The News Desk is a collection of news, notes and breaking items affecting the Fredericksburg community.
HEADACHE NOW FOR RELIEF LATER
BY SCOTT SHENK
It doesn’t take much to throw a wrench into the weekday commute on Interstate 95, a place where something as innocuous as a broken-down car can cause miles of backups.
So how about that billion-dollar behemoth express lanes project that snakes along nearly 30 miles of interstate median from Prince William County south to Garrisonville?
Some five months into the project, which will add two lanes of electronically tolled express lanes to I–95, interstate drivers can see that most of the median has been denuded of trees.
And commuters now see just how trying the next two years or so are going to be.
Their response to the construction work at this point ranges from acceptance to annoyance and anger.
Some say the work zone could be managed better.
Others say drivers just need to pay better attention.
Virginia Department of Transportation officials say the project has caused nothing more than the expected delays and headaches typical of a major project. While construction is just getting started, VDOT isn’t far removed from the even bigger project—the much-more-complex express lanes on Interstate 495.
Those lanes opened in November. The new I–95 express lanes are expected to open in late 2014.
Ed Herbert, a defense contractor who has been carpooling and riding a motorcycle in the HOV lanes since 2000, said the project has caused serious damage to the pavement in those lanes.
He also said the drive is dangerous because of the work zone. Besides the rough road, he said, the temporary pavement markings cause confusion, and the loss of shoulder lanes makes the drive even more hazardous.
“It makes accidents more prone to happen,” said Herbert. He figures he sees a crash a day during his commute to Washington.
Some commuters agree with Herbert. Others say it’s not such a big deal and that it’s a driver’s responsibility to navigate the trip safely.
Sgt. Les Tyler of the Virginia State Police said authorities haven’t noticed any increase in crashes or anything unexpected in the work zone. There have been crashes, he said, but none caused by the project itself.
Tyler said troopers have had to adjust to the loss of shoulder space since the jersey walls were installed along the median, but they haven’t had any noticeable problems.
Herbert and other commuters say there are problems that could lead to crashes.
They say the old lane markings blend with the new ones added for the express lanes project. It’s particularly tough to drive at dawn and dusk.
“You can’t tell which lanes are where,” Herbert said.
VDOT officials said they are keeping an eye on potential work-zone problems, such as backups, rough road and pavement markings. Safety, they added, is always a crucial part of any highway project.
Steve Titunik of VDOT’s Megaprojects department, said officials are monitoring the lane markings issue and plan to make any needed fixes as fast as possible. They also plan to install reflectors along parts of the work zone.
Inspectors are constantly on the site, looking for any issues that might crop up, including anything that could lead to safety problems, Titunik said.
He said VDOT wants to hear from drivers, who can serve as their “eyes and ears,” and that they are open to giving presentations to groups interested in learning more about the express lanes work. Contact information and details on the project can be found online at: vamegaprojects.com.
Titunik said they regularly hear from drivers about the project, but so far nothing out of the ordinary. Congestion is the top issue.
Some commuters who responded to a question on Fredericksburg.com’s Face- book page said congestion has become worse in recent weeks.
Some of that can be attributed to the express lanes work, but another, smaller project probably has led to the recent increase in backups, Titunik said.
That work, along southbound I–95 near Quantico, has been going on since December. That emergency project involves intensive work to shore up eroded soil along a shoulder slope.
Meanwhile, the pace of work on the express lanes will intensify as traffic increases in the summer.
“Drivers are going to see more workers out there,” Titunik said. “And more progress.”
“The disruption is unavoidable,” said Michelle Holland, who is also with VDOT’s Megaproject department.
She said they try to limit the impact on traffic by adjusting construction work schedules times to avoid peak travel periods.
Titunik said they understand that the project is going to be a nuisance for I–95 drivers, especially commuters. But he said looking to the future might help get them through the next two years of increased congestion and tight squeezes in the narrow lanes.
He said the project will increase traffic capacity and create more options for commuters including an increase in the park-and-ride lots, and buses that will be able to use the express lanes.
Scott Shenk: 540/374-5436