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City says potential I-495 expansion could hamper efforts to improve public transit

The Virginia Dept. of Transportation is mulling expanding the Express Lanes system to a section of I-495 from Fairfax County across the Woodrow Wilson Bridge and into Maryland.

The city of Alexandria, however, is skeptical of the current plans, as many of the alternatives come down to adding traffic lanes. Staff say these changes could hamper attempts to get people out of their cars and onto public transportation, including future transit across the bridge.

VDOT has wrapped up a study of how to improve transportation and reduce rising congestion along this segment of I-495. So far, it has come up with several preliminary alternatives, including adding general purpose lanes, express lanes or reversible express lanes and allowing part-time shoulder use.

“We are evaluating transportation improvements that would extend and provide continuity of the express lanes system on the southern section of the Capital Beltway,” said VDOT project manager Michelle Shropshire in a September public meeting.

In his most recent newsletter, Mayor Justin Wilson said the city has expressed to VDOT its concerns regarding “induced demand, increased cut-through traffic, potential impediments to future transit connectivity over the Wilson Bridge and more.”

“The City has generally had a ‘cautiously skeptical’ stance towards similar proposals in the past,” Wilson said. “We have worked with the Commonwealth to ensure that these projects generate revenue for transit initiatives and include protections to prevent such efforts from exacerbating cut-through traffic on City streets.”

Traffic on I-495 — between Route 1 and the Woodrow Wilson Bridge — is also a concern, however.

There is severe eastbound congestion from 3-7 p.m. starting at the Van Dorn Street interchange, Shropshire said.

“Travel through this area is often impacted by accidents,” she said. “During the Covid pandemic, there was a significant decrease in traffic volumes but we are currently experiencing traffic at or above pre-pandemic volumes.”

Now that a slate of alternatives have been identified, the next step for VDOT is to gather feedback and select a handful to evaluate via an environmental assessment. People can learn about the project and answer a short survey online or write to VDOT with their comments.

A preferred alternative is expected to emerge next spring.

In his newsletter, Wilson shared what city staff said about the study in a letter sent to VDOT sent last month:

  1. The criteria provided, including continuity of the Express Lane system, seem to bias the selection of alternatives towards those that include new Express Lanes, rather than those that prioritize transit and transportation demand management measures.
  2. Additional lanes may lead to additional demand on; therefore, increased traffic on the facility overtime.
  3. Reduction in congestion may reduce the number of crashes, but it could cause increased severity of crashes as vehicles are able to travel at higher speeds.
  4. Express Lane options could add constraints on providing new transit, specifically Metrorail lines on this corridor and across the Woodrow Wilson Bridge in the future.
  5. New access points from I-495 to and from Alexandria could cause increased traffic on City streets.
  6. Right-of-way impacts have not yet been identified, and project limits should be minimized to minimize the impacts on adjacent and nearby properties.

VDOT has said that the alternatives it will consider for I-495 will be informed by a concurrent transit study.

In addition to incentives for riders, this recently completed transit study recommends new bus service, arguing it would be more cost-effective than rail, per the September presentation.

Woodrow Wilson Bridge was designed with additional space for future transportation needs and to accommodate future rail across the bridge, according to VDOT.

“Future rail service on the bridge would not be precluded by 495 Southside Study alternatives,” says the transportation agency.

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