More than eight years ago, Merv's Auto Repair was one of two properties that the Virginia Department of Transportation offered to buy out because of the business’ proximity to the impending construction at the Springfield Interchange. Both property owners declined the offer, choosing to stick it out through the massive construction project.
.Merv Demello, who owns the business but not the property at the east end of Springfield Boulevard, was concerned at the time about the impact that years of construction might have on business. "I think everyone was," said Demello.
Now that the project is within about a month of completion and Merv's Auto Repair has just celebrated it's 20th anniversary, Demello said, "it didn't phase us one bit. They did a pretty good job of giving us enough room to stay in business."
Where once sat a parking lot, the ramp from Old Keene Mill Road east toward I-395 north and the Beltway Inner Loop runs within about eight feet of the back of Demello's garage. "They broke a few pipes, but they fixed everything," he said. "I thought the whole project was amazing."
"At first, I think, for many in the business and civic areas, the reaction was: 'Doom,'" said Supervisor Dana Kauffman (D-Lee), whose district in which the sprawling interchange sits.
During the first several years of its construction, Kauffman said, the Mixing Bowl, which includes a large and complex interchange connecting Route 644 with Interstate 95 and a much larger interchange tying the Beltway to Interstates 95 and 395, occupied nearly half of his work schedule. Much of this time was spent "responding to fear, concern and doubt," he said. "But the past two years have been pretty calm and quiet, except for the occasional ribbon-cutting."
Partly because of high public anxiety, said Kauffman, he and Supervisor Elaine McConnell (R-Springfield) were also "very concerned" about the construction. However, he said, he recognized the need for the interchange to be reconstructed and was one of the local politicians who had been pushing for the project for the previous 10 years. The original design had been difficult to navigate and had a high accident rate, he said. He noted that since about halfway through construction, public response has turned positive.
Kauffman credited the project's minimal impact on surrounding businesses and its turnaround in public perception to extensive outreach efforts by the VDOT, as well as smaller projects the department undertook to keep traffic flowing. He noted that VDOT reached out to local business, civic and political leaders and even included him and McConnell in the planning group. For Virginia, he said, "it was actually the first and, to date, the last time you had local politicians on the congestion mitigation team." Because of this public engagement, as well as VDOT's willingness to spend a "significant amount" of money, "we were able to have our cake and eat it, too," said Kauffman.
TO ACCOMMODATE the project, VDOT made improvements as far away as the intersection of Backlick and Braddock roads, Kauffman said, including additional turn lanes, park-and-ride lots, expanded Virginia Railway Express (VRE) and local bus service, improvements to Veterans Bridge and raised through-lanes on Franconia Road. As a result of all the project's construction, Springfield now is "well-positioned to prosper," he said.
Nancy-jo Manney, executive director of the Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce, said a number of businesses have moved into the area since construction was planned "because it was going to be a transportation hub." She noted that two more hotels have moved into the Mixing Bowl area, as well as the businesses at the new Metro Park office complex near the Franconia-Springfield Metro Station. She said CALIBRE, a government contractor, moved into the office park citing its "proximity to multiple transportation forms."
"We have been very pleased with the project," said Manney. She noted that VDOT met with 200 local business leaders when construction began in the spring of 1999. At the behest of the community, the department set up a Springfield Interchange Information Center next to the DMV Express in the Springfield Mall. "What the business community has asked for from VDOT, the business community has got," Manney said.
She said it was the first three years or so of construction, when the interchange between Route 644 and Interstate 95 was being built, that had an impact on local businesses, but she said VDOT worked to maintain a "businesses-open" policy. She noted that two businesses — a gas station and a dry cleaners — were physically displaced by the widening of Franconia Road and were bought out by VDOT.
A few businesses in the vicinity closed or relocated in the first years of construction, but Manney said she thought this had more to do with the elimination of the four-way intersection of Old Keene Mill and Backlick roads in 1983. This arrangement, with Veterans Bridge running over Old Keene Mill, made many of the businesses around the former intersection less visible and less accessible , and Manney said several of them never recovered. She said the only business that even intimated it was closing due to Mixing Bowl construction was Houlihan's Restaurant and Bar, just east of Veterans Bridge, and Manney was skeptical of the claim. "I'm not sure it was construction-related," she said.
"There were a lot of doubting Thomases at the beginning," said Manney. "But people got on board pretty quickly."
