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Votes

Traffic Nightmare

VDOT urges motorists to go someplace else this weekend.

Motorists using the outer loop of the Beltway in the vicinity of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge this weekend can expect 10- to 15-mile backups and delays ranging from 60 to 90 minutes.

The heaviest traffic impacts of the 11-year construction project are anticipated from 8 p.m. Friday, July 15, to 5 a.m. Monday, July 18, according to the Ronaldo "Nick" Nicholson, VDOT project manager, Woodrow Wilson Bridge Project.

"Motorists will do themselves a big favor by regarding the project area and northbound I-95 approaching the Beltway as a "no-go" zone this weekend," Nicholson said at a press conference Tuesday morning at project headquarters on Eisenhower Avenue.

"We will be closing the ramps onto the outer loop from I-95 at the Springfield Interchange and diverting that traffic to the American Legion Bridge for those going north or onto I-395 north, the 14th Street Bridge and I-295, for those going east into Maryland," he said.

In addition, ramps from north and south bound Route 1 to the Outer Loop and from the Outer Loop to northbound Route 1 will be closed, with detours to the Telegraph Road Interchange during the same time frame. "We are expecting extremely long backups and delays throughout the weekend," Nicholson said.

THESE WARNINGS are triggered by the fact that Beltway traffic will be shifted to flow under the newly completed southern half of the Washington Street overpass in Alexandria to allow construction to commence on the northern half and for paving. The switch is also essential to opening the Outer Loop portion of the new twin bridges by Spring 2006, according to Nicholson.

This 57-hour closure is necessary to pave connections to and from the existing Beltway alignment to the new alignment, according to VDOT engineers. These two connections involve right turns that must be banked which requires longer cooling time for the asphalt.

"Building up the banked turns involves laying 16 to 24 inches of asphalt, which must be placed in layers over a particular time sequence. Once started, the job must be must be carried through to completion," Nicholson said.

This will require reducing Outer Loop Beltway traffic to one lane in the construction area. "Each lane of construction requires closing two lanes in order to insure safe passage through the area for workers and motorists alike as well for the maneuverability of pavers and asphalt trucks," he said.

"We picked the weekend rather than week days to allow time for the asphalt to cool and because our traffic studies indicate there is 25 percent less bridge traffic on weekends," Nicholson said. "Working on the weekends gives us more flexibility."

Those traffic studies were done by VDOT consultants. Their statistic show peak weekend traffic on the bridge at 4,900 vehicle per hour at mid-day Saturdays.

"We are urging folks to do what ever they can to avoid this area. We have made media buys to get the word out as far away as the Outer Banks in North Carolina," said John Undeland, director, Public Affairs, Potomac Crossing Consultants.

"We have also sent notices and interactive messages to a variety of stakeholders such as chambers of commerce, tourism agencies, trucking companies and others. The core of the message is stay away if you can," Undeland said. To increase the effectiveness of these communications, Undeland acknowledge the media budget for this summer is approximately $350,000.

NICHOLSON ADMITTED that all this planning is completely weather dependent. "If we get sustained rains or unusually high temperatures we will not be able to go forward," he said.

However, he said, the rain factor does not include hit-and-go thunder storms. "Those we can work around and in some cases may actually help in speeding the cooling time of the asphalt," Nicholson said.

"I am concerned about gridlock in both the Old Town Alexandria area and southeastern Fairfax County," he said. In order to alleviate that, the project has increased its coordination with both local police and emergency services.

"We are working closely with local authorities to provide extra safety and information to motorists. We have also increased the signage and the timing of traffic signals to keep traffic moving as best as possible," said Marcelino Romero, traffic incident manager, Potomac Crossing Consultants.

All vehicles traveling south and north on Route 1, wishing to enter the outer loop to go into Maryland, will be diverted to the Telegraph Road interchange. Local drivers are urged to find alternate routes other than in the construction area.

Drivers will be able to use the Outer Loop and to enter and leave from Van Dorn, Eisenhower and Telegraph Road, according to Nicholson. "But, I would strongly urge against it," he said. "We are hoping local traffic will find other routes."

North/South HOV lanes on both I-95 and I-395 will be open as well as the regular north/south lanes on both routes over the 57 hour construction period. The only closure to I-95 will be the northbound ramp at the Springfield Interchange to enter the Outer Loop.

"Our goal is to divert 50 to 75 percent of this weekend's traffic away from the Woodrow Wilson Bridge. All normal traffic flow will be restored no later than 5 a.m. Monday morning," Nicholson said.

"If every thing goes swimmingly, we could have traffic back to normal flow by late Sunday," Undeland said. However, the whole procedure will be reinstituted in two to four weeks for the Inner Loop. This will also occur in the same time frame over a weekend.

AT PRESENT, the entire 7.5 mile, $4.4 billion project is approximately 40 percent complete, according to Nicholson. "We have been relatively successful so far in avoiding major traffic delays. But, we are now ready to put traffic on new areas. This summer will be the worst for traffic over the entire 11-year project," he said.

New traffic flows will be in effect for the next 10 months. Four construction steps to take place between July 4 and Labor Day are:

* Complete temporary connections to enable Outer Loop traffic to shift south onto new alignment.

* Begin construction of temporary connection enabling Inner Loop traffic to shift south onto new alignment.

* Complete construction of temporary connections for Inner Loop to shift south.

* Inner Loop traffic shifted onto new alignment and reopening Route 1 ramp.

Other changes scheduled for this summer include:

* Closing Church Street ramp from the Inner Loop until 2008.

* Complete intersection improvements at Franklin Street and Route 1 in Old Town Alexandria.

* Open permanent ramp from Outer Loop to southbound Route 1 over Cameron Run.

* Open permanent ramp from northbound Route 1 to Outer Loop over Hunting Creek.