Traffic backs up virtually every day on Interstate 95 southbound where it crosses the Occoquan River entering Prince William County because five lanes are decreased to three.
Prince William Supervisor Ruth Anderson, R-Occoquan, has proposed a solution: Build a reinforced shoulder lane along I-95 south from the Route 123 interchange at Occoquan to the Prince William Parkway. This will keep four lanes available.
“Not only will this improve commute time, it will prevent frustration with having one of the worst bottlenecks in the nation,” Anderson said.
The National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board is conducting an air quality analysis to see how the project will affect emissions. All projects under review must not negatively affect air quality, and Anderson hopes that the results will show reduced emissions.
The project is also under review for federal funding from the U.S. Department of Transportation, with plans to request state funding in August through Smart Scale, a process that will allow the state to prioritize funding for the project. However, Anderson acknowledges that the project will still require funding from other sources, such as federal grants or the Regional Surface Transportation Program.
Anderson has met with a number of state and local transportation officials regarding the shoulder lane and says that the proposal has won the support of Virginia’s Secretary of Transportation, Shannon Valentine, along with Deputy Secretary of Transportation Nick Donahue. The plan is also supported by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Deputy Assistant Secretary for Intergovernmental Affairs, Anthony Bedell.
The Transportation Planning Board was scheduled to meet Wednesday to discuss the proposed project at the McCoart Administration Building.
Anderson compares the proposed shoulder lane to those on Interstate 66 that open at certain times, although she plans for this lane to be open all the time. She hopes this will alleviate what the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments considers one of the worst bottlenecks in the region.
Anderson says the proposal also should relieve traffic on Old Bridge Road in Prince William.
“One of the reasons Old Bridge Road is so congested is because I-95 is congested. People use Old Bridge Road as a way to get off I-95, and as a way to bypass it,” Anderson said.
The project intends to address lingering issues from construction in 2011, which widened I-95 from three to four lanes in both directions between Springfield and the Occoquan River. Drivers were left with a poorly integrated merge lane when traveling south at the interchange with state Route 123. Anderson called the worsening bottleneck an “embarrassment” and said it negatively affects economic opportunity.
Shortly after the widening project was completed, the state signed an agreement with Transurban, the private company that builds and manages express lanes, to convert and expand the I-95 High Occupancy Vehicle lanes to toll lanes. Although the new HOT lanes give southbound drivers an alternative to the Occoquan logjam at rush hour, single-occupancy vehicles must pay tolls to use them.
“We are committed to doing everything we can to continue to support VDOT in their efforts to improve travel conditions on I-95,” said Michael McGurk, Transurban spokesperson.
In 2016, Anderson proposed expanding I-95 in both directions between the Occoquan River and the Prince William Parkway to relieve the bottleneck. That proposal was rejected on the grounds that it lacked vision and had an unclear cost, and that the added lanes would deter drivers from using the express lanes. The state Commonwealth Transportation Board feared that the added lane would create a compensation event, which could be a breach of contract with Transurban.
“The contract that was signed for the express lanes said we couldn’t add capacity to I-95, because they wanted people to use the express lanes,” Anderson said, adding that the shoulder lane is a way to get around that concern.
The I-95 HOT express lanes were completed in 2014 at an estimated cost of $925 million and stretch 29 miles between Stafford and Fairfax County. As part of the project, the express lanes from Dumfries to Edsall Road were also widened.
The express lanes use variable tolling, based on traffic conditions, but vehicles with three or more passengers can use the lanes for free.