks and cranes. It will be a mile-long overpass and has a completion time of 18 months. Titunik sees it coming.

"It's a great time for motorists to consider alternative routes," he said.

Taking the Springfield exit and going around the mall to Franconia Road to Van Dorn Street and then back on the highway is one way. Getting on Backlick Road at the Newington exit, going through Springfield to Braddock Road to I-495 is another. It's a no-win situation, though.

"Than you'll have the residents complaining," Titunik said.

<mh>Phases VI and VII

<bt>Although there is a lot happening in Phases IV and V, the biggest part of the project is Phases VI and VII, according to Titunik. During these phases, there will be more work done in the heart of the actual interchange. It is also the most expensive.

"Six and seven is probably the biggest project," Titunik said, comparing it with a package being wrapped. "Six and seven is the knot tying it all together," he said.

Contracts for these phases have not been awarded yet, but Titunik noted the way they all are connected. For instance, one of the three bridges carrying traffic from Old Keene Mill eastbound to I-495 will not be fully utilized until the lanes are constructed in Phases VI and VII.

"The real good stuff of [phases] two and three won't be felt until six and seven are complete," he said.

Although the boundaries of the interchange project don't quite reach the bridge project in Alexandria, it affects motorists too. With the price tag on the interchange making it one of the biggest priced items on VDOT's list, the actual bridge and redesign of the Richmond Highway interchange are expensive as well. With the Richmond Highway interchange, more land has to be acquired than at the interchange, so it's more expensive, according to Morris.

"There's a lot of property acquisition," Titunik added.