Governor Northam, Supervisor Ruth Anderson Deliver Huge Win On I-95

If you’ve ever driven south on I-95, you know the bottleneck. It doesn’t even have to be rush hour; backups appear as early as 12:00 noon and linger as late as 10:00 p.m. On weekends, it’s a perpetual mainstay. Of course, I’m referring to the Occoquan bottleneck at exit 160, heading southbound right after crossing from Fairfax into Prince William County.

The bottleneck merges four lanes down to three, then has a merging entrance ramp from Rt. 123 traffic immediately after. To make matters worse, the following two-mile stretch is all uphill, meaning cars don’t accelerate as fast as they could, prolonging the backups. At the end of that two-mile stretch is the Prince William County Parkway, a major exit for those heading towards the center part of the county, or heading West to Manassas.

This bottleneck is the worst source of congestion in Northern Virginia, along the busiest interstate on the Eastern Coast. For years, folks have been clamoring for a solution. Since her election in 2015, Supervisor Ruth Anderson of Occoquan District has been working with citizen-volunteers and county staff to develop plans and petition Richmond and Washington for funding (roads in Virginia are under state, rather than local, control). Today, Governor Ralph Northam announced that Supervisor Anderson’s plan would become reality.

It took an indirect route to get here, though.

Supervisor Anderson started meeting with constituents and other county residents in 2016 to work on ideas on how to improve the interstate. Their initial plan to add a lane in both directions was shot down over unclear costs and concerns it would trigger a “compensation event” from Transurban, who administers the HOT lanes. Under the contract signed with Transurban, transportation improvements that deter drivers from using the paid express lanes requires the state to reimburse Transurban for the projected losses.

Undeterred, Anderson, her constituents, and county staff worked to improve the idea and bypass the compensation event, eventually landing on the idea of using and extending the shoulder as an auxiliary lane. This would limit the project to the southbound only lanes and requiring less new construction.

Anderson also engaged with talks at the state and even federal level, making the case for the project with both VDOT and USDOT, looking for a solution to the impasse. The Supervisor and her staff then led the effort at the county level to run the necessary impact studies, budget estimates, and finalize the plan for submission to the Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB), which allocates funding for transportation projects through its SMARTSCALE Program.

Prince William County ended up submitting 10 projects to SMARTSCALE, but the fixing the Occoquan bottleneck was at the top of its list and county staff considered it a “slam dunk.” Unfortunately, last week the CTB announced that it only chose 11 projects to fund this year; the bottleneck fix ranked 14th. The project was left with an uncertain future.

However, Anderson’s conversations with state leaders, including Transportation Secretary Shannon Valentine, paid off with Governor Northam’s press conference and announcement Tuesday morning. Taking Anderson’s plan, Northam and Valentine negotiated with Transurban to include it as part of the newly announced extensions for the HOT Lanes, alongside other improvements.

As a press release from Supervisor Anderson’s office notes:

Supervisor Anderson worked with County staff to create a competitive plan, which was submitted this year for state funding through SMARTSCALE. The announcement today takes this plan and funds it through a different source of money.

Kudos belong to Supervisor Anderson, her staff, and county staff for their tireless work and advocacy on this issue, even over the voices of detractors who said it wouldn’t be easy. Also, to Secretary Valentine and Governor Northam for the creativity of including the project as part of the negotiation with Transurban, which has the added benefit of ensuring the project will be completed even more quickly than it would if it had been approved by the CTB. It’s great to see local and state officials of different parties working together to achieve creative solutions to complicated problems.