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Express lanes extension, one year later

Just more than a year has passed since the first extension of the Interstate 95 express lanes merge in North Stafford opened on Oct. 31, 2017.

THE FREE LANCE–STAR Nov 5, 2018

Just more than a year has passed since the first extension of the Interstate 95 express lanes merge in North Stafford opened on Oct. 31, 2017.

The roughly one-mile extension is the first of two lengthening projects for the flawed southern-end merge area of the electronically tolled lanes, which opened in late 2014. The extensions also are among various major projects along the I–95 corridor through the Fredericksburg region.

Has the first extension made any difference?

“It’s definitely helped alleviate the congestion in that area,” Mike McGurk, a spokesman for toll-lane operator Transurban, said last week about traffic in the express lanes. He said the better traffic flow also has resulted in lower toll rates for drivers who go all the way to the merge in the area of State Route 610.

As far as the primary interstate lanes go, results have been mostly positive, with the exception of southbound congestion.

Traffic engineers with the Virginia Department of Transportation used data from INRIX and the Regional Integrated Transportation Information System to analyze peak traffic between Jan. 1-Sept. 30 in both 2017 and 2018.

They found “marked improvement” for morning northbound traffic while results were mixed at best for southbound commuter trips. Safety appears to have improved in the merge area since the new exits opened.

The study found that the “average northbound traveler between Exit 133 [U.S. 17 in southern Stafford County] and Exit 150 [Triangle] has seen their commute during the height of the morning commute between 7-8 a.m. fall from an average of 28.7 minutes before the extension opened to 19.2 minutes.”

Southbound traffic between 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. on weekdays faces “a nearly identical trip between Exit 150 and Exit 133, an average ride of 36.2 minutes in 2018, compared with 35.6 minutes in 2017,” the analysis found.

VDOT noted that the trip between Exit 150 and Exit 143 (Route 610) has improved. The average southbound trip in that section of I–95 “has fallen from an average of 17.2 minutes in 2017 to 15.7 minutes in 2018.”

VDOT also pointed out that the extended merge seems to have helped with traffic flow. The analysis found that before the extension, “merging and weaving intensified traffic slowdowns and increased the conflict points between vehicles.”

Moving the “entrance and exit ramps south of the Exit 143 interchange, all I–95 travelers benefit from reduced conflict between vehicle movements at this location.”

VDOT’s preliminary figures indicate that crashes (involving property damage of $1,500 or greater, and/or injuries and fatalities) are down on northbound I–95 since the merge change while in the southbound lanes there were 10 more crashes.

The merge change appears to be enticing more drivers to take the toll lanes south to the terminus in Stafford.

McGurk said that since the extension there has been a 15 percent increase in traffic going all the way to the end, as opposed to exiting early at Quantico because of congestion.

While there are still backups, the delays are shorter, he said.

Also, drivers who make it to the express lanes terminus between 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. during the week are paying less in tolls than before the extension, according to Transurban data.

Prior to the extension the average toll for that traffic was $21.52. Since the extension, the average toll has dropped to $19.76.

The lower toll rate is a result of less congestion, McGurk said.

“That’s definitely a good result,” he said.

The original merge area became plagued by congestion problems after the express lanes opened in December 2014, replacing the former, free-use HOV lanes.

The state and toll lane operator Transurban agreed to find a fix and shared the cost of the $50 million extension.

The change added about one lane mile of new lane capacity, allowing traffic to exit the toll lanes farther south, closer to Courthouse Road. There are now separate lanes for traffic exiting to State Route 610 and traffic heading to the end of the express lanes.

A new entry lane for northbound traffic also was added further south of the original merge area.

There is plenty more work planned along the Fredericksburg area’s I–95 corridor.

One project in the works will take the express lanes farther south.

The second express lanes extension project’s preliminary designs call for lengthening the tolled lanes another 10 miles in the median to the are of the U.S. 17 intersection in Stafford. The plans call for flyovers and slip ramps at numerous access points along the new stretch.

Transurban is paying for the $595 million extension, which it says will increase capacity on I–95 by 66 percent, helping improve traffic on both toll and primary lanes during commuter rush times. The toll operator also said the extension will create better access to Quantico.

Work on the second extension is expected to start in 2019, with the completion scheduled for 2022.

The lengthened express lanes will meet up with the additional lanes that will be added to the interstate as part of the Rappahannock River crossing projects. The crossing projects will add three lanes in the median from U.S. 17 to State Route 3.

Work on the southbound crossing project is expected to start in summer 2018 and be completed in 2022. Work on the northbound project is set to start in 2020 and be finished in 2023.

Other projects along the I–95 corridor include work on interchanges at State Route 630 in the Courthouse area of Stafford and the State Route 3 interchange in Fredericksburg.

Work continues on Route 630, while the Route 3 interchange project has been completed. The study found “marked improvement” for morning northbound traffic after the express-lane extension opened, while results were mixed for southbound commuter trips.

Scott Shenk: 540/374-5436 sshenk@freelancestar.com

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