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Virginia plans for signs to alert Maryland drivers to new I-495 toll lanes

Signs for I-495 in Tysons (staff photo by Angela Woolsey)

Maryland’s plans for the American Legion Bridge and its side of the Capital Beltway remain a big question mark, but its drivers at least will get a head’s up before they reach the toll lanes now under construction in McLean.

The Virginia Department of Transportation is working with its Maryland counterpart on an agreement that will enable the I-495 Northern Extension (495 NEXT) builder to install signs related to the project on the northern side of the Potomac River.

Six sign structures and accompanying power and communications utilities need to be built in Maryland so the upcoming I-495 Express Lanes can operate correctly, VDOT officials told the Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB) at its March 19 meeting.

“We need to have signage in Maryland so people approaching our express lanes understand what to do and how it works,” Virginia Secretary of Transportation W. Sheppard Miller said. “…It’s about our cooperation with Maryland to get the things that we need in Maryland done so that our lanes will work appropriately and properly when folks get to Virginia.”

Under the agreement, VDOT and its private partner Capital Beltway Express — a joint venture of the engineering firm Fluor and toll lanes operator Transurban — will install and maintain most of the new signs, which will provide directions for using the express lanes and other messages.

Maryland will be responsible for two guide signs for the interstate’s exits that aren’t related to the express lanes, according to VDOT acting megaprojects director Michelle Shropshire.

The CTB will be asked to authorize VDOT staff to sign the agreement at a meeting in April.

Miller noted that the presentation came just a few days after the two-year anniversary of the official start of construction on 495 NEXT, which will widen 2.5 miles of I-495 from the Dulles Toll Road in Tysons to the George Washington Memorial Parkway in McLean with two express lanes in each direction.

“I remember cutting the ribbon [on] a very chilly morning in Northern Virginia. It was a great day,” he said.

The toll lanes remain on track to begin operating in December 2025, and the overall project is set to finish in May 2026, Shropshire said.

As construction continues to move along, some Fairfax County officials raised concerns last month about a lack of clarity on VDOT’s efforts to coordinate with Maryland and the impact of the road work on McLean residents, commuters and the environment.

Virginia and Maryland’s then-governors Ralph Northam and Larry Hogan announced a $1 billion agreement in 2019 to rebuild the aging American Legion Bridge and expand their respective sides of the Beltway to address traffic congestion. However, public opposition held back Maryland’s toll lanes project, and Transurban pulled out altogether last March.

Maryland signaled that it may pursue a fully public project when it applied for a federal grant in August, and officials held public open houses last fall to get feedback on a proposal that would replace and widen the bridge, along with a portion of I-270.

Last week, a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit from environmental, neighborhood and historic preservation groups seeking to block the potential project, but Maryland’s plans going forward remain unclear.

“This is an important step forward to D.C. area residents who are counting on this project to bring needed congestion relief, better transit service, and improved bike and pedestrian connections in this corridor,” said Jason Stanford, president of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance, which supports the toll lanes projects. “Now that this obviously frivolous lawsuit has been dismissed, it’s time for Maryland to move forward with this critical, multimodal transportation improvement for our region.”

Plaintiffs in the lawsuit included the Northern Virginia Citizens Association, a group of McLean residents who also sued VDOT last year over 495 NEXT. Residents along Live Oak Drive in particular have vocally opposed the project, lamenting the loss of trees and other environmental and health impacts.

In recent emails to VDOT officials, some reported that construction has, at times, disrupted their phone, cable and water services.

VDOT will provide an update on 495 NEXT at two public meetings next month: a virtual one on April 8 and an in-person one at Langley High School (6520 Georgetown Pike) on April 11. Both meetings will last from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.

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