The official kickoff of one of the Fredericksburg area’s biggest transportation projects since the express lanes was held Wednesday afternoon at the Interstate 95 Welcome Center near the State Route 3 exit.
Crews have already started preparing the work zone—from the U.S. 17 area in Stafford County to the Route 3 area—for the southbound Rappahannock River crossing project. They will soon start clearing trees from the median.
The end of the work is a ways off, though.
The crossing project is scheduled to wrap up in 2022. A northbound crossing project also is scheduled for construction. That work is set to start in 2020 and be completed in 2023.
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam and state Secretary of Transportation Shannon Valentine spoke at the groundbreaking. Northam noted that roads and other infrastructure play key roles in Virginia’s economy and said the state has “a lot of work to do.”
“One of the areas we need to focus on is transportation,” the governor said as traffic whizzed past on the interstate, where 150,000 vehicles pass daily.
“We need to get people from point A to point B. When people are sitting still on our highways—time is money for individuals,” Northam said. “We need to do everything we can to keep traffic flowing.”
The crossing projects have been in the pipeline for several years.
The $132 million southbound project was awarded funding two years ago through the state’s inaugural Smart Scale program, which ranks transportation projects using metrics designed to identify the ones with the most impact.
The northbound project was not chosen in the first two rounds of Smart Scale, but garnered funding earlier this year through an agreement between the state and express lanes operator Transurban as part of a deal to lengthen the toll lanes.
Both projects also are part of the more than $1 billion Atlantic Gateway program. That program, announced in 2016, will fund a variety of projects—from road and rail improvements to new commuter lots and upgraded technology—between Fredericksburg and Washington, D.C.
“It seems like yesterday that [VDOT’s Fredericksburg District Engineer Marcie Parker] was presenting this project before the Commonwealth Transportation Board,” Valentine told the gathering of about 50 people Tuesday.
Valentine emphasized that the crossing is a “critically important project” for an area “considered one of the most congested in our country.”
Six years ago, officials talked about the positive impact the I–95 express lanes would have on traffic in the corridor. The 29 miles of electronically tolled lanes opened at the end of 2014.
Even with those toll lanes, which run between North Stafford and Northern Virginia, congestion in the corridor remains a major issue.
Last September, the stretch of southbound I–95 from D.C. to U.S. 17 in Stafford was tabbed the “worst single traffic hotspot” in the nation by traffic data company INRIX Roadway Analytics. The northbound side of I–95 also cracked the worst-of list, with a stretch from Massaponax to State Route 610 in North Stafford coming in as the seventh worst traffic hotspot in the nation.
There also were backup problems at the merge area around Route 610. The merge has been extended once, moving it about two miles south of the original spot. A 10-mile extension is in the works that will take the toll lanes to the U.S. 17 area.
The crossing project will take over where the toll lanes end, once the longer extension is completed.
The southbound plans call for adding three lanes in the median of I–95 along a roughly three-mile segment from the area of U.S. 17 in Stafford County to just past the Route 3 exit in Fredericksburg.
The three new lanes will serve as the primary lanes for through traffic. The existing three lanes will be converted to carry local traffic.
A new bridge will be built across the Rappahannock River next to the existing southbound span. Also, the U.S. 17 overpass will be replaced and the exits at that location will be modified.
With an eye toward avoiding more bottleneck issues, area transportation officials have already begun preparing plans to add a fourth lane on the interstate where the southbound crossing project will end.
“Anything we do [with I–95] is a blessing,” Hap Connors, the area’s representative on the CTB, said after Tuesday’s groundbreaking.
But he noted that “it’s a catch-up project” that needed to be done years ago.
Stafford County Supervisor Mark Dudenhefer agreed and said there is more to do.
“We can’t raise our hands and pat ourselves on the back,” he said.
Connors emphasized that there are other ways to get out of the area’s congestion problem.
“Fixing the interstate is not going to fix all our problems,” he said, explaining that technology is one aspect that could help with the region’s congestion problems.
Technology is one aspect of the Atlantic Gateway, which calls for such transportation enhancements as an integrated corridor management program, incident detection systems, long-haul trucker parking location systems and upgrades to VDOT’s 511 system.
Other aspects of the Atlantic Gateway include upgrades to railroads, more commuter parking lots in Stafford and Spotsylvania and improvements to the Caroline County rest area, which were completed in 2016.