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VDOT pitches I-495 express lanes expansion from Springfield

Cars travel westbound I-495 on the Woodrow Wilson Memorial Bridge (via Google Maps)

Work to expand the I-495 Express Lanes to the north is only just warming up, but the Virginia Department of Transportation is now turning its attention to the southern end of the Capital Beltway.

The I-495 Southside Express Lanes environmental study is evaluating possible express lane additions on an 11-mile stretch of the corridor east of the I-395 interchange in Springfield to Maryland Route 210 in Prince George’s County.

Crossing over the Potomac River, the corridor currently has two to five lanes typically, though a divided highway splits local and pass-thru routes. There is also a portion with six lanes, but the corridor overall has no express lanes presently.

VDOT presented its proposal at a virtual meeting yesterday (Wednesday), kicking off a series of meetings during a public comment period that’s slated to end June 6.

In-person meetings will take place tonight in Maryland, Monday (May 23) at John R. Lewis High School in Springfield, and the Nannie J. Lee Memorial Recreation Center in Alexandria on May 25.

The study is seeking to reduce congestion, address safety concerns and provide other improvements.

“In the morning, there is significant congestion going in the westbound direction, or from Maryland towards Virginia,” Abi Lerner, a VDOT engineer for megaprojects, said during the virtual meeting.

According to VDOT’s weekday data for the interstate, there’s approximately two hours of congestion in the morning from around 6:30 to 9, Lerner said. In 2019, average travel speeds could be as low as 30 mph during peak commuting times.

In Virginia, there’s significant congestion for an even longer time frame from approximately 3 to 7 p.m. for traffic going eastbound to the Woodrow Wilson Memorial Bridge.

Expressing several concerns, resident Poul Hertel asked for the public comment deadline to be extended to June 18. VDOT said that would be considered and updated, if possible, on its project page.

The study is also evaluating whether express lane exit and entry connections could be added, an idea that drew mixed reactions.

“It’s very distressing to see that you have exit points into Old Town Alexandria,” Hertel said. “I would strongly urge you to remove that from your list.”

Meanwhile, multiple Maryland residents weighed in, with Prince George’s County Councilmember Jolene Ivey noting the area’s opposition to toll lanes there.

Lerner responded that whatever VDOT ultimately recommends “is going to require buy-in…from the Maryland side” of the Beltway.

Oxon Hill resident Howard Herrnstadt said it seems that a small number of affluent and time-stressed motorists use existing express lanes, questioning how the infrastructure expense would be justified.

Lerner said VDOT has seen significant usage of the express lanes for carpooling, which enables drivers to use them for free, but he was unable to provide data. Herrnstadt challenged that narrative.

According to VDOT, the proposed changes wouldn’t interfere with the possibility of light rail in the future, which the Woodrow Wilson bridge was designed to accommodate.

The study will inform any recommendations, including no changes, or potential projects in the future. VDOT plans to present options this fall or winter and finish its review in the fall of 2023 or winter of 2024.

Photo via Google Maps

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