Stafford officials hope road improvements can ease the gridlock on the stretch of U.S. 1 that runs by the county courthouse, but the project will affect businesses in the area, and will force some of them to close.
Beginning in the spring of 2021, the county will begin work to widen U.S. 1 by adding additional turn lanes to keep the traffic moving between Bells Hill and Hope roads and Stafford Hospital.
As it’s configured now, the road is a four–lane undivided highway. The plan is to develop the area into a four–lane divided highway, add dedicated turn lanes and install a center concrete median. That should help commuters who now back up along the stretch each weekday, but it will force some of the businesses along that stretch to close, and make life harder for those that survive.
The total cost of the new project is estimated at $18.2 million, which will be paid for by county and state funds.
Turn lanes will be added on U.S. 1 at Bells Hill and Hope roads. Stafford Transportation Program Manager Alexander Owsiak said improvements will be made at the Courthouse Road and U.S. 1 intersection as well.
Owsiak said eastbound Courthouse Road will be widened to provide dedicated left-turn, right-turn and through lanes. Westbound Courthouse Road will not be widened, but one of its eastbound lanes will be converted into a dedicated left-turn lane, while the existing left-turn and through lanes will be for through traffic only.
The improvement project was the result of findings contained in a U.S. 1 corridor study that was completed in April 2014. That study highlighted some of the worst intersections along U.S. 1 in Stafford.
“I think Falmouth was the worst at the time, but that one was being improved, so we checked that one off the list,” said Owsiak. “Garrisonville Road was another one. We just put a second right-turn lane there and that kind of helped that intersection quite a bit. And then this intersection here—Route 1 and Courthouse Road—was identified as one of the top three worst performers as far as delays and congestion at the intersection.”
Owsiak said the traffic signals in the vicinity of the courthouse operate as “split phased,” meaning that the traffic signal gives a green phase for all vehicles moving in one direction, followed by a phase for all movements in the opposite direction.
“This creates a lot of delay and congestion as each leg of the intersection has to wait their turn to pass through the intersection,” said Owsiak. “The new traffic signals will operate on concurrent phasing, which allows pedestrians and non-conflicting traffic to move simultaneously at the signalized intersection. This should reduce the delay as northbound and southbound, or east and west traffic can move through the intersection at the same time.”
To prepare for the project and to make room for the expansion in the vicinity of the courthouse, 29 parcels of property had to be acquired by the county. Additionally, underground utilities will have to be repositioned by 10 to 15 feet.
“Right now, we’re in the right-of-way acquisition phase,” said Owsiak. “We’re hoping to complete that and start utility relocations this fall.”
Work is expected to begin in the spring of 2021 and take a year to 18 months.
Three buildings in the area will have to be completely demolished: the 7–Eleven convenience store in the 2100 block of Jefferson Davis Highway, the office building of Stafford attorney Robert Hyman and the building next to Hyman’s, which has served a variety of purposes over the years.
A BETTER INTERCHANGE
County officials also say congestion in the area should be further relieved as a result of the new diverging diamond interchange at the Courthouse Road exit of Interstate 95, which is scheduled for completion in 2021.
“The access point for 95 will not be on Courthouse anymore—so, that’s a huge difference,” said Andrew Spence, county communications director. “A lot of that—the choke points—is all that traffic coming from the Embrey Mill side [toward Route 1].
That will be filtered up to Hospital Boulevard off of Route 1. Those dedicated turn lanes will really assist with that.”
In theory, diverging diamond interchanges allow traffic to cross to the opposite side of the road and back again to the original side, increasing efficiency because there are no conflicts with oncoming traffic when turning left. Raised medians and islands separate traffic and signals manage the flow.
Used in France since the 1970s, the design was listed by Popular Science magazine in 2009 as one of the best engineering innovations of the year in the United States.
The county delayed the Courthouse Road project at the request of VDOT until work on the interchange is nearly done, to avoid overwhelming the area with road construction. County officials are going a step further to reduce congestion and driver frustration by adding night work.
“Probably most of the construction will have to take place at night,” said Owsiak. “Due to the amount of traffic we have here on Route 1, it’s hard to find times throughout the day where the contractor could actually work in the road and have enough time to do the work.”
IMPACT ON BUSINESS
Not only would night work curb backups, it would also be a welcome relief for those businesses operating in the area.
Nikki Cavender, who manages the Valero gas station and Fas Mart convenience store across the street from the courthouse, said she favors the idea of night work for the project.
“That would be great, heck, yeah,” Cavender said, “Because we are not crazy busy at night. It’s not going to hinder anything if they’re out there at night.”
As for the construction work, Cavender’s store will remain intact, but the parcel will lose some of its parking area due to the road widening.
“It’s not going to hurt us too much; we’re just losing the front parking spots,” Cavender said. “Across the street—that’s a different story for them. They’re losing their gas pumps.”
Cavender was referring to the 7–Eleven near the courthouse that Rebekah Cousins has run as a franchise for the last 15 years. Cousins said she was “really shocked” to learn that not only are the gas tanks going, the store that has long been a popular stop for commuters is coming down, too.
“I’m just the franchisee, so I get no financial gain,” she said. “I just lose a job and a business.”
Some longtime merchants remaining in the area after the construction is completed see little or no benefit from the planned improvements.
Gail Gandy, owner of Gail’s Hair Care, has operated her business near the courthouse for the past 14 years.
“The traffic is bad enough. It’s paralyzing our business,” said Gandy. “When they put the median in, people are not going to be able to make a left in or a left out. We’re going to lose our front parking. This is my livelihood, I’ve been in this area for 40 years.”