Progress at the Interstate Interchange Project has reached a crucial point where the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) and commuters are up against a wall — a 35-foot wall that separates the exit to I-95 south and the houses on Cabin John Road. The wall forces cars into one lane so that rush hour traffic backs up past the Braddock Road exit on I-495.
To complete the overpass from I-95 north toward the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, more bridge piers need to be constructed, forcing vehicles to shift to the right toward Springfield. Traffic coming off I-495 from the Tysons Corner area have been shifted to a new road close to the wall but they no longer have the extra lane which was used by vehicles in the past to illegally merge. VDOT engineer Larry Cloyed referred to the impromptu area motorists used as the "cheater gore strip."
"We looked at that long and hard back in the early design phases. You no longer have that cheater gore strip, they weren't pushed up against that 35-foot wall. It's very, very tight. There's just no real estate to push another lane through," he said.
Cloyed did look at all options but each time designers looked at adding a lane for that ramp, they had to take a lane away from either the Woodrow Wilson Bridge traffic or the I-395 south traffic. None of the choices were painless for motorists.
"I've looked at a couple of options. They're all bottlenecking into one system," Cloyed said.
Although traffic has always backed up at that particular exit, it's gotten worse since the new traffic flow was established. Cloyed admitted that the back ups are more severe but they've received few complaints on the project as a whole.
"Since we made the switch, the back ups have extended a little bit. We've had very few complaints," he said.
Northern Virginia Community College student Danny Hamlin deals with the back up every week day. He thinks the new lanes have improved it but not by much.
"Friday afternoon it goes all the way back to Braddock," he said.
Relief is in sight but not until July 2004 at the earliest, said Cloyed. At that time, traffic from I-95 north will use the overpass bridge, two lanes of traffic from I-495 will travel in their own lanes that empty onto I-95 south further down, and local Springfield traffic will travel in a separate, far right lane going into Springfield.
"It's going to be a little while, hopefully they'll [motorists] be a little more courteous. That [July 2004] could be the earliest we'd have it through," he said. July is an early target date and November 2004 is the absolute latest date he said.
CLOYED RECOMMENDS proper merging, alternate routes and patience. Too many cars use the through lanes until the last minute and then merge over. This creates lane blockage on I-495 and is the root of the traffic jams that go all the way back past Braddock Road. Sometimes a Virginia State Police trooper waits in the shoulder lane for motorists practicing old habits of using two lanes.
Lucy Caldwell, state police spokesperson, said that a trooper there is not a new priority since the lane shift, but part of routine patrolling.
"We respond to shoulder runners. Those shoulders are meant for emergency personnel. We respond where there are problems," she said.
Although there isn't a way to make sure the motorists merge into the right lane back on I-495 the correct way, instead of cutting in at the last minute, Caldwell also looks at the new configuration as nothing new. Cars from I-495 were always supposed to be merging to one lane in accordance with the lane markings.
"That's what they should have been doing all along. They have to learn to deal with it even if it means temporary inconveniences," she said.
Hamlin is one of the culprits that cuts in at the last minute.
"I stay in the left lane until I get to 95" he said.
If it's real bad, he looks for alternates.
"If it's stopped, I'll go all the way to Van Dorn," he said.