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Will new lanes bring backups?

BY SCOTT SHENK

Clearing up the Dumfries choke point on southbound Interstate 95 has been one of the positives touted by proponents of the new Interstate 95 express lanes.

But what about Garrisonville, which, at least temporarily, will be the new endpoint of the southbound express lanes?

Will I–95 in that area become the new choke point, where nightmarish traffic jams sprout on a daily basis?

No, say Virginia Department of Transportation and Stafford officials.

When the new express lanes are opened, I–95 traffic certainly will move more slowly at  Garrisonville—an unavoidable consequence when five  lanes become three.

But unlike at Dumfries, where HOV traffic simply funnels onto I–95 from the left, the plans for Garrisonville call for a flyover that is supposed to make for a smoother merge.

“I’m sure that at high travel times it will cause a little bit more of a slowdown than we’re used to,” said Paul Milde, the Stafford County supervisor who represents the Aquia District. “But in general I’m happy with it.”

Construction on the nearly $1 billion express-lanes project started in early August. It will add nine new miles in the median of I–95 that will connect to the already existing lanes at Dumfries. There also will be expansion of the existing HOV lanes north of that point.

The I–95 express lanes, expected to be up and running by the end of 2014, will tie in to the $1.4 billion Interstate 495 express lanes, a project expected to be complete by December or January.

The lanes will carry variable electronic tolls adjusted according to the traffic flow. Cars with at least three people, motorcycles, buses and vanpools will be able to use the lanes for free.

“Overall, commuting time is going to be reduced, and that’s a good thing,” Milde said. “It’s a great step in the right direction.”

Steven Titunik, communications director for Virginia Megaprojects, said the design at Garrisonville will help avoid the Dumfries choke-point problems.

The plans call for a flyover where the express lanes end, which drivers headed to Garrisonville and Aquia will be able to use to exit  onto State Route 610.

The flyover also will allow traffic from the express lanes to merge from the right onto the main I–95 lanes.

Titunik said that is one of the keys that should make the merge a smoother process than at Dumfries, which will also undergo changes where HOV traffic gets off the express lanes.

Also, said Titunik, traffic shouldn’t be as bad at the Garrisonville endpoint because people will exit the interstate between Dumfries and Stafford.

It’s not as if traffic is light in that area, though. According to VDOT’s 2010  daily traffic counts, 141,000 vehicles use the interstate each way between the Prince William–Stafford county line  and Garrisonville. The only local area of I–95 busier than that is the section between U.S. 17 and State Route 3.

Titunik said there are other improvements from the express lanes that should help avoid choke-point problems at Garrisonville, as well as jams in other areas along the corridor.

The project will include the addition of more park-and-ride spaces along the corridor, creating more options for slugs and those who want to use vanpools or buses, he said. And people who use those options also will be able to ride the express lanes all the way to Tysons Corner.

“It’s all about choice,” Titunik said of the express lanes. “It improves all along the line.”

Plus, he and Milde explained, Garrisonville is not supposed to be the end of the line for the express lanes.

While there is no timeline, plans call for the eventual expansion of the express lanes to Massaponax in Spotsylvania County.

“Overall,” Milde said, “commuting time is going to be reduced. And that’s the goal.”

Scott Shenk:  540/374-5436

sshenk@freelancestar.com

THE EXPRESS LANES

WHAT’S NEW: The project will add nine miles of new lanes in the Interstate 95 median between Dumfries and Garrisonville and expand existing HOV lanes to the north.

HOW THEY’LL WORK: The express lanes will carry a variable electronic toll, requiring all vehicles except motorcycles to have an  EZPass.

TIMELINE: Construction has started, with the lanes scheduled to open by the end of 2014.

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