Moe Traish was not one of those nay-sayers. The owner of Moe's Peyton Place Restaurant, one of the oldest existing businesses in Springfield, said he looked at the plans when construction was beginning, "and right away I figured, it's going to be much easier. Much easier for me and my customers." He said construction did not cut back on business at his restaurant, located on Backlick Road about 100 yards from the west end of the interchange. "Matter of fact, it brought some business in," he said, noting that construction workers often stepped in for breakfast or lunch.
In the 36 years he's run the restaurant, said Traish, he has seen many changes in town. "But, in my opinion, all of the changes have been for the best."
WITH ABOUT FIVE weeks left on the construction contract, all that is left to be done is "some painting, marking and some signs," said Steve Titunik, VDOT's communications director for the project. The last ramp to open, ironically, has been in place since before the project started: the old Exit 169 B ramp from the Beltway Outer Loop toward Old Keene Mill Road west reopened last week. Construction has remained on-schedule, and this last ramp opened a little earlier than expected, said Titunik.
Trying to tear down and rebuild the interchange without disrupting traffic, he said, was "kind of like if you were having a party in your living room and changing the carpet at the same time." In an attempt to draw down traffic by 3 percent or 4 percent during rush hour, VDOT added to local VRE service, built four park-and-ride lots, paid to have more parking added to local shopping centers and offered financial incentives for carpooling and riding the Metro or the VRE, said Titunik. Improvements were made to surrounding roads so that traffic would not flow through the interchange only to hit congestion on the local grid.
WHILE CONSTRUCTION continued, traffic only increased, from 370,000 vehicles traversing the interchange when the project began to 436,000 vehicles per day now. Mushrooming traffic numbers were the reason the interchange had to be rebuilt, said Titunik. The old design simply could not accommodate the traffic volume anymore, "certainly not at highway speed," he said. He attributed the increase not only to local growth but also to growth up an down the East Coast. More long-distance traffic, including both personal and freight vehicles, is traveling up and down Interstate 95, which runs from Miami, Fla. through Maine.
In order to move all of this traffic smoothly through the knot were Interstates 95, 395 and 495 and local arterial roads converge, about 40 lane-miles were added to the Springfield Interchange. A dozen ramps became 30 ramps. Fifteen bridges became 50. At its widest point, the interchange is now 24 lanes across. The net result, said Titunik, is one of the 10 largest interchanges in the country.
The final cost of the project came to $676 million, most of which came from the federal government. The original estimate had been $350 million, but Titunik noted that this was not a well-informed calculation, partly because no one could have foreseen the sharp rise in oil and steel prices, and partly because the design was only about 30 percent complete when the estimate was made. He added that complying with local input also bumped up the cost of the project.
THE NEW MIXING BOWL is built to handle a traffic volume of 550,000 vehicles per day, but Titunik said it will take more than that to accommodate transportation needs years down the road. "The future of transportation is a multi-mobile system," he said, including trains, buses, carpools and telecommuting. "You can't build your way out of congestion," he said. For example, with rising real estate prices, buying the land for road projects now often costs more than the construction.
Accordingly, some of VDOT's major upcoming projects in the region will be attempts to diversify transportation, including the Rail to Dulles project. Also, in a cloverleaf-style twist, the Mixing Bowl construction is almost complete, but construction at the Mixing Bowl will likely go on for another five to six years. The planned addition of HOT (High-Occupancy Toll) lanes along the southwest portion of the Beltway and on the Interstate 95/395 corridor, intended to encourage carpooling, will involve several more ramps and fly-overs in the Springfield Interchange. Also, additional lanes on Interstate 95 between Newington and Woodbridge are scheduled to begin construction early next year, and augmentations to the local traffic grid in order to accommodate the relocation of 23,000 jobs to the Fort Belvoir area are expected to begin shortly thereafter.
Altogether, VDOT expects to spend $2 billion on projects in Northern Virginia over the next five to eight years, said Titunik. "In effect, people ain't seen nothing yet," he promised.
Kauffman took a cautionary note regarding the success of the Springfield Interchange project. "I want to ensure that VDOT learned their good lesson from this and doesn't try to low-ball mitigation plans for the incredible amount of work that will be soon underway in Tyson's Corner," he said. "If you're building in the middle of a stable civic and business community, you've got to pony up the bucks, or you risk losing the community you're trying to save."